Out and About WRAL.com
Raleigh, North Carolina — Mena Killough’s journey to becoming a master distiller began with botanicals. Prior to 2015, Killough worked with floral waters as an herbalist in Charlotte.
“I really loved the art,” Killough said. “It was a nod to the alchemists [and] Western herbalists, and it really expanded my practice with plants in water.”
But, Killough said beyond Asheville, there wasn’t much demand in North Carolina for herbalists. That’s when she started looking for other ways to use her skills.
“I started working with the bar program as a different way to incorporate herbal medicines and extractions in a usable way…a more accessible way to integrate my knowledge and work with people and communities. plants at the same time,” Killough said.
Killough trained with three world-class bartenders before coming to Young Hearts Distiller in downtown Raleigh last summer.
“I gained a good understanding of spirits and began to learn that many formulators of traditional spirits like absinthe and amaro were formulated by herbalists,” Killough said. “It got me thinking about manipulating the flavors and medicinal actions of plants with spirits.”
Killough’s knowledge of spirits and botanicals also helped during the coronavirus pandemic. When the Charlotte bar where she worked temporarily closed, Killough shifted her skills to making hand sanitizer for first responders.
“We were boiling the beer and trying to get that alcohol out of it that way. Since there was a big shortage, everyone knows it was great to be of help during this time when so many of us are struggling. felt helpless,” she said.
Killough’s skills and commitment to the art of distillation have even earned him national recognition. In February, Killough became a two-time Master Distiller champion on the Discovery Channel show Moonshiners: Master Distiller.
In his last appearance, Killough took part in a tribute episode to Popcorn Sutton, a famous moonshiner from Appalachia. Sutton took his own life in 2009, just before he was supposed to serve an 18-month sentence for moonshining.
In the episode, Killough and the other two contestants were challenged to create Sutton’s corn whiskey recipe using “tools and techniques from the past.”
“Modern bootleg liquor was something that was kind of another form of mysticism. You hear of these gentlemen from Tennessee or western North Carolina in the woods, and as a little girl living in town, how am I going to learn to distill? I watched documentaries and the most popular was on Popcorn Sutton and he’s like the granddaddy of modern moonshine,” Killough said.
Killough’s first introduction to Sutton and its impact on moonlighting was 10 years ago. Being able to compete in an episode as a tribute to him “come full circle,” Killough said.
“Here I am on a TV show shortly after learning the art of distilling spirits and participating in a tribute episode to the first moonshiner I got to see a window into their craft. It was an amazing experience. .. I was just completely honored and just happy to be there,” she said.
Part of the contest judging was on the flavor, where Killough said it “generally shines”.
Killough said that when considering creating a spirit, her method of creating a flavor is to get her hands on as many versions of that spirit from other distillers.
From there, Killough said she “pick and choose the aspects that [she] wants to shine through the mind.”
After his second appearance on Moonshiners: Master Distiller, Killough is back at Young Hearts Distilling to continue his work there distilling spirits and creating craft cocktails.
“The next focus is spring gin and something that works well with cocktails you want to sample on the patio and it’s starting to warm up and everyone’s starting to wake up from their winter slumber and are ready to rediscover the outdoors “said Killough.
In addition to Killough spirits, Young Hearts Distiller offers a seasonally rotating menu. Some of the dishes currently on the menu are prosciutto-wrapped dates, local charcuterie boards, Joyce Farms maple bourbon chicken, and musk bread pudding.
The distillery is located at 225 S. Wilmington Street in Raleigh and is open 4 p.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 12 p.m. Saturday, and 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday.