Thirsty Writer, Libations Marketer
Published in the November 2012 issue of Beverage Media, also online.
Scenes from Ole Smoky, the first licensed distillery in the history of East Tennessee
Moonshine, at its roots, was simply a term for illegal booze made by unlicensed distillers, historically in the Appalachian region of the South. It was mostly made from corn, unaged for quick distribution and consumption. Today, this clear spirit’s rather colorful (and shady) history makes it ripe for perhaps the most authentic marketing in the spirits business—and a fine target for drinkers seeking something truly novel.
Legal moonshine (a contradiction in terms) is commonly sold as unaged white whiskey or “white dog,” though it’s little surprise that many producers prefer the more illicit description. Joe Baker, proprietor of Ole Smoky Moonshine, explains: “We call our product moonshine because we make it the same way families have always done it here in Tennessee. They called it moonshine so that’s what we know to call it.”
Southern states have a built-in appreciation for moonshine as part of their culture. Appalachian-born brands like Popcorn Sutton, Stillhouse, Catdaddy, Midnight Moon, Georgia Moon, Virginia Lightning and Ole Smoky draw from their collective family and regional recipes, with stories of fast cars and jail terms adding to their allure. Liquor Barn, located off Interstate 75 in Caryville, TN, proclaims itself as “moonshine headquarters” on billboards that attract tourists and locals by the carload. Moonshine sales there are second only to bourbon; Popcorn Sutton is the top-selling brand, followed by Ole Smoky, says manager Patrick Silcox. “Everybody’s looking to buy moonshine. Some of it’s the marketing, some want to just buy a souvenir and many just want to know what it tastes like,” says Silcox. His customers range from 21-70 years old, male and female, though the women tend to prefer the flavors.
Silcox tastes a lot of moonshine, and says you can tell a good one by its smooth sip and “the way it heats up your stomach, like a bourbon.” He insists the difference in flavors between moonshine brands is palpable—more so than vodka, because of the various recipes. Ole Smoky has corn sweetness, Goodtime (from Georgia) has notes of cane sugar, and Popcorn Sutton “tastes like something you would get in the back woods.” In Missouri, Steve Drda at Randall’s Wine and Spirits (which has four locations in the St. Louis area) sees the trend already reaching a plateau after a summer spike: “We have 22 SKUs of white whiskey; plain does slightly better than flavored, with cherry being the best selling of the flavors. Personally, I think the white whiskey sales will die off sooner than later,” he says.
Ron Vaughn from Denver’s Argonaut Wine & Liquor is not ready to say moonshine has peaked. He cites the “bad boy image” of moonshine as a sales benefit: “Our sales are probably double what they were last year; while on a small base, it’s still a 100% increase. The new TV show Moonshiners [Discovery Channel] and the movie Lawless [based on Matt Bondurant’s 2008 novel The Wettest County in the World] have certainly increased interest.”
Upscaling the Downhome Recipe
By any name, modern moonshine qualifies as a craft spirit, made attentively, often in small batches. Like vodka and gin, white whiskey can be bottled and sold quickly—no aging required. This also gives craft distillers a chance to show their skills and highlight regional flavor (dare we say terroir?) without the barrel—like Tuthilltown’s Hudson New York Corn Whiskey made from local state corn, and Death’s Door White Whiskey, made from hard red winter wheat harvested from Washington Island, WI.
Many of these craft distillers are experimenting with grains and processes to create products unlike anything on the market. One unique distinction in the moonshine distillation process is the addition of sugar into the mash prior to fermentation. MB Roland Distillery’s True Kentucky Shine uses this process with white corn to create notes of citrus and apple peel. They also make two corn whiskies, White Dog and Black Dog, the latter using corn that is “dark fired” in a small tobacco barn that gives the final product a smoky flavor similar to Islay Scotch whiskies. Corsair Distillery set up shop in Kentucky to produce Wry Moon unaged Kentucky whiskey, pot-distilled from 100% rye. When the laws changed in Tennessee, they expanded their operation to Nashville. Utah’s High West Distillery makes an unaged oat whiskey they compare to a blanco tequila; Western Oat Silver Whiskey has a mash bill containing 85% oats and 15% barley malt. They also produce OMG Pure Rye, made from 80% rye and 20% malted rye. And Woodinville Whiskey Company in Washington makes Headlong White Dog Whiskey from a bourbon mash bill of corn, wheat and malted barley.
