By Sarah Donahue
From the Appalachian to the Sonoran Desert, Chris Chapman is planting his 250-year-old moonshine recipe in the heart of Cave Creek.
A former post office will soon be a fully operational distillery—Hillis and McGee Cave Creek Distillery—with tastings as well as basic distilling and advanced distilling courses. Guests can enjoy live music played by a bluegrass band each weekend. He plans to change the building as little as possible, preserving its classic old-school aesthetic, while still implementing the required proper safety measures.
“I grew up making whiskey,” Chapman says while sitting in the partially constructed distillery. “I grew up on a 250-acre tobacco farm out in the middle of Tennessee. Most of the counties in the south are dry, so you can’t buy liquor; so a lot of people still, to this day, make their own liquor.
“That’s what we’re doing here; we make 150-proof corn liquor.”
Chapman was given the go-ahead to make his family recipe on-site on September 21 after a unanimous vote from the town council. He expects the grand opening to be in January, as he still awaits federal approval, he says.
Those who want to join in on the fun of the grand opening can enjoy live bluegrass music as well as whiskey tastings, and root beer and sarsaparilla for those who don’t imbibe. There isn’t a kitchen, but snacks, like boiled peanuts, will be provided. It’s another Southern tradition Chapman is bringing to Cave Creek.
“I’m bringing a lot of my Appalachian culture here, because it fits perfectly,” Chapman says. The distillery’s monitor is made up of two family names that go back generations in Tennessee.
The whole block, including Big Earl’s Greasy Eats, will be a part of the opening day action, Chapman says. “We’re going to make a big deal about it.”
The distillery will also be a major source of whiskey for Cave Creek’s local bars, Chapman says. Many Cave Creek bars and restaurants already want to carry his alcohol or sarsaparilla and root beer.
“I’m really trying to work alongside everybody in town that will let me,” he says. “That’s our goal. We want to fit into the town completely. We want to be beneficial to everyone. We want to bring business to everyone else, not just us.”
Chapman has been in the building since last October. He submitted his applications for rezoning as well as a special use permit around March, but the circumstances surrounding COVID-19 presented him with unexpected delays.
“I’ve had to learn a lot of patience,” he says. “I’m a go-getter. I love to work. I love to do things, to see things get finished. I’ve heard a lot of people tell me to go ahead and wait, and I’m just not used to that.”
Cave Creek’s town council wasn’t fully operational, due to the COVID-19 pandemic; however, after things started to pick back up recently, he was given the OK.
Once he receives the rezoning and special use permit paperwork, that has to be submitted to the federal government to receive feedback or approval. Sometimes there are safety stipulations that have to be adjusted before approval, like assuring there are enough fire sprinklers and secure bars on all the building’s windows to protect the distillery and the building next door.
“I want the city to feel like I’m being safe, so I’m trying to go above and beyond with everything,” he says about the safety requirements.
Prices on Chapman’s whiskey range from $20 for a 4-ounce jar to $40 for a pint. Chapman says he is still trying to figure out the largest size that he is allowed to sell.
Once Chapman gets approval and receives his distiller’s permit, he can finish construction in the building, he says. He expects to build his 50-gallon still in less than a week, with copper supplied from a local fabricator.
As of now, he’s running the space with a food handlers card and a cottage permit, occasionally selling sarsaparilla, boiled peanuts, and retail items like T-shirts and beer koozies. He hangs out in the front room of the partially constructed distillery and keeps his door open for any curious Cave Creekers to learn what’s coming in the future.
Chapman made his way from a small town in Tennessee to Arizona around 10 years ago to be closer to his mom and brother, who lived in Phoenix. He attended ASU to study cultural anthropology and found his way to Cave Creek after his friends took him to Big Earl’s.
After getting to know the bar owners at Big Earl’s, he started to play music for them on a weekly basis, he says, establishing his presence in town with other business and landowners. He plays several instruments, but his primary choice is piano and sometimes mandolin.
He lives in Anthem but yearns to live in Cave Creek, he says.
“I’ve been trying to move here for years, and every time I find a piece of property, someone swoops in and gets it before I can,” Chapman says. “One day.”
Chapman has been carrying his family’s legacy of making whiskey for a long time, he says. After some friends tried some, they suggested he make a business out of it.
“Moonshine is very unique to us as a country,” he says. “It’s very unique to where I’m from in the South, and I just thought that history made a really cool fit with this town. I’ve just been running and gunning since day one. Never looked back.”
Hillis & McGee Cave Creek Distillery, 6149 E. Cave Creek Road, Cave Creek, 623.340.8353, hillismcgee.com.