Leaving Spencer, West Virginia, I travel out state highway 14, make a left on Colt Ridge and then a right on Colt Run and just like that, I find myself in a different time. The road turns quickly to a one lane dirt track through the woods and leads deep into a hollow. Having spent enough time in West Virginia now, my hope is that I won’t see a massive coal or lumber truck come barreling around the corner towards me. I don’t, and soon I find myself bouncing happily down a West Virginia back country road and quickly pull up at my destination under a sign that reads “Hatfield Farms”.
Hatfield Farms is home to Devil Anse Hatfield’s Great Great-Grandson Mark Hatfield and his wife Brenda. It’s also home to their latest business ventures: Hatfield and McCoy Vineyards and The Sweeter Side of the Feud Winery and Distillery.
When I pulled up into their farm, I was warmly greeted by a half-dozen of the friendliest dogs in the state and by Mark and Brenda themselves. The Hatfields whisked me out of the cold day and into their warm and cozy main barn.
After introductions were made, Mark took me back into the distillery where he showed me the ins and outs of making moonshine, whiskey and wine. Mark and Brenda are the only people who work there, with Mark doing the distilling and Brenda working on labeling and marketing their products. It became very clear to me very quickly that Mark knew a lot about this craft, and was working with generations of knowledge passed down to him through the years. He explained that the recipes were in an old family bible which he kept locked tightly in his safe.
When Mark was younger, he told me, his dad would often stop if he saw roadkill and harvest the stomachs of dead raccoons and possums to use the stomach enzymes in the distillation process. While roadkill stomachs are not a part of the process today, it was a great story to hear and really connected this place to the past.
We continued by talking about the ingredients they use in all of their work. It was great to see that most of their wines were made from grapes they grew onsite and included those varieties favored by generations of both Hatfields and McCoys. All of their other ingredients were of the highest quality, using things like real honey and fruit juices instead of cutting corners and using cheaper flavorings. The water came from an onsite well. It was apparent that quality was central in Mark’s distilling philosophy.
One of the more unique processes he showed me was his “Char in a Jar” method of aging. Turning moonshine into whiskey generally requires aging in a charred barrel where the liquor can work its way into and out of the wood, causing it to mellow and gain color and flavor. Explaining to me that barrels were in short supply in the backwoods of West Virginia after the Civil War, the Hatfields employed the age-old country way of making due with what you have. Instead of using barrels, the Hatfields would take slats of wood, char one side and put the whole slats into the liquor. This process done correctly can actually increase the exposed surface area and speed up the aging process.
The processes fascinated me and I could have talked with Mark all day about each method he used. I’ve visited a lot of distilleries in my day, but I still learned a lot talking to Mark. But it was cold in the distillery, and besides the real proof would be in the tasting. When we got back inside, some other folks had come in and I warmed myself by the fire while they bought some wine and chewed the fat for a while about the local politics. I got a few minutes to take some photos and learn more about the family history in photos and clippings around the walls.
Finally Mark and I stepped into the cozy tasting parlor and had another great conversation surrounding each taste he poured me. We started with the granddaddy of them all, Devil Anse’s Single Barrel Bourbon Whiskey. This poured from a hand numbered bottle and came in at a whopping 125 proof, straight from the barrel with no blending at all. This whiskey hits your tongue like a freight train, but by the time it reaches the back of your mouth it almost hints of cognac. It certainly warms your throat going down and leaves a strong but mellow smoky afterburn on your pallet. This whiskey is not for the faint of heart and I can’t imagine using it for anything but sipping it and sipping it slowly.
Next I tried the honey whiskey and discovered you really can taste the difference real honey makes. At 80 proof, this was no wimpy liqueur, but the honey mellows the whiskey and makes this a fine drink to sip by the fireplace.
Each sip of a different blend took me down a different West Virginia back road and deep into the annals of the Hatfield family history. Mark and Brenda regaled me colorful stories of all of the characters I have read so much about and brought them to life right there in Roane County.
After a nice tasting session, Brenda walked me through the naming and labeling of their products. Their wines feature adorable cartoon caricatures of family members from the feud, with a matching description on the back label. The whisky and moonshine label give a more serious nod to the family history and the heritage of these spirits.
I feel like I was there for a long time, but I could have stayed all day I was enjoying myself so much learning about the Hatfields, the distillery, the business and the products themselves. Their business model is one I support whole-heartedly: family run, high quality, small batch using locally sourced ingredients wherever possible. While it was a bit of an adventure to get to the distillery, it was really only a mile or two down a very well maintained dirt road which probably added to the experience. Each turn from the highway had a sign for the distillery as well, which I really appreciated because even when it turned to dirt I knew I was on the right track. They have a website and are very active in maintaining their Facebook page. And even though they are the only employees and I’m sure are very busy, they took time out of their busy day to make me feel welcome and appreciated. On top of all of these things, their products are incredibly affordable. I think the Devil Anse Single Barrel was their most expensive product and I believe I paid $30 for a bottle (I bought two!). This is the kind of business which combines the rich traditions of a time-honored, regional craft and brings it into the present with modern equipment and a strong internet presence. In other words, exactly the kind of business that other West Virginians should pay attention to. In a world of ever-increasingly factory produced cookie-cutter products, it is nice to find people doing things the old-fashioned way. This country needs more products like this, made with love and attention to detail. Running a small business like this may not get your picture in Forbes Magazine, but it can pay the bills and be successful.
Before I left, the biggest treat was yet to come. Mark went back to the safe and brought out Devil Anse’s rifle and let me hold onto it. We posed for a photo by the fireplace and even though I wanted to look serious in it, I couldn’t help but grin. If you ever find yourself in Roane County, don’t miss the chance to stop in on Mark and Brenda Hatfield. You will truly learn about the sweeter side of the feud and find yourself tasting the history.