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The Suburbanite
  • Jim Hillibish: Mountain moonshine suddenly respectable

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  • Some still feel the hangover of the 2008 recession.
    In the interest of tax revenues, 46 states relaxed their liquor laws. The result was moonshine suddenly became street legal - even in grocery stores.
    Moonshine. That backwoods elixir of 100-proof grain alcohol, that premiere American instrument of tax evasion, that white lightning that almost caused a civil war in 1791 in western Pennsylvania - the Whiskey Tax Rebellion.
    In five years since the Recession of ‘08, legal ‘shine has become an official liquor category, but the producers are learning fast. Moonshine has neutral flavor except to experienced ‘shiners. Casual consumers may need an extra push to forget its reputation and take a shot. Hence, dozens of flavored moonshines.
    In Ohio, flavored ‘shines of 40 proof are appearing in some bars. However, it isn’t yet listed in state stores. Neither is the 100 proof, full-bore moonshine approved in other states.
    It’s wrong to claim moonshine never gets beyond the hammerheads. Some of the new ones win high reactions in respected publications. Backwoods distilling has danced into America’s trendiest bars with boutique labels such as Ole Smoky, Catdaddy, Midnight Moon and Old Horsey. Note: Distillers still must meet federal alcohol regulations.
    Moonshine by reputation put the “hard” in the “hard stuff.” In its rawest form, “white dog” right out of the copper still pipe, it is consumed for the booze factor. That is 20 percent more potent than bourbon.
    We must be clear here. The new whiskey, although it often comes in the obligatory canning jar, is not exactly the moonshine of American folklore. Modern distillers are using it as a base for an amazing array of flavors, taking an approach similar to fortified brandies. We see peach, blackberry, apple, lemon drop, apple pie and many other hybrids. Proofs range from 100 to 40 percent. Usually, if there’s “White Lightn’” on the label, it will be straight and close to 100 proof.
    But this is only the start. Creative barkeeps are inventing moonshine cocktails as we speak. These bounce the flavor from relatively neutral to places such as a Moonshine Mimosa with Champagne. Ole Smoky even is marketing a line of maraschino garnish cherries steeped in its ‘shine.
    Joe Baker, founder of Ole Smoky, says his product is “an important part of who we are.” That means Appalachian roots.
    “We’ve honed the art of whiskey-making to survive during tough economic times.”
    He adds his distillery is the first with a federal license in eastern Tennessee. And he’s no longer shy at the word “bootlegger.” To celebrate the new openness, he turned his Gatlinburg still into a tourist venue selling ‘shine, pickles, jelly, mustard and “I don’t know Jack” T-shirts. That’s a shot at Jack Daniels, America’s most popular legal whiskey.
    Page 2 of 2 - “The smell of fermenting grains takes over your senses,” Baker promises.
    Going price: $20 to $25 a canning jar.
    Jim Hillibish is a columnist at The Repository in Canton, Ohio. Reach him at jim.hillibish@cantonrep.com.