As a marketing executive for R.J. Reynolds, Joe Michalek was used to major corporate events. But he experienced something close to whiplash one night at a Waldorf-Astoria Hotel party following a Winston Cup NASCAR race.
"All of a sudden, the mason jars come out," he says laughing.
It was moonshine, the illegally distilled liquor that spun-off the sport of NASCAR racing. Many early NASCAR racers had been bootleggers running moonshine and avoiding the law " before they turned their mechanical and driving skills over to a spectator sport.
After seven years of watching the illicit nightcaps, Michalek finally embraced the mystique of moonshine and left Reynolds in 2004 to found his own company, Piedmont Distillers, Inc. Perhaps as oxymoronic as hooch passed around in a corporate suite, he went legit with Catdaddy Carolina Moonshine and Junior Johnson's Midnight Moon, named for and endorsed by a true moonshine and NASCAR legend.
"I thought, "Why isn't anyone selling this stuff?'" he says. "It's good."
Michalek will be in town this week for Tales of the Cocktail, the annual festival for liquor and bar industry people and cocktail and spirits enthusiasts. Catdaddy Carolina Moonshine is sponsoring a couple talks at the Hotel Monteleone. There are a couple of directions for moonshine to go legit: in old recipes now made in larger quantities in licensed stills or in the emerging craft-distilling movement.
By definition, moonshine is liquor produced in an unlicensed still, meaning the distiller isn't paying taxes. The legacy of tight regulation goes back well beyond Prohibition to the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794. Over the years, illegal distillers have made every kind of spirit imaginable from sugar-based vodka to corn liquor to fruit-flavored brandies. With all the spirits readily available in stores, there is little practical incentive to make black market liquor. For many home distillers, the thrill is in producing high quality spirits for personal consumption. Many got their start as home brewers, say moonshine experts like Matthew B. Rowley and Mike McCaw, both of whom will speak at Tales of the Cocktail.
A professional scientist who has spent 20 years fine-tuning the process of paper production in the Pacific Northwest, McCaw is a former home brewer turned distiller.
'It's the logical extension of brewing or winemaking," he says. 'What else can you do? Pretty much everybody who brews gets interested in that."
McCaw stopped brewing beer when he gave up his favored dunkels and Scottish-style ales due to health reasons. He started reading about distilling on the Internet and realized that one of his sources' methods had errors in its fermentation process. He exchanged emails with one of the authors, Mike Nixon, and the two set about writing their own book, The Compleat Distiller. They also created the Amphora Society, which is an online resource (www.amphora-society.com) for home distillers. And since Nixon lives in New Zealand, which legalized small-batch, non-commercial distilling in 1996, they were able to test their ideas and make liquor. McCaw's interest is the science and he has no plans to break U.S. laws.
"For me the fun part is designing equipment," he says. 'I am one of the tinkerers who wants to build better, faster machinery."
Still, McCaw would like to see the United States adjust its laws to allow non-commercial distilling in the same way it allows for home brewing and winemaking " up to 300 gallons per year under federal law, though there also are varying state laws that apply. Currently, alcohol taxation begins the moment the distilling process starts, and it is not easy to get a still licensed.
A former board member of the Southern Foodways Alliance, Rowley drank his first moonshine while in college and is interested in the culture of backwoods distilling. His entertaining book Moonshine! offers a historical account of illicit distilling in America as well as a how-to section on building stills and fermenting. It includes a New Orleans recipe for plum brandy.
Moonshine got a reputation as super harsh, super potent, low-grade booze during Prohibition, when both increased demand and harsh enforcement drove moonshiners to produce and deliver as much as possible as quickly as possible. The current craft-distiller movement is driven more by artisan tastes.
"I know a guy who will spend $300 making a gallon of rye whiskey," Rowley says. "For him, it's all about producing the best quality spirit he can."
There are no tallies of how many illicit stills are out there, and no single reason why people continue to make their own. The availability of smooth, triple-distilled Catdaddy Carolina Moonshine isn't any more likely than super premium vodkas to sate their appetite for distilling.
"There's a lot of pride in it," Rowley says. Since he's become a recognizable authority, the question-and-answer periods of his talks are unpredictable, he adds. "The bottles and jars start coming out. Somebody always wants my opinion of his family recipe."
- Joe Michalek seized on the head-turning power of "moonshine" to launch his premium spirit Catdaddy Carolina Moonshine.