Can you bottle the American spirit? A handful of startups and entrepreneurs in the Carolinas are trying. They’re doing it one batch at a time, through word-of-mouth distilling techniques that originated hundreds of years ago in Irish peat bogs and were perfected in the Appalachian woods during Prohibition.
Millennials, mixologists, all of Brooklyn, even moms and pops across the nation can’t get enough of backwater hootch. Yes, it’s happening: Moonshine is bucking its outlaw roots and going legit.
Arthur H. Boggs, III, better known around his hometown of Anderson, South Carolina, as Trey, relates the beginnings of Palmetto Distillery as most good Southern storytellers do, with a humorous and conflicted anecdote. According to Boggs, who founded the company with his brother Bryan in 2011, the last step in the state’s approval process for their business was a visit from an alcohol licensing and revenue enforcement officer who wanted to ensure the Boggs knew what they were doing. The "revenuer," as the old-timers call them, told the brothers that they had passed with flying colors. "He said, ‘You boys is all right’ and issued us the first distilling permit in South Carolina."
This contradiction — that a revenuer could simultaneously serve as an enforcer, quality controller, and seal of approval — underscores the long, complex history behind America’s contribution to native booze.
The Rise of Boomshine
Moonshine is having a moment. Following the 2008 recession, states across the country scrambled to find ways to stimulate business, create jobs, and gin up tax revenue. Many local governments found a partial solution in easing Prohibition-era restrictions on distilling hard alcohol. In recent years, small-batch distilleries have proliferated from Washington to Florida, with handcrafted gin and vodka leading the way (they take less time to produce), followed by bourbon and other aged whiskeys.
"It’s nothing but what already was," notes Boggs. "Shining was something people did to make a little money to get on by. When the lumber’s gone, when the coal’s gone, when there ain’t enough jobs, well, you do what you have to. The difference now is that the government went from cutting up the stills to taking a big cut of the profits." Growth in the domestic beverage industry has been steady for the past decade, but when drilling down into the data, small-batch spirits (bourbon and whiskey in particular) look like a rocket launch. Moonshine is experiencing some of the fastest growth — upwards of 250 percent per year. While the spirit represents only a miniscule percentage of the overall whiskey market, its runaway success has drawn notice, and big brands like Wild Turkey, Jim Beam, and Jack Daniels have all released their own versions. In 2011 Palmetto sold 5,000 cases of moonshine. Within three years, that number had jumped to 20,000. "We started shipping all over the place," Boggs says. "People just can’t get enough."
All This Boy Knows
Moonshining in the Carolinas runs deep. In 1934, more than 3,000 stills were busted by federal agents. As recently as 2013, a moonshine operation was discovered in Spartanburg County with thousands of gallons of product ready for distribution. In a nod to the link between moonshining and the community, Craig Bradley, the sheriff responsible for the bust, noted, "This is straight out of the old-timers. It’s a part of their heritage. This is history to their family." A neighbor, not pleased with the bust, commented, "This is all this boy knows." The Boggs embrace their tradition and consider Dock Boggs, a distant relative who moonshined to support his family, as part of the inspiration for starting Palmetto. But did Dock leave behind a recipe to follow? "Nah," says Trey. "There’s a lot of folks around here who don’t want what they know to go with them when they’re gone. If you’re from here, and know someone who knows someone, they’ll tell you about their business. We got some help from some boys down at the river — and, boy, did they know theirs."
Black Powder and Blue Flame
Across the Carolinas border and less than a hundred miles north from Boggs’ Palmetto Distillery is Asheville Distilling, one of three moonshine producers in Asheville, North Carolina. Founded by Troy Ball in 2011, the company specializes in moonshine and aged whiskey. Technically, moonshine isn’t so much a product as it is a legal status.
"Anything illegal, anything the government doesn’t get their tax on, that’s moonshine," says Ball. "Some people argue that legal producers should call it "white whiskey" instead of moonshine, but hardly anyone knows what white whiskey means."
Though moonshine is technically a whiskey, it’s similar to other clear spirits like gin and vodka in that it’s unaged and can be consumed the moment it comes out of the still. (Aging whiskey in charred, oak barrels is what gives it color and most of its flavor.) Moonshine gets its name from the illicit nature of its origins: Moonshiners typically ran stills at night in order to avoid detection by revenue officers.
Like all great American products, moonshine is the result of applying a simple process to whatever it is at hand. In this case, a brewer ferments corn, and sometimes rye, and yeast in water for a few days. During the soak, the yeast eats the grains’ sugars and fats and produces alcohol. The mixture is then heated to a point where the alcohol evaporates and separates from the water and solids, and then condenses as it cools. A moonshiner repeats this process until the alcohol is distilled to the desired proof or strength. The Xs on moonshine jugs note how many times the product has been run through the still.
Shiners who know their business can tell when the proof is right by shaking the liquid and observing the bubbles that form. Some use a trick originally devised by sailors in the British Navy and soak a bit of black powder in their moonshine. (If it still ignites, it means it's at least 40 percent alcohol by volume." A simple way to test if the batch is pure is to light some of the liquid on fire. A blue flame signifies pure ethanol alcohol, which is the goal. Orange or red flames signify methanol, a poison.
None of which is a concern to Ball, Boggs, or any number of the dozen or so legal moonshine distilleries that have popped up in the Carolinas in the past five years. We only use the pure heart of the run," says Ball, referring to the portion of the distillation that gets bottled. "Moonshine got a tastes-bad reputation during prohibition because people weren't cutting out the heads and tails. You don't want to mix the head and the heart, it'll leave a bad taste in your mouth." (The "head" is the first 10% or so of a moonshine run and contains methanol and other adulterants. The "tails" are fusel oils that begin to appear at the end of a batch.) Ball got a taste of the real stuff when she and her family relocated to Asheville from Texas and, on a get-to-know-you visit, a neighbor pulled out a Mason jar of moonshine. "I was surprised at how smooth it was," she recalls. "I just got obsessed and started experimenting in my kitchen." With help from a few locals, she perfected her recipe and decided she should start a distillery. "My husband thought I was crazy," she chuckles. "But now he’s the lead distiller."
At Asheville Distilling, Troy uses the same heritage corn that’s been farmed by the same family for generations. In the way varietal grapes impact the flavor of wine, the grains, along with the water and brewing process, give the whiskeys their distinct flavor. This level of care and attention is elevating moonshine to the top shelf. Once the poor cousin of the whiskey family, moonshine is elbowing its way to legitimacy in the beverage world, winning awards and capturing market share. "This is as American as it gets," exclaims Boggs. "Heritage, history — that’s moonshine. I mean, George Washington ‘shined!" But doesn’t that legitimacy somewhat diminish moonshine’s history and heritage? "Nah," he says. "As long as the government keeps taking 60 percent of the sticker price, people are gonna keep ‘shinin’ in the Carolinas."
Find a few of our favorite moonshine makers:
Illustrations by Seth Lucas