Though the TTB does not recognize unaged white whiskey as a category, research firms like Technomic track corn whiskey, which grew 60% in 2011 to reach 80,000 9L cases nationally. Midnight Moon posted the largest gain, going from 7,000 to 30,000 cases in 2011. But the shelves are getting crowded, and this isn’t necessarily going to be an easy point of entry. Joy Richard, bar and beverage manager at Boston-based Franklin Restaurant Group, says “I think distilleries are going to have to pull out all the stops when it comes to offering interesting options.”
Flavors are already playing a major role in the moonshine genre. Midnight Moon and Ole Smoky use mason-jar-shaped packaging to showcase assorted fruits. Philadelphia Distilling’s XXX SHINE has added a salted caramel flavor to its original 88.8 proof blend of hand-selected American corn distilled three (XXX) times in a copper pot still.
Even established brands have begun to introduce white whiskies, mainly as a way to showcase the aged versions in their infancy. Buffalo Trace makes a 125 proof corn, rye and barley White Dog Mash #1. In addition to their value-priced 80 proof Georgia Moon Corn Whiskey, Heaven Hill introduced a new series called Trybox. These New Make white whiskies are taken straight off the still and bottled at 125 proof—a chance for consumers to try known aged whiskies in their pre-barrel raw stage. For example, Trybox original New Make would become Evan Williams Straight Bourbon; and the Rye New Make would become Rittenhouse Rye.
When it comes to telling moonshine’s story to prospective consumers, the spirit’s hard-edged reputation seems to have real staying power. Marvin “Popcorn” Sutton, who died in 2009 by his own hand rather than spend 18 months in prison for selling untaxed whiskey, was known as the most famous moonshiner in the moonshining capital of Cocke County, TN. He epitomized everything people loved—and hated—about illegal distilling. A natural born marketer, he published a book, Me and My Likker, and was featured in the cult hit documentary This is the Last Dam Run of Likker I’ll Ever Make. Right before his death, he met Jamey Grosser, a former motorcross racer, and sold his moonshine recipe. Hank Williams Jr. joined as a partner and they set up a distillery in Nashville, recreating the famous Popcorn Sutton moonshine as a legal Tennessee White Whiskey.
Piedmont Distillers out of North Carolina (makers of Catdaddy Spiced Moonshine and Midnight Moon) had a 200% increase in sales in the first half of 2012 to 50,000 9L cases. Founder Joe Mihalek—the first craft distiller to introduce a legal moonshine, Catdaddy, in 2005—admits people were skeptical in the beginning. But a partnership with legendary moonshiner and professional driver Junior Johnson in 2007 not only secured his family recipe, but the marketing muscle of NASCAR fans. As legend goes, the sport came about in the 1930s, when moonshiners began engineering their cars to go faster and outrun the police. Junior Johnson was one of the early adopters of NASCAR, and the first track was built in his hometown of Wilkesboro, North Carolina.
The line of Junior Johnson’s all-natural Midnight Moon Fruit Inclusions was introduced in 2010. Made from original 100-proof Midnight Moon, real pieces of fruit are infused in traditional moonshine jars, adding to the homegrown appeal. Flavors include Apple Pie, Cherry, Strawberry, Blueberry, Cranberry and Blackberry.
When Tennessee began allowing spirits production across new counties in 2009, a group of local families joined together to create Ole Smoky Moonshine. With recipes passed down for generations, the 100-proof line includes a traditional corn whiskey for sipping (made from 80% corn and the rest secret); White Lightnin’, a smoother version made for cocktails; and fruit infusions Apple Pie and Cherry, as well as seasonal flavors available only at the distillery (Blueberry, Grape Hunch Punch, Lemon Drop, Pink Lemonade, Strawberry).
Despite the popularity of vodka, it’s a difficult leap of faith for many consumers to try white whiskey. With stronger flavors and often higher proofs, it’s also hard pigeonhole white whiskey and moonshine into a one-taste-fits-all category. Like aged whiskies, there are many aspects of ingredients, origin and technique that go in to the final product.
As we progress in the golden age of American whiskey, education and exploration are on the rise, which should help buoy the already rising tide of white whiskey.