Following a tradition that goes back even before Prohibition in the ‘20s and ‘30s, Dave Huffman began making moonshine in high school, long before legal craft distilleries were exploding in the U.S. Back then, it was something fun to do with friends, but today as the owner and distiller of Ozark Distillery at the Lake of the Ozarks, his handcrafted spirits—bourbon, flavored moonshine and vodka—are sold at more than 330 retail outlets throughout the state, including here in Jefferson City.
While Huffman has operated a real estate and property management company for Tan-Tar-A Estates for the past 20 years, he now welcomes thousands of visitors a year for tastings and tours of Ozark Distillery, located in a nondescript building on Highway KK in Osage Beach.
“I can’t really pinpoint when I decided to do this but one morning I woke up and told my wife that I was going to open a distillery,” he said and she said, ‘okay’ and we did.”
That was three years ago and his hobby quickly morphed into a business. He received his license the day after Christmas in 2012 and he quickly sold his first bottle of clear corn whiskey in March of 2013. Later that fall the bourbon was distributed. He also makes vodka, which is corn whiskey re-distilled.
By law, a bourbon has to be made in the U.S. and must contain 51 percent corn and be aged in a new oak-charred barrel, and there are many other regulations. Huffman’s is made of 60 percent corn, 20 percent malted barley and 20 percent red winter wheat.
“We make an everyman bourbon and we use wheat for a softer flavor, letting the natural sweetness of the corn come through,” he said.
Depending on the weather, Ozark Distillery’s bourbon is aged between 1 to 2 years in White Oak charred barrels, which he buys from McGinnis Wood Products in Cuba, Missouri. His bourbon has gained a following and recently it was included in a list of the “Top 10 Micro Distillery Bourbons in the Country” by the Drink Micro web site.
As particular as bourbon drinkers are, his wife, Tiffhany, suggested he make flavored moonshine to appeal to a broader audience.
“She reasoned that only 5 percent of people were going to be bourbon and whiskey drinkers so she wanted us to offer something to the other 95 percent of people out there,” he said.
After much experimentation, his recipes for Apple Pie, Blackberry and Vanilla Bean moonshine were approved by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, TTB. His Butterscotch Moonshine took several tries but joined the product line and just this past August they introduced their Sweet Tea Moonshine at 70 proof.
Made out of 80 percent non GMO corn from a farmer in Lebanon and 20 percent malted barley. Huffman locally sources fruits to produce as close to an entirely Missouri-made product. For his apple pie flavor, he cores and peels Fujis, Galas and Granny Smiths and then adds cinnamon sticks and other spices. After distillation, he infuses batches of his moonshine with real vanilla beans that he orders from Papua New Guinea.
He’s very safety and environmentally conscious, too. A farmer in Versailles picks up the spent grain to feed his cattle.
Although it’s a side business, it’s a passion project and he approaches it with the mindset of an artist perfecting his craft.
“I make seven different products from the same grain and I follow the same process but there are subtle differences every time,” he said. “Every batch, though, is made with love.”
Like a chef, he uses a double boiler to avoid scorching or burning the corn as it boils so that the starch can be extracted. Enzymes then transform the starch into sugar and barley kicks off the fermentation process, which in warmer months can be four to five days and up to eight during the winter season. He also uses a double distillation for each batch and temperature controls ensure that off-alcohols don’t spoil the taste of the products.
The young Huffman probably couldn’t imagine that his earliest efforts at making moonshine would lead him to this place. The spark was most likely lit when he was 6 or 7 years old and toured the Jack Daniel’s distillery in Lynchburg, Tennessee.
“While I didn’t know anything about alcohol I was fascinated by the process and I remember the smells and that experience always stuck with me,” he said. “My mom bought these drink stirrers there and I played with those at home a lot and that reinforced my memory, too.”
His main motivation though was to impress the girls, an effort that initially failed.
“I had read an article in Mother Earth News about how to distill beer and I made it from a malt extract that I purchased at the grocery store,” he said. “This was before the Internet so I went to the library and did my research and learned through trial and error.”
None of the girls at the local drive-in would drink the beer, he said, because it had yeast in the bottom of the bottle. So, he turned to making moonshine, including a butterscotch flavored whiskey that appealed to them.
“My dad quit smoking and always had these butterscotch candies in his pocket so I decided to make that flavor,” he said.
He went on to college on and off and also worked as a deep-sea diver in the Gulf of Mexico. After he married and had children, he moved back to Iowa where he grew up, and worked at a technical school. Life moved on and he eventually divorced and then moved to Kansas to finish his last year of school at Emporia State University. There he met Tiffhany, who once taught fifth grade at Osage Beach, and is now involved in the distillery.
Tiffhany handles the tastings and offers customers their bourbon, vodka and moonshine straight or with mixers. According to Huffman, blackberry is popular in the summer and great mixed with lemonade while apple pie and butterscotch flavors take off in the winter. Their Butterscotch Moonshine warms coffee or is great drizzled over ice cream and the Apple Pie is tasty with cream soda. The Sweet Tea Moonshine mixed with lemonade results in an Arnold Palmer with a kick, and their Vanilla Bean moonshine mixed with Kahlua makes a White Russian.
Some visit just to taste and usually purchase, while others want to see how the moonshine is made. Although he wasn’t too keen on the idea, Huffman concedes that the tours have been very popular.
“I didn’t think that many people would be interested,” he said. “I putter around back here and this is my baby but Tiffhany finally convinced me we had a story to tell,” he said.
As tours are offered every hour on the hour on Saturday, he shares his story repeatedly with visitors. . . and he’s a good storyteller. Huffman estimates that initially 80 to 120 people crowded into each tour but said this summer they were slammed, between 140 to 175 people coming through on Saturday.
As the farm-to-table movement has gained major traction, perhaps people like to see how the spirits they enjoy are made and by whom. In those early months, he said, people would just walk into the back room where he was working to check it out.
“I was very uncomfortable having people back there but they have been gracious and appreciative of the process, of what it takes to do it,” he said.
He often gets asked how many hours he works in the distillery, but he really has no idea.
“When you’re into something you forget time,” he said. “I’m here all hours of the day and night. I come in, crank up the music and I love it. Every day there’s something new and I really enjoying sharing something I love to do with others.”
When he’s not making the moonshine, he’s handling lots of other responsibilities involved in running the distillery. He must file tons of paperwork, including daily reports that allow federal regulators to trace each bottle of alcohol back to its grain source. He also oversees a group of salesman, including his son, David, Jr., who’s learning the business.
He definitely has plans to expand the business and the product line, visiting other distilleries in the state, such as Copper Run in Branson, for inspiration. Right now, he’s making sample batches of a special cinnamon red hot flavor moonshine for the Magic Dragons Pipe and Drum, an organization of volunteer firefighters who honor their fallen comrades in emergency services.
“I didn’t set out to create a huge business and I didn’t have any notion of what to expect but I didn’t anticipate this,” he said. “People started calling and showing interest and I’m not sure I even understand it now but I continue to be surprised and thrilled,” he said.
This recipe is for a 1/2 gallon container. You can use 1/2 of everything in a quart mason jar or divide evenly between 2 quart mason jars if you don’t have a 1/2 gallon jar.
Cut the apples into 8 peices and place in the jar. Add 2 whole cinnamon sticks and 1/2 cup brown sugar. Fill the jar to the top with Ozark Moonshine. Put on a lid and place in the cupboard for at least a week. If you think of it, take it out and give it a shake daily if possible. It gets better with time so if you can leave it for a few weeks it will only get better! Its strong so some people like to make a drink of Ozark Apple Pie and add some apple juice or 7-Up. Most sip it on ice.