Moon Drops Distillery ready to welcome customers in Fortville

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Moon Drops owner Mark Pressley and son Hank Pressley, head distiller, in the company’s 2,000-barrel rack house. (IBJ photos/Eric Learned)

It was just a year ago that Fortville-based Moon Drops Distillery began selling its bottled spirits, but already, its products are available at nearly 300 Indiana locations, including Kroger and Meijer grocery stores and 100 restaurants and bars.

And now, Moon Drops has a place to welcome customers on its own turf.

On Dec. 8, the distiller will open a tasting room inside its 9,000-square-foot main building at 738 W. Broadway St. in Fortville.

It will be a place for sampling what Moon Drops calls Bonfire Blends, which feature a mix of corn whiskey, vodka and rum that’s marketed as “moonshine”—a tag suggestive of yesteryear liquor made in illicit stills. But it will also be a gathering spot to listen to music and get a peek at the still where the liquor is made.

“It’s one of the last big feathers in the cap for Moon Drops, as far as where we’re at today,” said Mark Pressley, president of the company. “There are bigger things on the horizon, but this tasting room was the one we could see and smell happening.”

Moon Drops is one of the latest distilleries to open in Indiana, part of an industry that has been growing since the Legislature voted in 2013 to create a special permit that lets spirts makers sell their products on site. Today, at least 20 distilleries are registered with Indiana Grown, a state effort to promote agriculture products grown and made here, but many distilleries aren’t on the list.

Some—like Hard Truth Distilling Co. in Brown County—have become tourist attractions that are about more than alcohol. And Pressley hopes to do the same, in part by featuring music.

For now, a rotation of singers with guitars will provide entertainment nights in the new Moon Drops tasting room. But among Pressley’s promised “bigger things” could be concerts by touring artists that Moon Drops plans to present next summer on an outdoor stage between the company’s Fortville production facility and a nearby rack house where barrels of bourbon whiskey are stored.

Pressley said the shows won’t feature headliners to rival the schedule at Ruoff Music Center 15 minutes away in Noblesville. But he’s confident about hiring bands that can attract around 350 attendees.

The events will be the next evolution of bonfire gatherings that served as a catalyst for the company’s existence.

Before founding Moon Drops in 2019 with Mark Taylor, Pressley was a distilling novice who researched the crafting of spirits such as vodka and whiskey. Pressley even picked up a mischievous nickname: “Moonshine Mark.”

As a professional distiller, he chose a slogan of “Inspired by the magic of shared experiences over a good drink” for Moon Drops.

“We just always liked getting together and hanging out with our friends,” said Pressley, a 60-year-old who formerly sold homes and cars and calls himself a metal music fan who also enjoys unplugged solo acts.

The founders chose the name Moon Drops as “a tip of the hat to the moonshiners who we felt were doing it right,” Pressley said.

The company has enjoyed early success with its Bonfire Blends. The first flavor, Lemon Shake-Up, debuted in May. “We sold 422 cases in six weeks, and nobody at that point knew who Moon Drops was,” Pressley said.

Peppermint and Apple Pie versions of Bonfire Blends followed, and the company also sells a “classic spirits” line of bourbon, vodka and rum.

For now, the products are available only in Indiana.

“We have offers to go national,” Pressley said. “But we are going to grow right inside the state lines for a little while longer.”

One of three flavors of the company’s Bonfire Blends moonshine.

Hoosier hospitality

Indiana distilleries such as Hard Truth Distilling Co. and Westfield’s West Fork Whiskey Co. are making a mark as agritourism destinations.

Beyond behind-the-scenes tours, Hard Truth offers a restaurant, music and ATV excursions through wooded hills and valleys, and West Fork’s campus includes a 4,000-square-foot event center.

Caroline Patrick

Caroline Patrick, director of the Indiana State Department of Agriculture’s Indiana Grown initiative, said visitors appreciate the chance to participate in tasting sessions with the people who made the spirits.

“I think it’s all about that experience that connects customers to the story of the distilled process and what makes that product so special,” Patrick said.

While saying Moon Drops plans to offer facility tours on a formal schedule in the future, Pressley said informal walkthroughs are possible now.

“If somebody calls and asks to do a tour, we will absolutely 100% do a tour,” he said.

Indiana Grown’s Patrick said it’s important to realize that Indiana entrepreneurs couldn’t open a distillery that sells spirits on site until 2013, when the artisan distiller’s permit was approved by the Legislature.

