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.
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."
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."
Southern chefs, jumping on the eat-local bandwagon, also are incorporating the classic Southern hooch. Jared Lee at Noble's Grille in Winston-Salem adds Midnight Moon to the sauce for shrimp and grits. Soiree in Mooresville, N.C., puts Catdaddy in French onion soup, while Blue 5 in Roanoke adds it to the glaze for its Moonshine Chicken.
While reading the article I couldn't help but see many similarities between the up and coming legal moonshine business and the early craft beer movement. In both cases, legitimate businesses are now creating legal versions of once illegal beverages. Producers of both craft beer and moonshine are dealing with products bearing ignoble preconceived reputations and working successfully to raise the image of the beverages in the eyes of consumers. And just as craft beer is being recognized by chefs as an accepted ingredient for cooking, so is boutique moonshine. To complete this exercise, how long before craft brewers begin aging their beers in barrels that once were used for aging moonshine?
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