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THE NATION | DISPATCH FROM MADISON, N.C.

Is it still called moonshine if it's not illegal?

Also, it's made by a Yankee and billed as `premium spirits.' Granddaddies are rolling in their graves.

March 25, 2007|Jenny Jarvie | Times Staff Writer

MADISON, N.C. — Joseph Michalek makes liquor the old-fashioned way, slowly heating corn mash in a large copper still. As for the rest of his moonshine operation, he steers clear of Southern mountain traditions.

A relative newcomer to the Appalachian foothills, Michalek, 38, does not haul sacks of grain or sugar to a creek, hunch down in mud to stoke wood, or cast a wary eye about for federal tax agents.

Instead, the Northern entrepreneur with gelled hair, crisp blue jeans and polished Dr. Martens stands in front of a retro-grey Anton Paar tester, dips a clear tube into a beaker, presses a button, and watches closely as a clear liquid spurts into the machine.

Brow furrowed, he punches in data on a miniature keypad. Then he waits until the machine measures the liquid's alcohol percentage and spits out a sheet of paper the size of an ordinary till receipt.

"This," he said on a recent bottling day, "goes to the federal government."

Michalek, a business and marketing graduate from upstate New York, hopes to become rich by taking a craft that has been practiced furtively in the forested Appalachian hollows for centuries and selling it, legally, to Americans everywhere.

His "Catdaddy Carolina Moonshine" is not strictly moonshine -- liquor made clandestinely by the light of the moon. Although modeled on an authentic recipe handed down from generations of Scotch-Irish, it is made in the first legal distillery in the Carolinas since Prohibition. And at 80 proof -- 40% alcohol -- it is substantially less potent than the rotgut, tangleleg and popskull of old.

"It's quite delicious," Michalek said, his gravelly Northern accent entirely steady as he takes a small sip of his potion, which is flavored with three ingredients he declines to reveal. His moonshine is smooth, like vodka, and tastes a little like bubble gum, mint and eggnog.

"A lot of people," he added, "don't realize moonshine can be a premium product."

Certainly, no one in Madison, population 2,239, expected a New Yorker to make boutique hooch here. The town is predominately Southern Baptist and largely made up of teetotalers -- it has no bar, and its restaurants do not serve liquor.

Many here associate moonshine with the hardscrabble lives of their grandfathers and great-grandfathers. As dry counties become wet across North Carolina, they assumed homemade liquor would become a part of the region's faded heritage, like tobacco and textiles, poke salad and hog's feet.

"I figured moonshine was history, back from the days when Madison had dirt roads," said Charity Naud, 40, manager of the downtown flower store and Christian bookstore.

Michalek, though, has a more contemporary conception of moonshine -- one he promotes in PowerPoint displays on his Sony laptop: Catdaddy, he says, represents "a new category of premium spirits" that celebrates the "mystique and intrigue" of moonshine.

In the same way that boutique wines and beers have found a national audience, so increasingly have artisan spirits.

"The kind of person who appreciates heirloom vegetables or Kobe beef or free-range chickens" now distills, said Matthew Rowley, a food writer who interviewed home distillers across the country for his forthcoming book, "Moonshine!"

As well as the new generation of home distillers, there is an emerging group of legal artisan distillers: 88 micro-distilleries now operate across the country, with about 10 new ones starting up each year.

"Beer has gone through a renaissance and wine has gone through a renaissance -- distilling is the next big thing," said Bill Owens, president of the American Distilling Institute, a trade organization founded three years ago for aspiring micro-distillers.

Michalek first tasted moonshine after moving to Winston-Salem, N.C., in 1995 for a marketing job with R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. While camping at MerleFest, a mountain music festival in nearby Wilkesboro, a man in an adjoining tent passed around a Mason jar containing a clear liquid and a peach.

A month later, he sampled straight, unflavored white lightning at a NASCAR race; then peach, plum and apple moonshines at a blues concert in a barn. At dinner parties, young couples would bring out Mason jars after grilling on the deck.

All the while, Michalek said, he was preoccupied with one thought: "Everyone's drinking it: Why isn't anyone making any money out of it?"

The traditional Southern moonshine belt has -- until now -- been slow to catch on to the micro-distillery renaissance, in part because of the Bible Belt's historic opposition to legalized drink. Prohibitive state fees also mean some Southern companies distill in other states. South Carolina's Firefly Vodka, for example, is distilled in Florida because a license there is $800 compared with $50,000 in its home state.

Michalek was more fortunate: A license in North Carolina costs $300. As a legal distiller, he pays the federal tax of $2.14 for every 750-milliliter bottle, which he then sells for $19.95.

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