By Jane Black
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 4, 2008
MADISON, N.C. -- Joe Mahalek had mixed feelings the first time someone brought out the moonshine and offered him a glass at a Winston-Salem blues festival. The New York transplant was intrigued, yes, but also nervous. He'd heard that moonshine, also known as rotgut, white lightning and panther's breath, can blind or kill you.
Mahalek, then a marketing executive for R.J. Reynolds, accepted the glass but didn't immediately sip, watching warily as others drank. When after a few minutes everyone looked fine -- happy, even -- he tasted the clear liquor. It was strong but smooth, with a hint of peach. Mahalek hadn't expected moonshine to taste like that. Nor did he think for a moment that making moonshine would one day be his full-time job.
The word "moonshine" conjures bootleggers and fast cars, mobsters and flappers. If Mahalek has his way, drinkers instead will associate it with concepts such as premium, smooth and $14 cocktail. His company, Piedmont Distillers, has launched two brands: Catdaddy is a flavored product redolent of nutmeg and vanilla (though Mahalek denies that either is on the secret list of ingredients); Junior Johnson's Midnight Moon -- named for the bootlegger, granddaddy of NASCAR and Last American Hero -- is more traditional, with a brisk, clean flavor. "When you say the word 'moonshine' and every head turns, you know you've got a powerful story," Mahalek says. "You've got their attention."
There's just one question: If it's legal, is it really moonshine?
"Boutique moonshine" technically is an oxymoron. By definition, moonshine is corn whiskey made in an unregistered still and sold untaxed. But such parsing is less important to mixologists than the desire to resurrect obscure spirits. First it was absinthe, the long-banned "green fairy" favored by artists such as Van Gogh. Then it was rye, the hick cousin of single-malt Scotch. Next up: moonshine.
Less than two years after launching, Piedmont Distillers' moonshine is sold in 13 states, including Virginia. Other craft distillers also have introduced legal versions of old-style "corn likker": There's Heaven Hill's Georgia Moon, Virginia Moonshine's Virginia Lightning and Clyde May's Conecuh Ridge, a whiskey aged in charred barrels. Cochon, a trendy restaurant in New Orleans, offers an entire moonshine menu. "It's American grappa," says Cochon's assistant general manager, Audrey Rodriguez, who assembled the restaurant's list.
That was Mahalek's vision. In 2002, after years of sampling illegal moonshine made by "friends and folk," he decided to create a legal version. He began collecting recipes and quietly asking friends if he could examine their stills. Initially, many were suspicious, but Mahalek says that eventually "someone would hook me up with their daddy or an uncle who made shine. It's a lot more prevalent than you think."
The next step was building and registering a distillery, a process that can involve endless red tape. But here, Mahalek got lucky. A European still manufacturer had recently installed a still in an old train depot in Madison, a town of 2,500 just 30 miles from Mahalek's home in Winston-Salem. The owners had obtained the required permits, intending to make grappa from the region's muscadine grapes. But the business had not gotten off the ground. Mahalek bought the distillery in 2004. In the fall of 2005 he introduced his first product, Catdaddy, Southern slang for "best of the best."
Catdaddy, a liquor with the aroma of creamy eggnog, was designed to compete for the attention of the flavored-vodka set. Less than a year later, Mahalek launched Junior Johnson's Midnight Moon, targeted at NASCAR fans.
For the uninitiated, Johnson is the legendary race car driver who learned his trade running moonshine for his daddy's bootleg business in Wilkes County. Later, Johnson, who now holds court for friends, fans and the occasional reporter in the workshop on his 278-acre property in nearby Yadkin County, says he ran his own whiskey operation. In its final days, it employed 75 people driving moonshine as far north as Philadelphia.
Johnson, 71, got out of the business in the mid-1950s, just as his racing career took off. But NASCAR stardom wasn't the lure that led Johnson to quit. "I could make more money running liquor than winning every race. I got out because there was a bounty on my head," he says. "It was only a matter of time before someone set me up." (Johnson did get arrested in 1956 and spent almost a year in a federal prison. President Reagan granted him a full pardon in 1986.)
Midnight Moon is Johnson's family recipe, known throughout North Carolina, he says, as the best shine available. "In tougher days, they used sugar cane or molasses. Those two made it so bad you couldn't hardly drink it," Johnson recalled. "Making good moonshine is like baking a cake. You use the best ingredients and the best methods. And don't slack on it."
Johnson had been approached by several distillers to attach his name to legal moonshine. (He already had a Southern food mini-empire, selling country hams, pork skins and more.) But he had shied away, worried that a substandard product would seal moonshine's bad reputation once and for all.
Mahalek's plan -- to stay true to moonshine's Carolina roots but "take it up a notch" -- appealed to Johnson. The result is a corn-based whiskey that's more akin to a premium vodka than to the stuff made in a still out back. Catdaddy and Midnight Moon are triple-distilled, a process that eliminates rough flavors and the famous burn associated with old-school shine. Both also are 80-proof, on par with most premium liquors though far weaker than traditional moonshine. "It's smoother" than what he used to make illegally, Johnson says. "We couldn't afford to distill more than once. We had to sell it as quick as we could get it in a jar."
Improving quality is essential if moonshine is to take off as a premium spirit, says Matthew B. Rowley, author of "Moonshine!" (Lark Books, 2007) and a historian of craft distillers. Moonshine may have a long history -- it was produced by the Scotch Irish who settled the Carolinas 400 years ago -- but it earned a deservedly bad reputation during Prohibition. With demand sky-high, unscrupulous bootleggers cut corners -- using sugar, not corn -- and sometimes used car radiators to condense the alcohol. The process produced high levels of lead and an undocumented number of fatalities.
There's still plenty of rotgut on the market today, and much of it is illegal. In November, federal agents raided a barn in Rocky Mount, Va., resulting in a 31-count indictment for, among other things, illegal production and sale of liquor. But craft distillers are slowly changing moonshine's reputation. "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."
It's worth the trouble for many distillers who increasingly see moonshine as a way to connect to their heritage. Italians in Philadelphia make grappa; distillers in New Orleans and San Francisco make absinthe, says Rowley. "You're not really a Southerner until you drink shine," he says.
The liquor is growing in popularity for another reason, says Audrey Rodriguez of New Orleans's Cochon: It offers a different kind of high. "Moonshine brings you up. It's like drinking an energy drink. When patrons leave, they are on cloud nine. And the hangover isn't nearly as bad as vodka and tequila." At Cochon, the moonshine is served neat or mixed with root beer.
Southern chefs, jumping on the eat-local bandwagon, also are incorporating the classic Southern hooch. Jared Lee at Noble's Grille in Winston-Salem adds Midnight Moon to the sauce for shrimp and grits. Soiree in Mooresville, N.C., puts Catdaddy in French onion soup, while Blue 5 in Roanoke adds it to the glaze for its Moonshine Chicken.
The success of legal moonshine has surprised no one more than Junior Johnson, who says he finds the idea of yuppies sipping moonshine cocktails kind of funny. (Johnson still drinks his with lemonade.) At the same time, no one could be more pleased: If the product takes off, that will disprove "a lot of the bad things about moonshine that wasn't true and was wrote about it. If you go about it right and be truthful, moonshine is something you can be proud to have your name on."