How moonshine became the new luxury spirit

And is fuelling a whisky renaissance.

"Moonshiners are united in a solid mistrust of the government", distiller Justin King proclaims. He’s the master with the secret recipe for Ole Smoky moonshine, also known as hooch, white lightning or, as the industry calls it, unaged corn whisky.

Diehards say the high-proof distilled spirit should only be called moonshine if produced illicitly, but the legal version, made from corn mash, is leading a whisky renaissance in America. And the mystique of moonshine is part of its popularity. Author and journalist Max Watman, who chronicled the history of it in his book Chasing the White Dog, says the cachet of illegal moonshine is the bit of outlaw it carries, yet without the stigma. 

"You get to dabble on the other side of the law, but your friends, your in-laws, your boss won’t think badly of you for doing so," he explains. "One can show up with a mason jar of moonshine and get a little frisson out of that, take a quick detour into lawlessness without serious social consequence."

Commercial distillers large and small are tapping into that. In the last three years, artisan producers in New York, New England, California and other states have been marketing their ’shine to sophisticated consumers driving the push for "farm to table" goods.

"Throughout America, there are people who want to connect to their sources. They want to eat and drink things that are produced locally, by people they can name, people they might meet. This is true at farmers’ markets as well as liquor stores. That’s a driving force for small-scale distilling," says Watman.

Another driving force for the entire moonshine market is the entrance of Jim Beam’s Jacob’s Ghost white whiskey, helping to define this new category.

"It’s a local point of pride, a big part of eastern Tennessee family tradition," says Robert Cremins, a college student from Knoxville. Many in the region identify themselves with moonshine, Cremins says. "I grew up hearing stories about moonshine."

In the land that surrounds the lush Smoky Mountains, with their towering white pine trees, moonshine — or whatever you call it — has a rich heritage. Neighbouring states also lay claim to the moonshine tradition, "but the one that centres around the Smoky Mountains is the most traditional," says Watman, who grew up in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley.

"Some regions like southern Virginia clasped on to the historical aspect of moonshine to try to promote it, but it hasn’t become as central to the character of the region as it has with the Smoky Mountains. In eastern Tennessee and the Smokies, you find people who respect the production of moonshine as a craft and its folkloric traditions. That’s what’s different about it."

That history has even been memorialised in Rocky Top, one of Tennessee’s state songs, which references moonshine stills hidden in the hills. But until four years ago, tough laws made it virtually impossible for distillers outside three counties to get a licence for alcohol production. Entrepreneur Jim Massey acted as an independent lobbyist to change the law in 2009, making it easier for small distillers to enter the market.

"It was less about alcohol production and more about a business we’re famous for, that we have a competitive advantage in,’ Massey says. His efforts were well-timed, coming as Tennessee and other states were looking for ways to generate taxable revenue and job growth to fight the recession.

Joe Baker, a criminal lawyer who traces his roots to the earliest settlers of eastern Tennessee, corralled two lawyer buddies to open the Ole Smoky distillery in Gatlinburg. Most of the town’s 4,000 residents earn their living from the tourists who come for the Smoky Mountains and the endless fudge shops. 

"I thought it would be cool if we could do something involving moonshine and tourism and share this heritage,’ Baker says. ‘We have an incredibly rich history with making liquor, and a lot of it stems from the land and the geography. It’s an important part of who we are.’ Baker’s own family moonshine recipe is 200 years old.

Of course, moonshine has long been important to the local economy. The forested mountains were a canopy for Baker’s ancestors and other moonshine distillers who made their home in the Smokies. Many of them were immigrants from Scotland and Ireland who settled in the area for its familiar terrain, well before the mountains were named a national park. Undocumented rumours have it that Al Capone used to store his liquor in the Smokies during prohibition before transporting it to Chicago.

Ole Smoky’s distiller Justin King says that beyond a traditional recipe, families also made a flavoured moonshine called Apple Pie, a more palatable version: "Every east Tennessean has their own version of Apple Pie moonshine, what it tastes like, what proof it is." The recipe is basically cinnamon, apple juice, apple cider and a few spices — it tastes like a sweet after-dinner drink. The flavouring extends to other locally grown fruits, like cherries or peaches soaked in moonshine, King says.

"For Christmas, my family always used to give out moonshine cherries," he says. "A lot of people down here are poor, so to give a jar of moonshine cherries or peaches was a nice thing. Any fruit we could find, we would use."

That connection between farmers and distillers is still thriving and has helped many battle the recession, says Max Watman. "It’s a market that’s very focused on staying local. I can’t tell you how many stories I’ve heard about peach farmers’ crops being knocked down by a storm and the local distillery buying up that fallen crop because they don’t care what the peaches look like."

