DIY Distilling Steps Into the Limelight

Cocktails and Spirits with Paul Clarke

Weekly insight into the world of drinks with Paul Clarke from the Cocktail Chronicles and Imbibe magazine.


Catdaddy Carolina Moonshine from Piedmont Distillers.

Today's Washington Post features two stories about that mysterious American beverage, moonshine. But these aren't police blotter stories; these are in the dining section, and cover the growing trend among fans of fine food and spirits of taking a stab at 'shine.

Moonshine today runs the gamut. There are still plenty of hidden stills in the woods and cabins of Appalachia (and the garages and cheap rental houses everywhere else) that churn out harsh and sometimes dangerous stuff; but there are also those who are determined to distill a quality liquor, whether out of entrepreneurial spirit or culinary perfectionism.

And now, moonshine is crossing the legal threshold: as one of the Post stories points out, "boutique moonshine" is technically an oxymoron, but distillers such as Joe Mahalek are taking the hooch out of the hills, applying for all the right licenses and paying all the right fees. Now, Mahalek's Piedmont Distillers is selling artisan-crafted shine in a number of states under the labels Catdaddy Carolina Moonshine and Junior Johnson's Midnight Moon.

While Mahalek is one of the latest distillers who have taken 'shine legit, many other, um, independent distillers make small batches of grappa, applejack, absinthe and whiskey for themselves and their friends, partially out of curiosity but also out of a desire to create a truly bespoke spirit.

An excellent book on the topic, appropriately titled Moonshine!, was published last year. Its author, food historian Matthew Rowley, sampled a number of different homemade spirits, and pronounced some of those made by ambitious distillers truly exceptional. In my own admittedly limited experience, I've found spirits made by dedicated aficionados to be absolutely spectacular, better than any commercial version I've had (I've also tasted a few that still needed a little work). As more devotees of quality spirits embrace the DIY ethic, it may be time for moonshine's moment in the sun.

How about you? Have you ever sipped from a mason jar at a NASCAR party, or tasted a friend's homemade grappa? How was it?