“The opening up of our liquor laws has allowed us to introduce smaller craft distillery experiences in Indiana,” said Patrick, who began her tenure at Indiana Grown in September.

Neighbor Kentucky is home to nearly 100 distilleries, and Louisville has been called the whiskey capital of the United States.

Measuring up to Kentucky’s distilling stature might not be a likelihood for Indiana, but the Hoosier state is working on its identity.

In 2021, Indiana Rye Whiskey was officially defined by the Legislature as a product made up of at least 51% rye in its recipe; distilled at no greater than 160 proof; placed in a barrel at no more than 125 proof; and mashed, fermented, distilled and aged for at least two years in Indiana.

Meet ‘Big Momma’

Pressley said Moon Drops takes pride in using corn, barley and rye grown by Indiana farmers.

While the company waits for its own bourbon to age a few years before it’s sold to the public, Moon Drops sources bourbon from Lawrenceburg-based distillery MGP of Indiana.

Meanwhile, it makes alcohol it sells to an undisclosed distillery in a similar sourcing arrangement. If ongoing talks with a second distillery result in a deal, Moon Drops will double its business, Pressley said.

The company’s 500-gallon still, nicknamed “Big Momma” and made by industry leader Vendome Copper & Brass Works in Louisville, can handle the workload.

At a height of 14 feet, the still is “the star of the show,” according to Pressley.

The tasting room was designed with a window that provides views of the still.

“If you’re standing at the bar, there’s a spotlight on Big Momma, and you can order a cocktail and see the place where it was born,” Pressley said.

Before Moon Drops manufactured its first spirits in June 2021, Pressley and Taylor completed a six-day distiller course at Moonshine University in Louisville.

Taylor, who is a full-time firefighter and paramedic in the Carmel Fire Department, exited Moon Drops in October when his interest in the company was bought out by Pressley.

Head distiller Hank Pressley stirs corn mash before testing the pH level.

Hank Pressley, one of Pressley’s sons, was promoted to the role of head distiller.

The company employs 10 people, and it expects to produce 6,400 cases of spirits in 2023.

A cupola in the ceiling of the main Moon Drops building is more than decorative. Within five years, the company hopes to add a “continuous still” component that’s 34 feet tall and accommodates large-scale distillation.

“We’re not built for the short term,” Pressley said. “We’re built for the long term.”

For now, Moon Drops is an emerging player among Indiana distilleries. Cardinal Spirits, founded in Bloomington in 2015, produced 32,000 cases in 2021.

Hard Truth announced plans this year to build a second rack house that will allow its whiskey storage capacity to increase from 4,000 53-gallon barrels to 12,000.

The rack house at Moon Drops has a capacity of 2,000 barrels.

Moon Drops’ tasting room will open Dec. 8 inside its main building at 738 W. Broadway St. in Fortville.

Boom town

Randy Sorrell

Randy Sorrell, executive director of the Hancock Economic Development Council, said Moon Drops joins a roster of Fortville destinations highlighted by popular restaurants FoxGardin Kitchen & Ale and Taxman Brasserie & Tap Room.

“People are moving to this area, and they want those kinds of amenities in their neighborhoods,” Sorrell said. “When they get here, you want them to stay and have a reason to want to stay.”

Fortville and its 5,000 residents are in Hancock County, which, according to U.S. Census data, grew 14.1% from 2010 to 2020.

A sign of Fortville’s rising popularity, Sorrell said, can be detected on vehicle license plates featuring the number designated for Hamilton County residents.

“I tell people, ‘If you come to Fortville on a Friday or Saturday night, those are all “29” license plates on Main Street.’ People are coming from Carmel and Fishers to hit the restaurants,” Sorrell said.

For the business community, Moon Drops can be a source of inspiration, Sorrell said.

“When someone hangs out their shingle and starts sort of an operation, it creates an energy of risk-taking and, ‘Hey, this can work,’” he said.

Moon Drops built its main structure and rack house on 3.25 acres on the edge of town. From Indianapolis, Moon Drops can be reached directly by driving northeast on Pendleton Pike.

Pressley and his wife, Nancy Martin-Pressley, former co-owner of Ed Martin Automotive Group, live near Geist Reservoir.

Pressley said Fortville proved to be the right place for Moon Drops.

“We looked at all the big players: Carmel, Zionsville, Westfield,” Pressley said. “This is 15 minutes from my house. We loved the people immediately. Fortville has been good to us.”•

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