Baker sources his corn locally and employs more than 150 people. And there are tangential economic impacts — such as the glass jars and paper labels he buys for his spirits from local producers and the truck drivers paid to deliver the goods. The packaging is decidedly simple: glass mason jars, in which moonshine was traditionally served, celebrating the ritual of ‘passing the jar’ round at gatherings of family and friends. 

As for Baker’s hopes to marry tourism with moonshine heritage, the proof is in the dozens of tourists sitting in rocking chairs outside Ole Smoky’s bottle shop on Gatlinburg’s main street, toe-tapping to the daily bluegrass band — no purchase necessary. Inside, hordes of people crowd the tasting room. Baker has created one of America’s most visited distilleries, distributing to 49 states.

For moonshine proponents such as Massey, Ole Smoky’s success is the ultimate payoff. "Just look at Ole Smoky,’ he says. "They have more tourists coming through their craft distillery than Jack Daniel’s in Lynchburg."

Amy Guttman is a writer at Spears. This piece first appeared in Spear's Magazine.

"Moonshiners are united in a solid mistrust of the government". Photograph: Getty Images

This is a story from the team at Spears magazine.

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I can’t follow Marie Kondo's advice – even an empty Wotsits packet “sparks joy” in me

I thought I’d give her loopy, OCD theories a go, but when I held up an empty Wotsits bag I was suffused with so many happy memories of the time we’d spent together that I couldn’t bear to throw it away.

I have been brooding lately on the Japanese tidying freak Marie Kondo. (I forgot her name so I typed “Japanese tidying freak” into Google, and it was a great help.) The “Japanese” bit is excusable in this context, and explains a bit, as I gather Japan is more on the case with the whole “being tidy” thing than Britain, but still.

Apart from telling us that we need to take an enormous amount of care, to the point where we perform origami when we fold our underpants, which is pretty much where she lost me, she advises us to throw away anything that does not, when you hold it, “spark joy”. Perhaps I have too much joy in my life. I thought I’d give her loopy, OCD theories a go, but when I held up an empty Wotsits bag I was suffused with so many happy memories of the time we’d spent together that I couldn’t bear to throw it away.

After a while I gave up on this because I was getting a bit too happy with all the memories, so then I thought to myself, about her: “This is someone who isn’t getting laid enough,” and then I decided that was a crude and ungallant thought, and besides, who am I to wag the finger? At least if she invites someone to her bedroom no one is going to run screaming from it, as they would if I invited anyone to my boudoir. (Etym: from the French “bouder”, to sulk. How very apt in my case.) Marie Kondo – should bizarre circumstance ever conspire to bring her to the threshold – would run screaming from the Hovel before she’d even alighted the stairs from the front door.

I contemplate my bedroom. As I write, the cleaning lady is in it. To say that I have to spend half an hour cleaning out empty Wotsits packets, and indeed wotnot, before I let her in there should give you some idea of how shameful it has got. And even then I have to pay her to do so.

A girlfriend who used to be referred to often in these pages, though I think the term should be a rather less flippant one than “girlfriend”, managed to get round my natural messiness problem by inventing a game called “keep or chuck”.

She even made up a theme song for it, to the tune from the old Spiderman TV show. She would show me some object, which was not really rubbish, but usually a book (it may not surprise you to learn that it is the piles of books that cause most of the clutter here), and say, “Keep or chuck?” in the manner of a high-speed game show host. At one point I vacillated and so she then pointed at herself and said, “Keep or chuck?” I got the message.

These days the chances of a woman getting into the bedroom are remote. For one thing, you can’t just walk down the street and whistle for one much as one would hail a cab, although my daughter is often baffled by my ability to attract females, and suspects I have some kind of “mind ray”. Well, if I ever did it’s on the blink now, and not only that – right now, I’m not even particularly bothered that it’s on the blink. Because, for another thing, I would frankly not care to inflict myself upon anyone else at the moment.

It was all a bit of a giggle eight years ago, when I was wheeled out of the family home and left to my own devices. Of course, when I say “a bit of a giggle”, I mean “terrifying and miserable”, but I had rather fewer miles on the clock than I do now, and a man can, I think, get away with a little bit more scampish behaviour, and entertain a few more illusions about the future and his own plausibility as a character, when he is squarely in his mid-forties than when he is approaching, at speed, his middle fifties.

Death has rather a lot to do with it, I suppose. I had not actually seen, or touched, a dead body until I saw, and touched, my own father’s a few weeks ago. That’s what turns an abstract into a concrete reality. You finally put that to one side and gird up your loins – and then bloody David Bowie snuffs it, and you find yourself watching the videos for “Blackstar” and “Lazarus” over and over again, and reach the inescapable conclusion that death is not only incredibly unpleasant, it is also remorseless and very much nearer than you think.

And would you, dear reader, want to be involved with anyone who kept thinking along those lines? I mean, even if he learned how to fold his undercrackers into an upright cylinder, like a napkin at a fancy restaurant, before putting them in his drawer? When he doesn’t even have a drawer?

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war