A cursory glance at Mount Airy native Vann McCoy and one would likely see a young entrepreneur. A closer inspection, however, reveals a life in search of meaning, of understanding, of finding one’s place in the universe.
And of making some white lightnin’.
It all started shortly after McCoy left Mount Airy High School a year early in 1984. He headed off to Georgia Tech to study physics and astrophysics, a path that didn’t last as long as one might expect.
“After one semester I moved to California to attend Thomas Aquinas College and study liberal arts,” he said.
After graduation, McCoy worked at the California college for a year as an administrative assistant “to pay off some debts.”
And then it happened. He felt a call from Above.
“I moved to Wisconsin to join a Cistercian monastery and became Father Bernard,” he said.
McCoy laughed when thinking about trying to trace his path from an astrophysics student to a Cistercian monk.
“I thought I was going to be studying the heavens in one way, but God had other plans for me to pursue the Heavens in a deeper sense,” he said. “I’ve always been interested in the ‘whys’ of things, and during my undergraduate studies the whole God concept and the system of a larger being really captivated me and made sense, so I guess I was still searching for the ‘whys’ of the universe.”
He became quiet.
“On the other side of the equation, I think in some way I was looking for elder guides or mentors who could teach me and who had a larger tradition where I could gain knowledge, experience and the qualities that would be good for the future,” McCoy said. “I was looking for training in human life.”
McCoy was sent after a couple of months in the Wisconsin monastery to Switzerland, where he studied for several years before returning to the small Wisconsin monastery.
“I ended up serving as a monk for about 23 years,” he said. “During that time I held a lot of positions in the monastery that were leadership roles, ranging from being involved with the monastery’s income-producing work as sort of a business manager, to monastic leadership positions.”
While in Wisconsin, he said the small monastery required him to wear several hats, some secular, others more spiritual.
“They are often two separate things, but I had to carry them both at the same time and it was very difficult,” McCoy said. “We were so small and it became too much for too few, so we decided to close the monastery.”
He said that was a critical crossroads in his life.
“I took a sabbatical and moved to Ireland for about six months after spending three months back here in Mount Airy to visit my mother,” he said. “That visit with my mother was the reason I decided to come back home and transition to a secular life here. I’m the only relative she has and she’s 88 years old.”
That decision weighed on his mind while in Ireland, he said.
“I was there in Ireland and needed to decide where my life was heading,” he said. “During that time the monastery was being closed and rather than joining another monastery I chose to come home. I finally determined that my real responsibility was to take care of my mother.”
So what is he doing today? Getting ready to cook up some good ol’ North Carolina moonshine.
“I found myself coming home and needed to find a way to support myself and the needs of my mother,” he said. “I decided I wanted to do something fun.”
He hearkened back to his childhood, when he attended a program on Appalachian culture.
“They, of course, talked about moonshine and I thought to myself that it couldn’t be that hard to make it,” he said. “Shortly after I returned home (from the camp) my mother came home and I had some copper pipe and her pressure cooker on the porch making my first batch at age 13.
“I scorched it, so it wasn’t that good,” McCoy added with a laugh.
Today, he’s busy in the final stages of opening Mayberry Spirits, the first legal distillery in the area. The business, which he hopes to open in August, will start off making moonshine, but McCoy plans on adding whiskey and brandy.
“I hope that what comes of it will be to add some jobs in the area and enhance our tourism efforts,” he said. “I’d like to see distilling, as a craft, start to develop more in Mount Airy.”
He said he sees no ethical problems with his former life as a monk and his current life as a distiller.
“Many of our monasteries, especially in Europe, continue to have distilleries,” he said. “In many areas the only place to get your alcohol is a monastery.”
It’s all about being happy and spreading love, McCoy said.
“If there were one central theme of my life it would be to seek the good in other,” he said. “That’s the classical definition of love.
“What I hope is to continue inspiring others to live and love well.”
Keith Strange can be reached at 336-719-1929 or via Twitter @strangereporter.