Byron Reece, "Tiny" Roberson and Gary Melvin pose behind the bar in their distilling house Tuesday morning. The three started the distillery in 2011, and their product, Tennessee Mellomoon, has grown in popularity since. (Ron Campbell/Johnson City Press)
The East Tennessee Distillery, just off the main highway in Piney Flats, shows signs of swaggering onto the national stage.
In less than three years, partners Tom “Tiny” Roberson, Byron Reece and Gary Melvin are looking to take their startup brand, Tennessee Mellomoon, to multi-state distribution and are reeling in the benefits of a featured spot on a reality television series.
After skyrocketing demand, the distillery is ramping up production capacity nearly five-fold with a specialized still fabricated in-house and new fermenting tanks in the near future.
“This moonshine has taken off like you wouldn’t have believed,” Roberson said Tuesday from behind the retail counter in the main distilling house.
An imposing bearded figure in overalls and socks with flip-flops, “Tiny” is the face of Mellomoon, pictured on promotions and posing for photographs at liquor store openings, but he’s also the brain behind the original recipe and its subsequent flavors.
Outwardly, he’s exactly what you might expect from a backwoods bootlegger, but, much like the 100-proof spirits he and his partners have spread across the state — and beyond — first impressions can be deceiving.
The former U.S. Navy boiler technician and lab analyst won’t bat an eye when explaining the complex ratios and precise measurements that go into producing a saleable batch of shine, and when he whips out his little black book of temperature corrections for hydrometer readings to determine alcohol proof, it’s best to just smile and nod.
“I’ve always had a fascination with math,” he said. “What I didn’t realize was that all the events of my life would come together in the amalgamation of this facility.”
As a result of Roberson’s tinkering in the flavors lab, Mellomoon now offers its liquors in a rainbow of tastes, including coconut, strawberry, peach and caramel, the latter of which took home the first-place platinum award in the unclassified spirits category at the World Beverage Competition in Geneva Switzerland.
“We were shocked too, and I can imagine in Geneva, Switzerland, when they pulled out a bottle of moonshine, set it down and said ‘That’s what you chose,’ I’d have loved to have seen that,” Reece said with a laugh.
This month, the distillery plans to unveil Roberson’s newest creation, honey ginseng — born out of the company’s debut on the small screen -— followed closely behind by the heavily demanded apple pie, banana, grape and cheesecake.
While Roberson is in the lab cooking up new flavors, Melvin is in the office making sure the finances stay in the black.
Relying on his finance degree from the University of Tennessee, his experience running a home security system business and what Tiny called “encyclopedic knowledge of alcohol rules and regulations,” Melvin helps navigate the Mellomoon ship through the troubled waters of state and federal taxation.
On each bottle of the distillery’s signature shine, there are $6 in taxes alone before it hits the retail package store, he said. Then, there’s retail markup, county fees and state sales taxes.
“Making alcohol’s not complicated compared to the regulations and the taxes you have to put up with,” Melvin said. “If we’d know what we were getting into before we started, we probably still would have done it, but we would have gone about it a little differently.”
The wide array of state alcohol control laws that sprang up after prohibition ended are among Melvin’s major headaches and a major deterrence to a growing alcohol business.
In Tennessee, producers have little control over distribution, relying on a dozen or so distributors to get them, and their competitors, onto store shelves.
In other states, like Virginia and North Carolina, the government controls nearly every aspect of retail liquor sales, including owning and running the stores.
Even with the maze of regulation, Mellomoon has managed to spread from corner to corner of Tennessee, and Melvin said distribution in South Carolina and Florida is planned for the near future and the company is in discussions with a state agency regarding overseas sales in Europe.
But the moonshine-making trio said the success hasn’t been accidental, and warned other prospective distillers to prepare for “a lot of hard work and nail-biting.”
“The water’s warm boys, come on in. Good luck,” Melvin said to those in the area hoping to break into the liquor distilling game.
Reece, the third member of the crew, handles marketing and public relations.
When you dial the distillery’s listed number, it’s more than likely that it’s him on the other end of the line.
That’s why, when Original Productions, the company behind the hit reality television programs “Deadliest Catch,” “Bering Sea Gold,” “Ice Road Truckers,” “Ax Men” and “Storage Wars,” phoned to propose a new show to the distillery owners, he took the call.
“They called us out of the blue and asked if we’d be interested in participating in a show about Appalachia,” Reece said. “We went through the interview process, and they said ‘You guys fit the bill,’ but of course we didn’t know what the bill was.”
After four months of filming last fall, “Appalachian Outlaws” debuted on the History Channel.
The show portrayed the ginseng hunting trade in the West Virginia foothills, with the proper amount of shooting, sabotage and bleeped-out curses you’d expect from a reality show of its nature.
Roberson and Reece were brought in as moonshiners interested in creating their own special ginseng flavored concoction to throw a wrench into the locals’ plans.
The season ended with the pair paying about $28,000 for a large sack of the herb, stealing business away from the hotshot who himself was trying to undercut the established ginseng dealer.
“We end up paying top dollar for it,” Reece said. “You wouldn’t believe the number of people who called us up since it aired offering to sell us ginseng.”
When asked about the authenticity of the program, the Piney Flats distillers coyly said it’s as real as any other reality show on television.
Skepticism aside, the honey ginseng moonshine flavor spawned by the appearance is real, and its makers say it’s really good.
The proper approvals for the formula are in-hand, but the label needed for retail sales is still in the works.
Mellomoon is aiming for a rollout near the end of the month, but Roberson said there could be a limited release at the distillery site earlier than that.