by Charles Upchurch
photographs by Juli Leonard
“In my mind I’m gone to Carolina – can’t you see the sunshine, can’t you just feel the moonshine…”
I think we all know what Sweet Baby James was singing about. North Carolina has harbored an underground booze-making culture since before your granddaddy’s granddaddy was born. You might say it’s in the blood.
Right now, there’s a renaissance under way. Craft distillers are springing up fast, hoping to catch you-know-what in a bottle. Bootleggers are on TV. Award-winning restaurants list it on cocktail menus. It’s all bubbling up to qualify as a full-blown corn liquor rebirth: Moonshine is having a moment.
It’s a natural outgrowth of the trend back to classic, old-school cocktails, says Capital Club 16 cocktail program director Anna Wheeler. “It makes sense that there would be a surge in popularity for a spirit with the heritage of moonshine,” she said. “Particularly here in North Carolina.”
Native North Carolina moonshine of the legal variety ranges from the artisanal to the commercial, each with its own distinct brand character and flavor profile. Troy & Sons Distillery in Asheville makes a luxury “Platinum” variety from a trademarked heirloom white corn that has been grown on the same farm exclusively for more than 120 years. The quality of the corn, combined with the pristine Appalachian Mountain spring water, makes for a drinkability that has won high praise, including a Silver Medal at the 2011 New York International Spirits Competition.
Troy & Sons (named for founder Troy Ball of Asheville and her sons), is the go-to ’shine for bar manager Andrew Shepherd at Foundation, the underground speakeasy on Fayetteville Street that is ground zero for Raleigh’s growing craft cocktail movement. Growing up in Elkin, Shepherd recalls mason jars containing apples, peaches, and other fruits submerged in clear distillates of indeterminable proof. “I was scared of it,” he said. “You never knew what was in it.”
Times have changed. While Shephard will admit that his favorite way to enjoy moonshine is from a jar while standing by a fire, and that a guy he knows “makes his own from grits and Dixie Crystals sugar,” there is a more refined approach.
In fact, a carefully crafted moonshine cocktail recipe Shepard concocted has become one of Foundation’s hottest-selling drinks. The Old North State is, as the name suggests, mostly made with North Carolina ingredients, starting with a healthy shot of 80 proof Troy Platinum. Shepherd adds half an ounce of farmer’s market Muscadine grape juice, three quarters of an ounce of lime juice, and three quarters of an ounce of local gallberry honey syrup. Then he shakes it with ice, strains it into an ice-filled tumbler, and garnishes with mint to produce a harmony of fruit, citrus and natural sugars.
Around the corner at Capital Club 16, cocktail maven Wheeler and owner and chef Jake Wolf have not only put their own distinctive stamp on moonshine cocktails, they’ve created an event to embrace all things similarly “honky tonk.”
Keeping it real – and real Southern – every third Tuesday of the month, Capital Club 16’s “Honky Tonk Tuesday” is packing the joint with downtowners who enjoy kicking up their boot heels to DJ Eddie Taylor and vintage Hank Williams, Patsy Cline, Buck Owens, and other great road house singers. It’s made all the more authentic with a little something from North Carolina’s best-known bootlegger: Daytona 500 champion Junior Johnson.
Junior Johnson’s Midnight Moon, distilled at 80 proof by Piedmont Distillers in Madison, purports to follow the original Johnson family recipe, enhanced by modern techniques to achieve smoothness and drinkability. Which means that unlike Senior Johnson’s recipe, you can have more than one and still remain standing. While Midnight Moon doesn’t list its ingredients, it claims to be triple-distilled, which is a method of cooking out impurities to achieve a milder flavor. This makes for good cocktails, since the taste of unrefined “white dog” can overpower just about anything.
Capital Club’s Bootlegger Tea takes Midnight Moon and turns it into a delightful eye-opener. Starting with Meyer lemon syrup (made with deliciously orange Meyer lemon juice, water and sugar steeped with thyme and rosemary), a shot of Midnight Moon, and two ounces of unsweetened tea, it’s served over ice with a wheel of Wolf’s delectable house-made candied lemon.
Their Blueberry Bootlegger is spiked blueberry pie in a glass. After muddling 10 North Carolina blueberries with fresh thyme and simple syrup, Wolf adds a shot of Midnight Moon, ice, a squeeze of lemon juice, and a spritz of soda water. “The blueberries and thyme produce a wonderful earthiness that makes this drink really enjoyable,” says Wolf. “I think Junior would be proud.”
He might also enjoy a sip of Broadslab Legacy Shine, a 90 proof white whisky from Broadslab Distillery in Benson, boldly claiming to be from the “moonshine capital of North Carolina.” Not sure, though, how he’d feel about candied lemon wheels.