Getting Your 'Shine On Is Becoming Increasingly Legal
Moonshine might bring to mind an illegal backwoods still in the mountains of the South, carefully hidden to evade authorities. In recent years, though, legal distilleries have been popping up in sort of a moonshine renaissance — and artisanal hooch is now a thing.
In Alabama, legal moonshine starts in an 80-gallon kettle in a horse barn in rural Bullock County. The man in charge is Jamie Ray.
"This where I'd steep the grain. I'll add a sack of rye to this ... Let it seep for a couple of hours and that converts the grain to a simple beer," Ray says.
After fermentation, some time to cook in the still and then condensation, Ray ends up with the clear, unaged whiskey known as moonshine. Last year, Ray and a business partner started High Ridge Spirits — Alabama's first legal distillery.
"We started with the original white 'shine; it's 100-proof," he says. "It's made with rye and sugar, which is the traditional recipe in this area."
Bullock County is known for illegal moonshine, and that nod to a backwoods heritage has helped fuel a wave of small distilleries opening up around the country in recent years.
"It has nostalgia to it," says Jaime Joyce, who wrote a recent book on moonshine. "It's got a story attached to it and it's so American in a way that's really appealing to people right now."
It's a story of poor, rural families subsisting on moonshine, particularly during the Great Depression, in the face of a big, mean government. Movies romanticized it; George Jones sang its praises.
Jones' "White Lightning" goes on to talk about a government agent hunting for a still. And even today, unless you have a license, it is illegal to distill your own whiskey.
Those who have secret stills "are breaking the law and they have to be caught and punished," says Dean Argo, a spokesman for the Alabama Alcoholic Beverage Control Board.
Since the early days of the country, law enforcement has gone after illegal distillers since they don't pay taxes on their products. Argo says Alabama saw a surge in tips about illegal activity, so the board created a moonshine task force last year. These are six full-time agents, affectionately known as "Still Team Six."
"They will go out into the woods, they will walk those trails and they will search until they find something or until they believe that the tip was erroneous," Argo says.
Argo says in the first year agents destroyed 27 stills. He doesn't expect the task force to end anytime soon.
Meanwhile, the legal trade is trying to find new converts.
At The J. Clyde, a pub in Birmingham, a bartender serves up High Ridge Spirits' moonshine in a cocktail called the Alabama honeymoon.
He drops in some honey, pours in the moonshine, adds lemon and then mixes it in a shaker. It's topped off with ice and a bit of local craft beer. The concoction is sweet and kind of sour, but with telltale burning of moonshine.
This fancy $10 cocktail is infused not just with lemon, honey and beer, but with fond nostalgia — which is giving this traditional underground drink a whole new appeal.
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