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.

Matt Forde
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Matt Forde: “Jeremy Corbyn and Theresa May are indistinguishable on Brexit”

The Dave host and former Labour adviser on why comedy is so much better than politics.

Matt Forde gave up his Labour Party membership after Jeremy Corbyn’s first leadership victory, according to Wikipedia, because he is a “committed Blairite”. Presented with that information two years later, the host of Dave’s satirical chat show Unspun, and former Labour adviser, says the description isn’t entirely accurate. “I left politics because I wanted to concentrate on my comedy career full-time. I’d always done both; I did my first gig when I was 16 and carried on doing them during my early activism. I guess when I was working for MPs and Labour, I didn’t have as much time and I wasn’t sure if it was appropriate. I also felt that the direction Labour was going in wasn’t for me. I don’t write my own Wikipedia page, in any case.” 

Forde’s admiration for Tony Blair, though, radiates off him. The ex-Prime Minister appeared as a guest on Unspun last year. Pressed on Blair’s legacy, Forde insists that it encompasses “far more than people care to admit” beyond the Iraq War. “I think a lot of people on the hard left would equate Blairism to Iraq and I really struggle with that," he says. "Millions of people voted for New Labour and millions of people still reflect on that period of politics in a positive way.

"Social justice was still at the core of New Labour. It was about tackling inequality and using the state to do that. But it was also about being pro-business, pro-Europe and having a pragmatic view of the world.” That Labour won three general elections on Blair’s watch, Forde suggests, is considered by some factions of the party to be an inconvenient truth.

The Nottingham-born comic believes Labour’s broad church represents a double-edged sword. On the one hand, the party’s lurch to the left has resulted in its biggest increase in the share of the vote by a party leader since Clement Attlee in 1945; on the other, the success is only relative, as it still hasn’t been enough to get back into government. For all the talk of renewed unity under Corbyn’s bright banner of socialism, Forde says there remains a distinct disunity regarding the party’s position on Brexit. “The thing is, on Brexit, Jeremy Corbyn and Theresa May are pretty much indistinguishable from each other," he says. "They will allow it to happen and deny us access to the single market. Brexit is the single biggest threat to our economy and society and I don’t feel like the scale of that issue is being reflected by the two major parties. It feels like those of us who do care about it and can see what a car crash it’s going to be are stood screaming behind a piece of soundproof glass.”

In fairness, the idea of a Labour split along European faultlines is not one that started with Corbyn. Aside from not being in government, what makes the current Labour squabbling different? Forde smirks. “I know there’s a view that Blair sort of hijacked Labour and rubbed a lot of noses in the dirt. The difference between that era and this one is that people like Corbyn and John McDonnell were actually allowed to rebel. They weren’t threatened with deselection for having a different opinion. The leadership and culture of the party at that time understood the broad church. At the end of the day, it was better to have a hard left MP in Islington than to deselect him and not have one at all. The idea that some Corbyn supporters would rather that a Blairite MP lost their seat is baffling.”

The Labour MP Chuka Umunna recently tabled an amendment on the Queen’s Speech calling for the UK to stay in the single market post-Brexit. Some shadow ministers decided to join him in defying the whip. Was Umunna right to table the amendment? “Yes, I think so,” says Forde. “We don’t have plurality right now. We’re too binary in Labour. There’s an idea that you’re either with us or against us. That’s not just immature, but deeply disrespectful to some very valuable assets in the party.” 

Arguing against Corbyn in the context of Europe does seem a bit of a moot point – “it shouldn’t” Forde objects – but it does. Whatever Corbyn’s perceived failings on Brexit are, he has mobilised a formidable youth wing and campaigned with immeasurably more verve than the current Prime Minister. Forde nods. “The Maybot did herself no favours, sure. He’s a natural campaigner and he deserves credit for that. Look, Corbyn is a nice guy. He’s affable; you can talk football with him. But as for the culture around him, that isn’t always the case.” 

Is Corbynism a cult? Forde sighs. “The problem with investing so emotionally in an individual is that all of your politics end up being processed through them. You suspend critical thought. You think that if this person represents what you believe, then they can never do anything wrong.” 

Corbyn, though, won’t be Labour leader forever. “Tell that to his supporters,” jokes Forde. What happens post-Corbynism? Who should be in the frame to take over? “I guess that depends on whether he does actually become  Prime Minister, which to be fair is a distinct possibility now. If he does, you might see the party want to stick with that far-left tract, but then what happens to the rest of us? You’ve already seen Paul Mason [the journalist and Corbyn supporter] telling centrists that if they want a pro-European centrist party then they should leave Labour. That’s horrendous.” 

Forde’s frustration with the Brexit imbroglio is forthright. It’s something that clearly troubles him and overarches his comedy. So, would he ever go back into politics himself? “I doubt it. Comedy is so much better. Politics is exhausting and for a lot of the time a thankless task that ages people at a rate that no other industry does.” At 68, incidentally, Jeremy Corbyn is entitled to retire. 

Matt Forde performs A Show Hastily Rewritten In Light Of Recent Events - Again! at Pleasance Forth at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe from 2-27 August.

 

Rohan Banerjee is a Special Projects Writer at the New Statesman. He co-hosts the No Country For Brown Men podcast.