Moonshine As A Business (Plus Free Moonshine Recipe)
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. - Before he moved to North Carolina in the mid-`90s, Joseph Michalek's New York buddies kidded him about coming to the land of moonshine and Mayberry.
Within months of arriving in Winston-Salem, he began to notice a glass jar quietly being passed around at bluegrass festivals and race tracks.
"I'd never seen nor tasted moonshine, but it was pretty obvious that's what it was," said Michalek, 38. "I was prepared for the worst, but I sipped it and it was delicious, much smoother than I expected. It had a hint of fruit in it; I'd never tasted anything quite like it."
What Michalek tasted was a moonshine "hybrid," which has grown in popularity in recent years at barbecues and ballgames throughout the Carolinas - usually offered from a friend's back-pocket flask. The corn whiskey infused with local peaches, apples, cherries or strawberries is sweeter and smoother than the 180-proof, clear liquor with a bouquet of paint thinner.
Old-timers call the fruit-infused liquor sissyshine.
"You'd be surprised at who's drinking that stuff too," said Arthur Black, a South Carolina peach farmer. "It ain't farmers in overalls; it's yuppies in places like Charlotte."
Michalek saw a business opportunity.
In 2005, he started Piedmont Distillers in Madison, north of Greensboro - the first legal distillery in the Carolinas since before Prohibition.
Michalek produces Catdaddy: Carolina Moonshine, which is being sold in more than 200 North Carolina ABC liquor stores and outlets in York County, S.C. Catdaddy is moonshiner slang for the "best of the best."
He won't divulge his startup costs or his sales, but it's now being sold in a half-dozen states. Last year Piedmont sponsored a NASCAR Nextel Cup Series race car. Michalek works with four full-time employees.
He produces Catdaddy in small batches - 300 gallons, triple-distilled in a German copper pot still. A batch yields about 1,500 bottles, which are filled, corked and packaged by hand in Madison's former train station. A 750 milliliter bottle costs $19.95.
He says his liquor mixes well - he has recipes for a Moonshine Martini (Catdaddy, orange vodka, triple sec, cranberry juice and a splash of lime) and a Who's Your Daddy (one part Catdaddy and one part Irish Creme).
Real moonshine comes in two "flavors" - legal and illegal. The essential difference is one is taxed and one is not.
You can go into most any liquor store and buy moonshine such as Georgia Moon Corn Whiskey, Platte Valley Corn Whiskey or Catdaddy. The federal tax on a gallon of whiskey is $15.50.
It is legal to own a still; you can buy one online for less than $800. If you want to produce any alcohol in your still, you need a federal permit. Under the alternative fuels law, you can make up to 10,000 gallons a year of ethanol, which can power engines when mixed with gasoline.
"Yes, you can have a still, but it must be permitted and you can produce spirits for fuel use only," said Art Resnick, director of public and media affairs for the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau of the U.S. Treasury Department. "Let's make this perfectly clear: It's illegal to make moonshine, which is untaxed spirits."
Even if a person wanted to make moonshine at home and pay federal taxes, it's not that simple. It requires a federal distiller's license and is cost-prohibitive for anything other than a business.
On Michalek's journey to become a distiller, he says he gotten some curious looks as a "fast-talking Yankee with a hard-to-pronounce last name" asking questions about the production of moonshine.
"But I was interested in the high-grade premium stuff, and once people understood I respected the quality of their product, they opened up," he said. "They take a lot of pride in making good whiskey. It's truly becoming a lost art."
What Michalek learned was that he wasn't interested in the old-style, 180-proof stuff with enough "bite" to take the chrome off a trailer hitch.
"I don't see how anyone can drink that stuff; it should be illegal," he joked.
Catdaddy is moonshine, but it's not straight corn whiskey.
"It's flavored moonshine. A lot of homemade moonshine is fruit-infused, and our recipe is too, but we've added two more flavors to make it unique," said Michalek, who brought the proof down to 80 to make it smoother.
True to his craft, Michalek won't identify the three flavors he adds, other than to say it's a fruit with spices similar to vanilla and cinnamon.
Davis Clark of York, S.C., grew up on a farm and had his share of the old-style moonshine.
"But in those days, you drank what you could find; poor folks couldn't afford no `government' whiskey," said Clark, 63. "But here recently I've been seeing more fruit in the jars as the proof has been coming down. That's what the younger folks want these days. That old shine is like the folks that drank it - dead and gone."
MOONSHINE FACTS AND LORE
History: Moonshining dates 300 years to the Scots-Irish who settled in the Carolinas. Making moonshine originated in the Scottish highlands with farmers who used excess grains such as corn to ferment into liquor. The reason many of them came to America was high taxation on property, such as whiskey, and religious persecution.
A basic moonshine recipe calls for 5 gallons of sweet feed (grains such as corn mixed with molasses); one package of distillers' yeast; 5 pounds of sugar and water. It's basically mixed together with warm water and allowed to ferment for several days. The fermented brew is then filtered and run through the distilling process or the still. More moonshine drink recipes can be found at www.catdaddymoonshine.com.
Slang terms: White lightning, kickapoo joy juice, popskull, ruckus juice, mountain dew, happy Sally, hillbilly pop and panther's breath.
The name: The production and transportation of illegal or untaxed whiskey was done primarily at night.
A Web site on the history and lore of moonshine was done by a group of the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill students in the mid-1990s for a cyber publishing class. Their description of moonshine's potency: "One drop will make a rabbit whip a bulldog." www.ibiblio.org/moonshine
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