"One of the reasons I started my website is that I wanted a place for women to come together and dream. We women need to know that we don't have to hang on to an old dream that has stopped nurturing us—that there is always time to start a new dream. This week's story is about about Troy Ball, a mother with two special needs sons who found a way to support her family – by starting a business that brought an uncommon product to market."—Marlo, MarloThomas.com
It was as if young Frankenstein met Old MacDonald—with a touch of Austin Powers thrown in for good measure. Tucked away in a small barn in the Great Smoky Mountains of North Carolina, Troy Ball and her friend John McEntire were like a pair of mad scientists—mixing, boiling, adding ingredients, then taking them out again— trying to achieve just the right formula for their precious concoction. “It was all undercover,” says Troy. “But it was also really exciting. I mean, we’d hear somebody pulling up the gravel road, and we’d close the barn doors.”
The reason for all the secrecy: Troy and John had built their own little distillery, and what they were doing—making moonshine—was criminal in the minds of some of the neighbors.
Troy’s journey from mom to moonshine maker began back in 2003, when she and her husband, Charlie, moved with their three sons to Asheville, North Carolina. Neighbors—usually old men—welcomed the family to the area by bringing over jars of hooch, a homemade, corn-based whiskey. “I would open a jar,” she says, “and it would smell so terrible. I’d tell them, ‘Yecch! I don’t want any more of this bad stuff, so stop bringing it to me!’ They’d say, ‘Well, you can’t get the good stuff, Troy, because people keep that for themselves.’”
Several years went by before an 80-year-old friend named Forrest, perhaps goaded by Troy’s teasing about the subpar local liquor, finally brought over a sample of the good stuff. “He said, ‘Now, Troy, this is something special. Promise me you’ll taste this.’ ” So she did.
And it wasn’t half bad. “It wasn’t that burning-hot moonshine,” Troy says. “It was surprisingly smooth.”
That evening, some of Troy’s girlfriends came over. “I said, ‘Would y’all like to try some good moonshine?’ We mixed it with some fruit juice, and they drank every drop.”
Inspired by their reaction, Troy decided to do a bit of reconnaissance. “I went to the store and bought every unaged white whiskey available, but they were terrible compared to what Forrest had given me.”
That got her thinking about something she’d once heard Ross Perot say: “If you want to be successful, study an industry and figure out what’s missing.”
“I realized that even though this quality white whiskey was an American tradition, it was unrepresented in the market,” Troy says. “People all over the country were drinking Russian vodka when we had our own white spirit right here. It was the hole in the doughnut.”
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Discovering that hole came at a perfect time in Troy’s life. At 48, she was itching to do something new. “I’m a born businessperson, but I got married right after graduating from Vanderbilt, and soon had two special-needs children.” Troy and Charlie’s first two sons—Marshall, now 27, and Coulton, now 25—were born with a still-undiagnosed genetic disease. “They both came home from the hospital healthy,” Troy recalls, “but at four or five months, they stopped thriving.”
Troy felt that her vision—to make a high-proof, highly drinkable white whiskey—was the right idea at the right time. But she had no idea how to do it. “First, I asked Forrest if one of his friends who made moonshine could show me how it’s done,” she says. “He told me no—these guys don’t want anyone knowing who they are. I said that he could blindfold me if he had to, but that I needed to do this.”
Forrest eventually did find someone willing to show Troy the ropes. “We drove out to his farm, and around back of the barn he was using a 15-gallon cook pot to boil corn mash with a propane burner. The moonshine wasn’t very good, but it was a solid first lesson. Now I needed to talk to someone who was crafting quality whiskey.” This time, the husband of Troy’s best friend came to the rescue. “He found a guy who was using white corn with sugar and wild yeast—this guy knew what he was doing.”
Troy needed to find someone who was selling white corn, which is central to the best-tasting moonshine. And that’s what led her to her eventual partner in crime, John McEntire.
John’s family had been growing corn for seven generations, but when Troy called and said she needed 100 pounds—he was accustomed to selling one or two pounds at a time—John hesitated and asked what she was up to.
“I told him, ‘Well, I just have some recipes I’m working on…’
“And he said, ‘Are you that lady who wants to make whiskey?’
“And I said, ‘Yes, I am.’ ”
John paused for a second, but then agreed to trade some of his corn for some of her whiskey. “That sounded like a good deal,” Troy says, “but when I drove out to his farm and got to looking around, I said, ‘My gosh, you’ve got the corn, you’ve got these old barns, you’ve got the grist mills. How about we do some tests for fermentation out here?’
“He said, ‘Lady, I do not want to get arrested.’
“I said, ‘I don’t either. How ’bout this: You let me use your address, and I will file the federal application for a distillery permit.’”
And with that, Troy and John were in the whiskey-making business.
Through it all, Troy says, “I was willing to do whatever I had to do to achieve my goal, whether that was manning the still in the freezing cold for hours or dragging around five-gallon buckets of mash. And when you roll up your sleeves and work like hell, other people want to jump in and work with you.”
In 2010, Troy and Sons distillery got its federal license, and in 2011, Charlie quit his job to come work for the company, which moved from John’s farm to downtown Asheville, right next to the Highland Brewing Company.
Troy and Sons spirits are now available in ten states. And only two years after it started, the company was selected by Disney to join a short list of liquors sold at its resorts across the country. It’s their first big-volume account and a major coup in the liquor industry.
Troy’s success has filled her with a new sense of accomplishment—and a belief that patience has its own special rewards.
“After many years of caring for Marshall and Coulton, I achieved a certain peace of mind when I realized that the skills I learned raising my boys—to be resourceful, tireless, and adaptable—were the very same skills that would help me be successful in business. And that’s a good feeling.”
To find out more about Troy's journey -- and to read 59 other inspiring stories -- buy your copy of "It Ain’t Over Till It’s Over." Click here.
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