It’s safe to say when people hear “moonshine” they see a very specific scene in their head: hillbillies/country-folk out in the woods in the dead of night (or in a damp, dirty basement) concocting a highly illegal, high-ABV substance in a bathtub.
The scene likely includes consuming said substance from a mason jar and sets the entire digestive track on fire the whole way down. What you don’t envision is a legal moonshine distillery.
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If that’s what you believe, join the masses who have the same perception. You’re not wrong either, at least not entirely. Moonshine actually got its name because it was normally distilled at night “by the light of the moon.”
Heck, even NASCAR started because of moonshine. How, you ask? As it turns out, the guys who were running the “good stuff” all around town had souped-up cars so they could outrun the cops. On the days they weren’t running the illegal libation, they chose to race their fast cars. Welcome to NASCAR!
For many, many years, moonshine has been perceived negatively because, after all, moonshine is really just any illegally-made distilled alcohol.
Thanks to America’s growing demand to shake things up on the craft alcohol landscape (and some loosening of liquor laws), moonshine distilleries have become more a part of mainstream America and less associated with the secret production of “hooch” out in the boonies….although we know for a fact this still happens. However, that’s a different story for a different time.
Sleepy Fox Moonshine Distillery
A few hours away from their current moonshine distillery in southwest Virginia, you will find Sleepy Fox Distillery’s enticingly cozy tasting room in Ashland, Virginia, about 20 minutes north of downtown Richmond.
As you take your seat at the long wooden bar set against a backdrop of timeless glass jugs shining the shelves (pun intended), you will get a warm and fuzzy feeling that you’re home – and not because of the effects of alcohol, at least not yet.
Locally-owned-and-operated by a dynamic husband-and-wife team, Mike and Michele Layne, Sleepy Fox Distillery offers 6 different types of moonshine – in no particular order: Clear 90, Clear 150, Apple Pie, Peach, Cinnamon and Black Cherry – as well as 4 other craft liquors, including vodka, a maple whiskey, and a 2-year and 5-year bourbon.
Get this though, this moonshine distillery gig isn’t their full-time job, though you might think it is with how much heart and soul they put into this place!
Mike sells insurance and Michele trains dogs for Wounded Warriors. Michele even created and named a drink after her actual full-time job which consists of vodka, vanilla syrup, limeade and blue curacao.
She refers to it as “sneaky”, and after seeing how Samantha slurped it right down, we can see why!
Sleepy Fox is on a mission to bring moonshine (and other great varieties of alcohol) to people. Michele says, “my job here is to educate people this is how it works, this is how we do tastings”.
With so many people questioning how it’s legal, Sleepy Fox is constantly trying to combat the notion that this stuff can’t possibly be real moonshine since they can purchase it in a store.
Quick vocab lesson so you can understand the making of moonshine
To distill means to purify a liquid by vaporizing it, then condense it by cooling the vapor, and collecting the resulting liquid, called the wort. Wort is the liquid extracted from the mashing process during the brewing of beer or whiskey and contains the all-important sugars that will be fermented by the brewing yeast to produce alcohol.
When we asked Michele what came first at Sleepy Fox – the moon or the shine – she admitted that all the magic happened at the same time! As you read above, when you distill something, you make wort and then you distill it at 170 proof. Since the highest ABV beverage allowed to be (legally) sold in Virginia is 150 proof, the liquor is proofed down to 150.
This proofing process makes the alcohol less like rubbing alcohol and much more enjoyable for you to drink! The clear moonshine was the first liquor made as there are no flavorings added to that creation.
For the other moonshines, Sleepy Fox then adds any of its all-natural flavorings (except the cinnamon) in its onsite bonding room.
The Apple Pie Moonshine, their top seller, is made with apple cider and flavored with ingredients which Michele uses for her actual apple pie recipe! One sip of this and you’ll know why this is their top seller. We won’t ruin the magic your taste buds will experience so you just need to go and try it!
