Shine On

by Terry Thompson-Anderson • Photography by Andy Sams

This is a story about moonshine, but not the unregulated, illegal corn-squeezin’s made deep in the woods by someone’s grandpappy. No, this high-octane elixir is 100 percent on the up-and-up, and it’s made by John and Cayce Kovacs in Comfort, Texas.

Of course, the Kovacses never intended to get into the moonshine business, but one day back in 2012, Cayce visited a friend in Bandera and was treated to some homemade distillation made from prickly pear cactus pads. Despite the eyebrow-curling level of alcohol, Cayce was very impressed by the smooth taste of the liquor, and when she returned home, she urged her husband to try to make some of it.

To learn the process the right way, the couple traveled to the Kentucky woods, where moonshine still reigns. Through sources that wish to remain anonymous, John and Cayce were able to speak to some of the best moonshiners in the area and study their operations. Many, of course, wouldn’t allow photos to be taken of themselves or their equipment, but they shared advice. And although these distillers were using corn mash to make their ’shine, the couple wondered about the possibility of using a prickly pear cactus pad mash from Texas, instead. They followed up by sending samples of the pureed cactus mash to several of the distillers and all agreed it was entirely doable.

In September of 2013, Texas state law changed to allow retail sales and sampling of distilled spirits at the site of a distillery. The couple named their operation Texas Hill Country Distillers and received their state license in December of 2013. It took another six months to get their federal license, and even more time to get their label approved. And they admit there were a few bumps along the way. “What we wanted to do really didn’t fit into any of the government categories, so they didn’t know how to classify us,” John recalls with a laugh. “We weren’t making vodka…or gin…or whisky. So we applied to make moonshine and were finally approved. Our operation is much closer to those guys in the woods in Kentucky making ’shine than to big distilleries.”

Currently, the Kovacses produce prickly pear cactus and jalapeño moonshines under the label Texas Moonshine Company. The cactus is hand-harvested on Texas ranches and the jalapeños are grown for them by a farmer in Comfort. The prickly pear pads (thorns and all) and the jalapeños (seeds and all) are chopped by hand in the fermentation room at the distillery by two guys in rubber slicker suits who wear very heavy gloves and goggles. Sugar, rather than corn, is used as the fuel for the fermentation along with yeast and a secret ingredient. The water is purified Texas rainwater that comes from a 30,000-gallon rainwater collection system at the Kovacses’ home. After a two-week fermentation, the mash is strained and distilled only once, and the finished product is unfiltered.

Both moonshines are as smooth as fine-aged whisky. The prickly pear cactus version has an aroma much like tequila, but the taste is of an earthy vodka. The jalapeño ’shine has a definite nose of fresh jalapeño, but there’s very little heat left on the palate as the capsaicin dissipates during the distillation process. Be forewarned, though, the prickly pear cactus moonshine weighs in at 102 proof and the jalapeño version at 80.

To showcase their products, the Kovacses purchased the old Comfort Cellars Winery property and renovated the tasting room that’s situated in a charming old home on Comfort’s Front Street. Visitors can taste the straight moonshine, or meander over to the cozy bar and purchase from a selection of mixed drinks made from it. There’s a lounging room adjacent to the bar, with plush leather chairs and couches, as well as outside seating. Tours of the distillery are also available.

But the couple feels like they’re just getting started. Moonshines made from Fredericksburg peaches, Medina apples and Poteet strawberries are in the works, and they’re developing a line of products they call “dulces” that have a cactus-moonshine base mixed with lemon, lime, orange or grapefruit zest, aged for 30 days, then strained—it’s their own twist on limoncello. They’re also working in conjunction with several Texas wineries—helping them distill their wines into brandy for use in fortified ports.

When asked what the future holds, Cayce says they’ve been amazed by the growth of the craft distillery industry in Texas since the groundbreaking law change in 2013, and they’re very excited to continue to be part of that growth. “We think that we’ve achieved a unique niche within the industry,” she says. “We eagerly look forward to growing our moonshine brand in many new directions.”