Monday, June 16, 2008

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Moonshine in the Mainstream

"Moonshine is the Amy Winehouse of the drinking set," Rowley said. "There is real genius afoot, but what a mess you have to crawl through to find it."

~ The Washington Post

The past few weeks have seen some growing mainstream interest in topics moonshiny.

First, there’s Jane Black’s piece Distillers Betting On 'Boutique' Versions of Hooch in the Washington Post that spotlights Joe Mahalek and his take on Carolina moonshine at Piedmont Distillers. Piedmont makes Midnight Moon, an homage to the moonshine of yesterear, backed with thumbs-up from Junior Johnson, one of NASCAR’s founding legends who earned his stripes running moonshine in the early days of stock car racing. They also put out Catdaddy, a spiced liquor that I’ve been playing around with lately.*

Second, there’s Robin Shulman’s take on an uptick in home distilling in New York: The Scene of the Crime Was an Upscale Suburb. I like the piece and found it completely in line with what I’ve experienced in the field meeting distillers from Europe and across North America. One quote, though, stuck out:

Enter the Brooklyn food blogger, who refuses to give his name for fear of legal repercussions, who mounts his still on top of his kitchen stove to take advantage of its steady gas flame.

He makes apple brandy from apple cider he fermented, distilling it to ramp up the alcohol content to 140 proof. He distills mead he first made from local buckwheat honey.

Hoping to pay back his college loans, he toyed last summer with the idea of making and selling absinthe, the "green fairy" long illegal in the United States, but his plans were stymied when he found out absinthe is now being imported legally.

I love this guy’s whole approach to products, including his plans to make a whiskey from “heirloom floor-malted Scottish barley” to the cast-iron grain mill he’s bought to crack the barley to the correct size. But I sprouted a tight-lipped smile at plans to sell his absinthe.

Moonshiners (those who make illicit spirits) and bootleggers (those who sell spirits—legal or not—under illicit circumstances) wouldn’t care one way or the other if someone wants to sell liquor…unless it’s in their stomping grounds, then there might be an anonymous call to the sheriff’s tip hotline.

But selling homemade liquor among the home distilling crowd? I can’t imagine something that’d turn a room of home distillers on you faster. Forget metaphors of red-headed stepchildren or having a raw steak tied to your head at a Michael Vick dogfight: the established hobbyists go bizooty when they hear newcomers planning to sell their makings and let the newbies know that they consider it a flagrant violation of an informal home distillers' code. I've seen it happen; it's quite impressive.

Sub rosa distillers don’t all talk to each other, though many of them do, and there’s still far from a common vocabulary to describe their equipment and products (no national moonshiner union to enforce standards, I suppose), but "don’t sell your makings" is one message that seems to have sunk in regardless of where I talk to them.

Of course, the article is ambiguous. Sell hausgemacht absinthe? Or sell legal licensed liquor? I like the sound of that. I’ve said it before: I can’t wait for the day when legal micro-distilleries are as common on the American landscape as craft breweries. In a trend that seems to grow more pronounced, yesterday’s home distillers are becoming licensed micro-distillers. Be patient with that homebrew, boys (and girls): You may get around to selling it eventually.

*Disclaimer: Piedmont Distillers is sponsoring a session I’m chairing at next month’s Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans. You’ll notice, however, that there’s no advertising on my blog, other than the occasional plug for my book. If I mention a product, well, it’s because I want to, not because I’m being paid for it. I'd mention Jane's article if for no other reason than I'm quoted and I've been accused of being a media darling. Or was that "ho?" I get them confused.

Goes well with:

  • Tom Wolf's 1965 essay "The Last American Hero is Junior Johnson. Yes!" Even if you don't care for NASCAR or car racing, it's a fun read even after forty-three years:
    In this legend, here is a country boy, Junior Johnson, who learns to drive by running whiskey for his father, Johnson, Senior, one of the biggest copper-still operators of all time, up in Ingle Hollow, near North Wilkesboro, in northwestern North Carolina, and grows up to be a famous stock car racing driver, rich, grossing $100,000 in 1963, for example, respected, solid, idolized in his hometown and throughout the rural South.

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