Shine On: Moonshine's Mystique

Distillers Betting On 'Boutique' Versions of Hooch

Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 4, 2008; Page F01

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."

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