To make the vodka, the shine is distilled two (or three) more times with filters and is run through a tower still. If you put the stuff in a barrel and leave it for 120 days, and then add some Virginia maple syrup during the last 10 days of aging, ta-da: Sleepy Fox’s maple whiskey.
This is Michele’s favorite drink (and ours too). She even mentioned that one of her favorite things to do is to listen to the many ladies say “I don’t like whiskey,” but then sip the maple whiskey and utter, “Oh My God. Yes I do!”
And in the greatest of fortunes, while making (aging) their 2-year bourbon, they actually lost track of several of the barrels in storage only to find them a few years later.
Voila! Out came a dangerously sneaky, and delicious, 5-year bourbon, which is 110-proof, but drinks like a 50-proof! What a happy accident!
It’s important to note that since this was such a happy accident, there are extremely limited quantities of the 5-year bourbon left. Once the 5-year bourbon is sold out, it will be gone for 2 more years, unless they find more misplaced barrels, of course!
Michele and Mike swear they’ve searched high and low for any more barrels though! At the rate it’s currently selling, it will be gone by the time you read this!
You can sample Sleepy Fox’s deliciousness straight or try it in a mixed cocktail, or even a combination of the samples and cocktails! Ranging from 40- to 150-proof, it’s hard to decide what 3 ounces you are going to try out of the 10 options….Wait, what?! Why only 3 ounces? But I want to try them all!
Virginia has very stringent alcohol laws (controlled and regulated by the state) that are slowly but surely catching up to the 21st century. Distilleries, like Sleepy Fox, have it the worst: only allowing 3 ounces of liquor to be consumed onsite per-person, per-day.
Meaning, you have to get very selective (and creative) on your tasting choices. And you do have to get picky because every variety is worth it! While the 90- and 150-proof clear moonshines follow the traditional path of moonshine, the flavored moonshines are crafted to appeal to a much wider array of drinkers, and even non-drinkers, too!
Sleepy Fox creates new seasonal cocktail menus and they get to have a little fun making the new options, too. You can take any juice, soda, or drink and it will work with the Clear 90 or Clear 150. Michele instructs, “you might have to play with the amounts, but you can get there by yourself after you leave the store.” Challenge accepted!
Top mixed drinks to try: The Sleepy Fox, the Butter Beer (no relation to Harry Potter) and the off-the-menu Peanut Butter and Jelly “shot” (which counts towards your 3 oz tasting). Make sure you try a Moonshine cocktail too!
Thanks to the rigid and antiquated Virginia alcohol laws, distilleries are only allowed to participate in 4 events each year which means you will only see Sleepy Fox out and about at very select events.
They currently focus on attending fundraising events for causes that “benefit outside of us” like The Greyhound Project and Autism Speaks.
Not only are Michele and Mike crafting incredible liquor and shine, but they are Fairy Alcohol Godparents too! They are serious about supporting their local community and giving back.
Finally, in a time where everyone seems to be growth-oriented, Sleepy Fox is bucking the trend by its commitment to staying small and local.
It’s not going to be this crazy, big place and you won’t see it in local ABC stores, either.
According to Michele, they like to look into the eyes of everyone who is drinking their liquor. “It makes me feel good to touch someone with a conversation who might not have had anyone talk to them today,” she admits.
However, having received several solicitations from non-Virginia visitors to bring Sleepy Fox’s products back to their home states, it is clear that this place, and its booze, leaves an impact on visitors.
People come back day after day for a drink and week after week for another bottle!
Admittedly, we recently purchased a bottle of the Maple Whiskey, which we shared with friends and it was gone in a night! So, it’s safe to say that we are also on the list of patrons that will be returning to purchase another bottle or two!
But where do we personally recommend? The Graduate Hotel is our hands-down favorite boutique hotel in the city. Their roof top bar has epic views too!
Don’t forget to pick up a Richmond guidebook for your other Richmond adventures.