A syrupy-slow twang, the kind that takes its sweet time to draw out vowels, answers the phone.
The man on the line is Andy Jordan. Five months ago he and his wife, Debi Dupuis, founded Moonshine Marketers in Robinsville, a mountain town with a population of about 620 in western North Carolina. The former convenience store owners said they own — they're unregistered with the state, so I have to take their word for it — a moonshine merchandise line and retail store and act as booking agents and managers for some of the cast of Discovery's popular reality TV show Moonshiners, which supposedly (though fans have challenged this) follows the lives of authentic Appalachia bootleggers. Jordan told me he recently reached out to the organizers of a popular barbecue and music festival in Charlotte to negotiate an appearance by some of the show's characters from North Carolina. Per usual, Jordan said, the appearance will also feature a homemade copper still — the pot bootleggers use to brew moonshine — fans can take pictures with.
Of all the moonshiner connections I phoned for this story — including one who claims to have stalked Ke$ha — Jordan is the only one with the sense to ask if I'm the law.
Moonshiners premiered in 2011, a year after the Prohibition-era drama Boardwalk Empire. The popular shows have revived intrigue in the American outlaw and his signature drink: moonshine.
Riding the wave of renewed interest in the illegal stuff, more and more legal distillers are starting to use "moonshine" to sell what is essentially either corn-based liquor made in-house, or colorless, flavorless ethanol purchased from a Midwest food processor and eventually infused with "natural" flavors like "strawberry" or "caramel." The final product — complete with a fancy label and a politically correct alcohol proof — lands in stores, taxed and all.
The purists and feds I spoke with agree: Moonshine is only moonshine if it is untaxed liquor. Yet, regardless of authenticity, Americans are lapping up store-shelf 'shine.
In 2010, the year Boardwalk premiered, 50,000 nine-liter cases of "moonshine" were sold in the United States, according to food-industry researcher Technomic. Two years later, that number had increased 160 percent to 130,000 cases. "Moonshine" is sold in liquor stores, clubs and restaurants. Ten Park Lanes, a popular bowling alley on Montford Drive, features a moonshine bar.
Suits sipping "moonshine" between bowling sets. TV cameras collecting footage of moonshiners next to their stills for millions to see. Bootleggers making guest appearances and requiring agents.
This is the commercial moonshine industry, and it's watering down a culture as Southern as sweet tea, as North Carolinian as NASCAR.
"Commercial moonshine, that is to say ethanol flavored as something else and flavored as a spirit, absolutely chips away at cultural capital," said distiller and spirits aficionado David Raad. "It's like Paula Dean frozen dinners."
TOWARD THE END of the 1700s, home distilling became a popular way to avoid high spirit taxes imposed after the Revolutionary War. So incensed were Americans at taxes, specifically any levied on whiskey, that in 1794 a group of western Pennsylvanian farmers attacked federal excise agents in what would come to be known as the Whiskey Rebellion.
At least 50 years before Prohibition, in areas of the Appalachians, Raad said, "There was a surplus of grains, corn, but no good road networks to get it on the market." Farmers had to find the value in their inventory, which meant distilling the corn into whiskey, a practice brought to America by their Scotch-Irish forbearers. Avoiding high liquor taxes was a bonus.
"There's a desire around here to not give unto Caesar what is his," said Raad, a South Carolina native.
Fast forward to 1920 and to Prohibition, which allowed home distillers to broaden their customer base. "Here are these guys and gals [distilling] for generations, and all of a sudden now, their product has a bigger market and more demand," Raad said.
These rag-tag farmers took to their land or densely forested mountains to make moonshine, an arduous process that involves boiling a mash of sugar and usually corn in a copper pot and distilling it through pipes and more pots. Bootleggers would take to the night to hide the smoke from the distillation process, aided only by the light of the moon.
Even 80 years after the end of Prohibition, moonshine is still being made the right way — the illegal way. Last year, N.C. Alcohol Law Enforcement agents busted 10 unregistered distilleries, charging as many people with 38 criminal violations. About 473 gallons of untaxed liquor, valued at $10,600, were seized.
In other words, moonshine has everything a good alcohol should, at least to the increasing number of companies that are selling it commercially: a sexy (marketable) story.
"Everything needs to have a story behind it or needs to have something that differentiates itself" to intrigue consumers, said Technomic Vice President Dave Henkes. "Straight vodka is great and the basis for a lot of drinks, but if you're a distiller or brand and you're looking to set yourself apart, it's what are you bringing new to the consumer."
There are those, mostly legal distilleries, who argue that moonshine is whatever comes straight off a still. It becomes something else when it's aged (whiskey or scotch).
Firefly, maker of a popular sweet-tea vodka, began distilling and selling moonshine commercially in February and now sells it in 39 states. Founder Jim Irvin said what he sells legally is exactly what he used to make recreationally, illegally.
"It's the same exact stuff, except we're legal and we pay the tax on it," Irvin said.
Aside from liquor distillers and moonshine agents, another business gripping its hands around the glass jar is Moonshine University. For $5,500, you can learn about distilling, even about the labelling process, during a five-day course at this Louisville, Ky.-based school. Moonshine University began last October and graduated its first class, 30 pupils from over 14 states and Canada, in January.
"Our primary goal is to provide educational opportunities for people looking to open a craft or artisan distiller," said operations manager Kevin Hall. So, I ask, if they encourage legal, not illegal, distilling, why the name? "People see it and they say, 'Oh, sounds fun.' It's a little tongue-in-cheek. We don't advocate anyone go out and buy a still and put it out in their garage and [do] it themselves."
Of course, companies don't have a moral obligation to maintain the sanctity of moonshine culture. Some just do because they respect it too much not to.
