Whether you call it moonshine, White Lightning, Hooch, White Dog, or just plain Likker, anyone who has deep Southern roots has taken a swig of it from a glass jar — perhaps one passed around at a bluegrass concert, at the back of a gas station, or at a fraternity party.
Moonshine corn whiskey is a snatch-your-breath-away alcohol with a high-proof kick that conjures up images of revenuers chasing bootleggers at high speeds around curvy Appalachian roads. Moonshine is the mother of NASCAR, the impetus for the original drivers.
Nut moonshine was illegal and at times hazardous. Back in the day, the way to test whether moonshine was "safe" was to stick a thumb in the mixture and set it "afire." If the flame burned blue, the moonshine was declared "safe" or at least not tainted. Don't ask me how I know this.
Moonshine wasn't always illegal. The Scots-Irish immigrants who moved to the South in the 1700s had made Irish whiskey and Scotch for generations in Europe and continued to make alcohol here. But following the Civil War, taxes were imposed on liquor. Folks started making their recipes in secret — typically under the light of the moon — since corn, the grain used in moonshine, was more profitable when sold as alcohol rather than as a grain. Fifty years later, Prohibition made all alcohol illegal, and thus another opportunity for moonshiners was created. Today, it's believed that old family recipes are still made in this underground industry throughout the South.
Small micro-distilleries, though, are now selling moonshine, aka White Whiskey, legally. Piedmont Distillers (www.piedmontdistillers.com) in Madison, N.C., about 100 miles northeast of Charlotte, produced their first Catdaddy Carolina Moonshine in 2005. Owner and native New Yorker Joe Michalek had found a dormant liquor-manufacturing license and then bought the associated property with an intact license. Michalek became the first legal whiskey distiller in the state. Then in 2007, racing legend, former bootleg-runner and NASCAR Hall of Famer Junior Johnson became part owner of Piedmont Distillers. His Midnight Moon is made in a copper still from a generations-old, Johnson family recipe. Some bottles in the N.C. ABC stores are signed by Johnson.
Midnight Moon has expanded into flavors. The Midnight Moon Apple Pie has moonshine, fresh-pressed apple juice, and a cinnamon stick in the 750 ml mason jar. This intensively spiced but smooth liquor is made in small batches and is triple-distilled. The other fruit-infused moonshines are strawberry, maraschino (not sweet) cherries that have been soaked in 100-proof moonshine, cranberry, and the new blueberry.
In addition to North Carolina, several Southern states now have legal moonshine distilleries: Kentucky, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia. Tennessee's first legal moonshine distillery, Ole Smoky's Original Moonshine (100-proof "sippin' moonshine"), opened last summer. Other states are producing moonshine, too, including Missouri, Montana, New York, Oregon and Wisconsin.
Due to its illicit past, moonshine didn't ever have the luxury of aging. However, even though not aged, legally distilled moonshine has an unexpected smoothness yet rustic quality similar to unaged white cachaça, the popular Brazilian rum-like spirit used in the Brazilian caipirinha, or a Dutch gin, which is distilled in a pot.
Piedmont Distillers host tours of their distillery from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. on the last Friday of the month from August through June. (The next tour is Aug. 26.) Reservations must be made. The distillery is closed the last Friday of each July for the annual Carolina 'Shinefest in Madison, N.C., sponsored by the Southern Culture Society (www.southernculturesociety.org).