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Hillbilly Stills: A dream come true

BY DAVID ZOELLER dzoeller@paducahsun.com

BARLOW - Mike Haney admits he always dreamed of having his own business, but he thought it was just that â “ a dream.

He was content working at NewPage paper mill. He and his wife, Aimee, enjoyed traveling. Then one day in 2009 Aimee was diagnosed with severe rheumatoid arthritis.

"Our days of traveling came to a stop," he said.

Haney had to miss work some days to take his wife to the doctor and things of that nature. And, at some point, he had an idea for a product no one else was making.

What started with some tinkering in his garage, and a video on YouTube, has grown into a business with 11 full-time employees and an international clientèle. That business, Hillbilly Stills, was recognized by the Paducah Area Chamber of Commerce and Ballard County Economic & Industrial Development Board as an Entrepreneur of the Month winner for June along with Two Rivers Fisheries.

"I had done some research on buying stills in a few places. But they weren't very good," Haney said.

The video led to an order, and then one by one the volume increased.

"I was working as many hours at home as I was at the paper mill," said Haney. He started a website and offered a dozen products. The business kept growing.

"We came to a crossroads," he said.  "My wife and I sat down and discussed it. There was no way I could keep doing both, so we both agreed to go all in. We did it on our own dime."

Haney resigned from the paper mill in early 2011 after 32 years. The company now offers some 300 products. Hillbilly Stills products, which range from producing from eight up to 150 gallons, are shipped all over the world, Sweden, Australia, Germany, Canada, even Afghanistan. Several customers have won industry awards using his equipment, a source of pride.

"Ninety-eight percent of our business is online," Haney said. "We couldn't survive with a brick-and-mortar store."

The company sells "everything you need to open a distillery except sugar and water," Haney said. Individuals can get a small fuel plant producer's permit to operate a still legally. Some customers, like farmers, can use the still to produce fuel. A permit can also be obtained for operating smaller distilleries, popular among hobbyists who like to produce their own beverage of choice.

"All whiskey, moonshine, vodka, whatever you want to call it, comes out as clear ethanol," Haney said. "At a high enough proof, 180 or about, it does make a good fuel. To consume it you have to proof it back to around (to around 100)."

Part of Hillbilly Stills' customer base are "preppers," citizens like those featured on shows such as National Geographic Channel's "Doomsday Preppers," who are concerned about survival and self-sufficiency.

"They're preparing for the day when the economy fails, or if we're attacked," Haney said. "They're preparing for whatever may come."

Haney is preparing to keep his bustling business running smoothly. He offers his employees, who he considers like family, health insurance and related benefits, and a savings plan.

Part of his business family is family. His son Matt is vice president and oversees production. Haney himself is now more involved in sales and marketing and promotion looking after the company's social media platforms. His wife "works for free," he jokes.

"This really is an American dream," Haney said. "I thought I'd work at the paper mill all my life. I figured that was the end of the road for me, and it was a good living. Everyone dreams of having their own business ... I never dreamed it would happen."

Contact David Zoeller, a Paducah Sun staff writer, at 270-575-8676.

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