By Gaige Davila
Los Fresnos, Texas, may be the last place anyone would expect to find moonshine, but it’s there, and it’s presence is becoming more known.
Jerrod Leon Henry, owner and master distiller of Rio Grande Distillery, makes Magic Valley Moonshine from his storefront on Highway 100 in between Laguna Vista and Los Fresnos proper.
He and his wife, Elizabeth, and Kathy and Larry Sallee opened the distillery after Henry’s television debut. Henry was a contestant on “Moonshiners: Master Distiller” on the Discovery Channel, a spinoff of Discovery’s “Moonshiners,” a docu-series following the lives of people making liquor in the Appalachian mountains. Henry won the competition show with his “Mezcal de Pechuga” recipe, a spirit distilled from Agave that is redistilled with fruits, grains, nuts and raw chicken or raw turkey breast hung over the still. Henry’s recipe is now being mass produced by Sugarlands Distillery, based in Gatlinburg, Tennessee.
“I already outed myself, might as well go legal,” Henry said of his decision to open Rio Grande Distillery.
Henry is from Christian County, Missouri, the Ozarks, where he learned to make moonshine after running liquor for moonshiners.
“The first real job I made any money was running liquor into dry counties,” Henry said. “Anywhere you find dry counties, you’ll find moonshiners, that’s kind of the way that goes.”
Henry left Missouri for the Gulf Coast, not giving too much detail as to why.
“Me and the judge had a talk about twenty years ago and he decided that the State of Missouri wasn’t for me no more,” he said.
Henry moved to Florida to work on fishing boats, then came to Port Isabel by way of a tuna boat in July 2000 and has been in the Rio Grande Valley since. He now lives in Los Fresnos, traveling to and from Mexico every year.
So, what is moonshine?
“Think of moonshine as raw whiskey: it’s just never been put in a barrel,” Henry explained. All Magic Valley Moonshine starts as beer, or “mash,” made from corn and malted barley, which Henry ferments for around three weeks before distilling. Henry uses a lot of malted barley in his mash, even if it’s expensive, because of the quality moonshine it produces.
“I would rather just make a good liquor instead of explaining why it burns like hell.”
Rio Grande Distillery’s still is made by Kevin Gordon, who makes stills for “Moonshiners,” after Henry won the competition. Above the still is a mural of legendary moonshiner Marvin “Popcorn” Sutton painted by Hector Guerra.
During the distillation, the first parts of the “run” are mostly made of methanol, which is toxic and cannot be drunk; the second part is called “heads,” made of acetone, acetylides and low alcohols; the third part, the center, is made of ethanol, which is collected as moonshine. The fourth part, the “tails,” is made of water, light alcohol, and fusel oils.
The process involves a lot of chemistry, something Henry acknowledges but gives credence to its simplicity.
“You could look at it that way, but there’s been hillbillies doing it in the woods for four hundred years,” he said.
Using the Magic Valley Moonshine as a base, Rio Grande Distillery makes an assortment of cocktails. There’s also the “mountain brandies,” flavored moonshines made with fresh fruits and raw sugar, something unique to Henry’s liquor.
“You can buy this cheap-ass moonshine from a liquor store, but it’s flavored with extracts and syrups,” Henry said. “You might well go pour your liquor over a damn snow cone.”
Henry is constantly experimenting with moonshine flavors, even making horchata and coffee flavored moonshines.
So, what is the difference between the legal liquor Henry makes in-house and the liquor he made in the Ozarks?
“Permits,” Henry laughs. “That’s it. Pay the Man.”
Henry received one of those permits just before the COVID-19 pandemic hit the U.S. He made hand sanitizer in the meantime, while bars and restaurants were closed by state and county orders, producing over 8,500 gallons in April in May last year. Soon after, though, Henry did what he intended before the pandemic: make moonshine.
“My idea was to bring a touch of Appalachia or the Ozarks here, because there’s nothing around here like it,” Henry said.
Indeed there is not. Rio Grande Distillery is the southernmost distillery in the U.S. Henry plans to start making rum and mezcal on-site this year, two more firsts for the Valley.
Despite the initial COVID-19-caused delay, Rio Grande Distillery is doing well.
“So far, it’s been good,” Henry said. “I haven’t lost money in months, we make salaries, we’ve managed to pay everybody and keep things coming in.”
“Hopefully this all lays down and people will get out more and see what we offer and go from there, right? Sky’s the limit.”
Rio Grande Distillery, located at 36168 State Hwy 100, Los Fresnos, Texas, is open from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., Wednesday to Thursday; 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Friday to Saturday; 12 p.m. to 5 p.m. on Sundays. They are closed Mondays and Tuesday. For more information, call (956) 408-9753.