The mention of moonshine may bring to mind clandestine whiskey-making in the dead of night, but these days, making un-aged white whiskey is an art. In South Carolina alone, myriad microdistilleries have popped up, joining the craze to brew the best artisanal spirits.
"The Dark Corner"
Tucked away in a triangle of northern Greenville County, South Carolina’s Dark Corner has long been shrouded in mystery. This area in the Blue Ridge Mountains was home to a host of independent-minded Scots-Irish immigrants who came to Appalachia from the Pennsylvania colony beginning in the 1700s. When these Celts came to America from Europe, they carried with them their knowledge of making grain-based alcohol. They used whiskey for both recreational and medicinal purposes, fermenting it from the corn that grew so well in the South.
The settlers lived undisturbed until after the Civil War, when the government levied a federal tax on private distilleries. Refusing to pay a tax that would stifle their livelihood (farmers made more money from a gallon of whiskey than from a bushel of corn), stubborn Celts couched their operations in the thickly wooded hills, firing up their stills at night to avoid being spotted by the “revenuers,” as the government tax collectors were called. Because they were making spirits under cover of darkness, the un-aged white whiskey was aptly dubbed “moonshine.”
Moonshine and NASCAR
This whiskey even spurred the development of the wildly popular modern sport of NASCAR (National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing) During Prohibition in the 1920s to early 30s, people delivering illegal whiskey souped up their cars in order to outrun the dreaded revenuers. These moonshine runners even held impromptu races to see who was the fastest. In the late 1940s, these races became an organized sport.
Today, the resurgence of moonshine has sparked a craze of craft distilleries across the U.S. In 2009, South Carolina passed a law making microdistilleries legal in South Carolina. The first distillery to make moonshine legally in South Carolina opened on Main Street in Greenville in 2011. At Dark Corner Distillery, Joe Fenton and Paul Fulmer craft small batches of spirits in an 80-gallon custom-made copper still, using traditional techniques. Their award-winning moonshine is made from a blend of corn, red wheat and barley (Dark Corner doesn’t use neutral grain spirits or pure grain alcohol) that is hand-mashed and distilled twice to smooth any rough edges.
Bottled in mason jars as a reference to how alcohol was served more than a century ago, un-aged white whiskey from Palmetto Moonshine follows recipes that date back at least 100 years. Brothers and business partners Trey and Bryan Boggs also founded their company in 2011, this one in Charleston.
Out on Wadmalaw Island in the Lowcountry south of Charleston, Jim Irvin (of Irvin Vineyards) and Scott Newitt launched a line of moonshine at their Firefly Distillery in 2013. Besides White Lightening, they make several flavors of moonshine, based on regional fruits such as peaches, strawberries and apples. Like most moonshine, Firefly’s version packs a powerful punch at up to 100 proof.
Copperhead Mountain Distillery in Travelers Rest added their 50-gallon still to South Carolina’s moonshine mix in 2013. You can tour the facility and taste the original white Mountain Moonshine and the Snakebite Corn Whiskey Moonshine, as well as new flavors including blueberry, banana and chocolate.
One of South Carolina’s newest moonshine distillers is Dark Water Distillery, which opened on Broad Street in Camden in April 2014. Their first moonshine is 100-proof, 100-percent corn moonshine, but they soon plan to add flavored moonshine to their product line.
Expect the legal moonshine madness to continue, as distillers across the South brew their artisanal takes on the mouth-numbing spirit once made on the sly. They may use traditional methods, but their moonshine is smooth enough to use in bar cocktails – not to mention being taxed and federally regulated.