Mention moonshine and you might think of an illegal backwoods still in the mountains of the South, carefully hidden to evade the authorities. In recent years though, legal distilleries have been popping up in sort of a moonshine renaissance.
Alabama moonshine starts in an 80-gallon kettle in a horse barn in rural Bullock County. The man in charge is Jamie Ray.
“This where I’d steep the grain,” Ray explains. “I’ll add a sack of rye to this [and] hot water. Let it seep for a couple of hours and that converts the grain to a simple beer.”
Then comes fermentation and some time to cook in the still. It condenses to a liquid where it becomes a clear, un-aged whiskey known as moonshine. Last year, Ray and a business partner started High Ridge Spirits — Alabama’s first legal distillery.*
“We started with this original white shine,” said Ray. “It’s 100 proof. And it’s made with rye and sugar, which is the traditional recipe in this area.”
Bullock County is known for illegal moonshine. And it’s that nod to a backwoods heritage which has helped fuel a wave of small distilleries opening up around the country in recent years.
Jaime Joyce wrote a new book on moonshine.
“It has nostalgia to it,” said Joyce. “It’s got a story attached to it and it’s so American in a way that’s really appealing to people right now.”
It’s a story of poor, rural families subsisting on moonshine, particularly during the great depression, in the face of a big, mean government. Movies romanticized it and George Jones sung its praises in the song “White Lightning.”
The song talks about a government agent hunting for a still. Because even today unless you have a license…
“It is illegal. They are breaking the law and they have to be caught and punished,” said Dean Argo, spokesman for the Alabama Alcoholic Beverage Control Board.
Since the early days of the country, law enforcement has gone after illegal distillers since they don’t pay taxes on their products. Argo says Alabama saw a surge in tips about illegal activity, so the board created a moonshine task force last year. These are six full time agents, affectionately known as “Still Team Six.”
“They will go out into the woods. They will walk those trails,” said Argo. “They will search until they find something or until they believe that the tip was erroneous.”
Argo says in the first year agents destroyed 27 stills. He doesn’t expect the task force to end anytime soon.
Meanwhile, the legal trade is trying to find new converts.
At The J. Clyde, a pub in Birmingham, a bartender serves up High Ridge Spirits’ moonshine in a cocktail called the Alabama honeymoon.
It has a moonshine base, along with honey and lemon and topped off with a local craft brew.
To find out what it’s like, WBHM’s Sarah Delia bravely volunteered.
“Whoa!” said Delia after trying the cocktail. “That’s really sweet and kind of sour. And the burning is there. But it’s really indescribable. I mean it’s really unique.”
This fancy $10 cocktail is infused not just with lemon, honey and beer, but with fond nostalgia that’s giving this traditional underground drink a whole new appeal.
*Corrected to note High Ridge Spirits is the first legal distillery, but no longer the only one in Alabama.