The Real Deal
Summer is creeping into Charlotte as I drive toward the state line, to South Carolina. Taking the suggestion of a noted moonshine aficionado in the bootlegging world, I'm heading south to speak with Raad and his business partner Robert "Farmer" Redmond, former Clemson University rugby teammates who founded Six and Twenty Distillery last year.
I arrive at a nondescript building just off Interstate 85 South that's void of wall decorations or much furniture; large copper stills nearly twice as tall as me and other accoutrements, including wooden barrels for aging the whiskey, are all the place has room for. Admittedly, I'm confused as to why a respected moonshine guy would point me in the direction of a legitimate distiller, but I heed his advice anyway. Moonshine folk don't like a lot of questions.
Redmond, the salesman and lead marketer, and Raad, the head distiller, are opposites. Raad is a chemist in every sense of the word — an intense guy who lights up when he discusses making alcohol. Redmond got his nickname "Farmer" in college after bringing some rotten tomatoes he had harvested to a rugby practice and instigating a food fight. Redmond folds his hands behind his head and lets Raad do most of the talking.
Raad worked as a consultant for a South African beer brewer and returned to the states in 2009 after the birth of his first child. He also returned with a new skill: In Africa, the company's brewmaster taught him the chemistry behind distilling. In his 20s, Raad had tinkered with home brewing — the legal, to an extent, way people make beer and wine at home — but grew fascinated by the more complicated spirits distillation process after he was given proper lessons. By the time he returned to South Carolina in early 2009, the state legislature was a few months away from allowing microdistilleries. Redmond invited Raad to a Christmas party, where they grabbed a bottle of 'shine floating around, crawled into Redmond's boat, and took pulls while discussing their passion — distilling, and what would eventually turn into Six and Twenty's business plan.
Redmond took a second mortgage out on his home, and he and Raad spent two years requesting licensing to create Six and Twenty. They were given the green light last October.
The pair laugh when I ask if Six and Twenty (named after a pre-Revolutionary War legend about a Native American and her British lover) pays their bills. Because microdistilleries are just catching on — and don't yet have the market share or political clout enjoyed by big distilleries — Six and Twenty's competition is essentially Jim Beam and Jack Daniels. And, because it's made in such small batches, Six and Twenty's is an expensive whiskey to make. Couple that with a costly distribution process and Raad and Redmond suspect it'll be at least two years before they turn a profit.
Money could have come easier. Redmond's great, great uncle is Major Louis Redmond, a notorious bootlegger from the Carolinas once featured on the History Channel. Like some commercial moonshine makers, Raad and Redmond could have named their business after Louis — putting his story front and center on a website, all to the tune of banjos — to push corn liquor flavored by professionals to recreate the flavors of nature. But they didn't.
"By the grace of God, I'm a part of this family. I'm a Redmond by name," Redmond said. "We never wanted to put the Louis Redmond story on the forefront. We didn't want to make our company about that legend, but we always knew it was in the background. We have more respect for real moonshine than to make something and call it something it's not. So, we make whiskey."
ALONG WITH dodging taxes, what makes moonshiners authentic is their handmade equipment: copper sheeting glued together with (sometimes poisonous) adhesive and pipes made from whatever's lying around. It seems a rudimentary process, yet it can be sophisticated, perfected by generations-old instructions.
A shiny new still just a few mouse clicks away from your doorstep may seem, to some, a touch modern.
Mike Haney and his son Matt Haney founded Hillbilly Stills in 2011. The company, based in Barlow, Ky., sells stills, pipes and other materials needed for home distilling. Mike argues it isn't so much the homegrown equipment that makes the moonshiner — it's his love of the process and the end result. Famous moonshiners of yore weren't so much popular for their ability to transport their product, though it certainly added to their appeal. They were famous because they made a high-quality 'shine that rolled over tongues like a slow-burning flame. Good moonshining is an art, Mike said.
I ask him if he's robbing from moonshine culture by selling stills legally.
"Maybe, somewhat," he said. But, "we're providing for people who want to do it badly but don't have the knowledge to sweat the copper, how to cut it and make your still do what it needs to do. Along those lines, we've perfected the still to the point to where, instead of running [spirit] two or three times, you can only run it through one time and it's really high quality."
If moonshining is an art, 30-something-year-old Christopher is but a humble student.
Christopher moved from a western state (he forbade me from saying which) to Charlotte to work at a high-end restaurant. Growing up where he did, he got involved in the medical marijuana industry. "So, I know what risk feels like," he said. Christopher's full name has been withheld to protect his identity.
He was introduced to North Carolina years before his move to Charlotte by way of Asheville, where he fell in love with mountain culture.
"It's amazing country," Christopher said. "You get to meet families that haven't changed, other than a few people who've been to the city, in a really long time."
So when he moved to Charlotte, he did as many North Carolinians do.
"I was basically moonshining at my house in NoDa," he said.
Over the phone — he has since moved out of state — Christopher tells me about the seasonal fruits and vegetables he'd procure from Charlotte-area farmers markets to use in his small batches of 'shine. He is part of a growing population of high-brow moonshiners, which — according to Mike Haney, Raad and Redmond — include everyone from doctors to lawyers, celebrities to businessmen (and women). They're the same guys (and gals) who home brew.
But even fancy additions to his 'shine, like charred oak and coarse yellow hominy, were never enough for Christopher to yield a batch smooth enough, fiery enough, to consider selling.
"I was proud of what I produced because it was mine, but not proud of the quality that came out," he said. "If I'd given my product to an old hill-country 'shine guy, it would have been the equivalent of giving an adult a drawing and him putting it on the fridge. That's the learning curve they have."
Why, then, would the high-end chef have gone through the trouble, put himself in the law's way, just to produce a few gallons of rudimentary moonshine a year?
"I always like doing something slightly illegal," Christopher said.
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