MOOREFIELD — A journal written in broken English mixed with German brewed for a time in the minds of Bill and Todd Roe.
The father-and-son team now distills Lazy RW whiskey from a recipe found in the journals of Bill's great-uncle. They operate a distillery in Moorefield, a village in Frontier County.
"My great-uncle operated a still on the Niobrara River during Prohibition," Bill said. "When I was probably a sixth-grader, just old enough to be snoopy, I found them (the recipes) in his journal. My uncle (great-uncle's son) told me at that time, 'You put those up, that's nothing but trouble.'"
Bill said he was in his first year of college when his uncle's health went bad.
His uncle told him, "I'm going to show you all about this stuff, how it works and what the recipes are, and then we're going to put it away and I don't want you fooling with it, because it's illegal."
After Bill retired, he and Todd decided to see about using the recipes as a hobby together.
"Dad had it explained on how to do it," Todd said. "My interest was the science of it. I studied how ethanol plants work. I wanted to know how corn was turned into sugar and wanted to know how all that stuff works."
The father and son said their different skills work well together.
"I can sit and talk on the molecular level of how starch molecules are broken down into sugar," Todd said. "Between Dad and I, we complement each other because he's got the old-school way of just doing something and then I've got the science to back it up."
Within that system, they believe they have come up with a unique taste that is very high quality.
"If he says, 'This is how this should taste,' I seem to be able to complement that and say, 'OK, then this is what we need to do and this is why we're not getting that,'" Todd said. "I just immersed myself in books and information. I wanted to understand it completely."
Todd said he didn't want to own a distillery without understanding what he was doing.
"My uncle used to make the whiskey so mild," Bill said. "He used to distill it, then drain it and distill it again, and drain it and distill it again. So Todd built a reflux still, which allows us to do the same thing inside the column."
Bill said they actually distill the whiskey five or six times before it ever comes out of the still, and it's a slow process.
With technology and understanding the science behind the process, Todd said, they have improved on what their uncle started.
"Those are the things we've added to the old uncle's process that I think would make him extremely proud," Todd said.
One of the flavors the Roes find most popular was popular back in the uncle's time: his lemon recipe.
"There's only a certain time of year you could get fresh lemons back then (in the 1920s)," Bill said, "and when the great-uncle's lemon whisky was ready, people came and got it."
The business offers other flavors, including cinnamon and Frontier Straight, in which Todd says the flavor of corn is quite evident.
Father and son have always worked together doing things.
"Dad and I were always tinkering and doing something, coming up with a plan," Todd said. "We were working on tractors, shooting guns, always doing something, but this kind of hobby just fit. It was something we could do all the time."
And what started as a weekend hobby for father and son has grown far beyond what either of them imagined. Recently, Sandhills Distributing signed Lazy RW to get the product out on the market.
"It's way, way more than we thought it would ever be," Bill said. "We never thought we'd ever use a distributor."
The Roes said Todd's son is their first full-time employee.
"We hired my son Eric, so he's now the third generation," Todd said. "He's our production manager full time, and he's up here all week long now making what used to be done on weekends with Dad and I."
Both Todd and Bill said they did not want to go into debt to make the business work.
"We don't owe anybody a dime," Bill said.
"The neat thing about this is that Dad and I didn't each throw in $100,000 and built this great big still," Todd added. "We started with an 8-gallon still, and we got the bigger one we've got now and we're working it to its maximum."
He said they are working on getting a still twice the size of their current one, but not until they can pay for it.
"My favorite part of it, I'd have to say, is Dad and I growing something organically like we have and mastering it to the best of our ability and still learning," Todd said. "The process never stops. There's always a better way, there's always something new to try" or to make easier or more efficient.
"I think that's what excites me the most — better bottling techniques, quicker ways to label, more efficient running stills," he said.
The father-and-son team decided to purchase the old schoolhouse in Moorefield, population 31, to house their distillery.
"The town of Moorefield has supported us and loves that we are here," Bill said. "People found out about us by word of mouth. All of a sudden on Saturdays, it looked like we were having a garage sale and that parking lot would fill up."