The modern moonshine movement

Marketplace Staff Apr 29, 2010

The modern moonshine movement

Marketplace Staff Apr 29, 2010


Tess Vigeland: If you’re seeking true authenticity, look no further than “White Dog.” It’s whiskey that skips the aging process in all those oak barrels and goes straight to the bottle. You probably know it by another name: Moonshine. Unaged hooch is no longer confined to Appalachia. Hipsters and foodies around the country are starting to acquire a taste for it. And that’s given rise to a whole new industry of microdistillers.

Anna Sale has more from New York.

ANNA SALE: Colin Spoelman got interested in moonshine a few years ago, during a trip home to Eastern Kentucky. He was throwing a party, and he asked a friend to get some local hooch.

COLIN SPOELMAN: It came in a plastic milk jug, and I brought it back to New York, and I would share it with people and say this was like real Kentucky moonshine. And in sharing it with people, people would really get excited about it, and I thought it would be fun to, I don’t know, to learn how to make it, it can’t be that hard, right?

Spoelman did learn how. But how he learned how — that’s where he gets cagey.

SPOELMAN: Well, I don’t know how much I can say about this…

That’s because since the Whiskey Act of 1791, making liquor without a license is illegal. States and the federal government want to make sure distillers pay tax on the whiskey they make. Getting a federal license is pretty straight forward. But state licenses can be harder to come by.

Spoelman and his college buddy David Haskell were lucky. They started experimenting just as distilling laws in New York were relaxing, as a way to help farmers attract more tourists upstate.

Earlier this month, he and Haskell opened Kings County Distillery. It’s the only licensed whiskey distillery in New York City. Moonshine will be their first product. It doesn’t have to age in barrels so there’s no lag time from production to sale.

They’ve got two stills quietly dripping in their Williamsburg, Brooklyn headquarters.
Haskell shows off a 300-square-foot room in a warehouse that’s also home to artists and recording studios.

DAVID HASKELL: It’s pretty much the smallest room possible to do something like this. We found it off craigslist.

Across the country, the number of microdistillers is growing, according to the American Distilling Institute. Seven years ago, there were 60 legal artisan distillers. Now there are more than 200. But their sales are still small, less than 1 percent of the U.S. liquor market. That’s according to the Distilled Spirits Council.

Still, from his home in Arkansas, Vaughn Wilson has noticed the growing interest in moonshine. He makes stills and sells them on the Internet.

VAUGHN WILSON: It’s actually people from all walks of life, pretty much from the poorest among us to really wealthy millionaires.

Right now, he’s about seven months behind on orders. He suspects most of his customers are at-home distillers. Does he ask if they’re legal?

WILSON: No. It’s none of my business.

So unlike other local and do-it-yourself food trends, making liquor still has that shadowy side.

Max Watman has tried to track the modern moonshine movement in his book “Chasing the White Dog.” He also got in a little practice himself.

We’re in a backyard about an hour north of New York City. He’s lighting the propane heater underneath an antique still that’s filled with fermented apricots and sugar.

It’s connected to a series of pipes that leads to a copper coil. That’s where the evaporated alcohol cools back into a liquid, before dripping out of a spout.

MAX WATMAN: Hey, that’s not bad. It’s a little dirty. But taste it.

SALE: That’s good!

WATMAN: It’s undoubtedly moonshine, right?

But there’s one way we’re stepping out of the proud history of American hooch-making. This isn’t going to market.

WATMAN: What’s the quote? Moonshine ain’t for drinking, it’s for selling. It was a business. It remains a business.

And that’s the hope in Brooklyn, as Spoelman and Haskell get Kings County Distillery going. But their whiskey may not get to a bar near you any time soon. For now, their distribution plan puts the micro in microdistillery.

SPOELMAN AND HASKELL: I mean we don’t have a car, so… The immediate plan is… There are some limitations there… We might get a wheelbarrow.

They hope to be stocking local Brooklyn bars and liquor stores by June.

In Brooklyn, I’m Anna Sale for Marketplace.

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