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Moonshine Moves Into The Mainstream

June 4, 2013

As consumers seek out spirits with authenticity and history, one segment that’s clearly benefiting is moonshine, which is now starting to transcend its niche status.

Moonshine—also known as white whiskey, white lightning, white dog or hooch—is an umbrella term coined during Prohibition. It once applied exclusively to illegally made, single-process whiskey derived from a combination of grain (usually corn mash, wheat or rye) with sugar and fruit. Today the term has grown to encompass a fully legal spirit category that’s showing impressive growth. Television shows like the Discovery Channel’s “Moonshiners” and HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire” have made it a modern household word.

At Julio’s Liquors in Westborough, Massachusetts, the moonshine category has become a full-blown craze. “People love the outlaw thing,” says Julio’s owner Ryan Maloney. “Some people are looking at white whiskey as a vodka replacement.”

As most moonshine has no barrel aging, its production is fast and cost-effective. A growing number of craft distilleries nationwide now produce it, and big players like Beam Inc. and Brown-Forman also have jumped into the category.

Gatlinburg, Tennessee-based brand Ole Smoky has been a key driver of moonshine’s growth. In 2012, Ole Smoky saw volume hit 85,000 cases, and founder Joe Baker expects the brand to nearly triple this year to about 250,000 cases. In recent days, Baker tapped John Cochran, who has led water companies Fiji and AquaHydrate as well as Pabst Brewing Co., to be Ole Smoky’s new CEO.

Packaged in mason jars, Ole Smoky moonshine retails at around $24.95 a 750-ml. The brand includes Original (made from 80% corn with the remaining 20% a secret) and White Lightnin’ (100% grain). Ole Smoky also has a flavor portfolio that includes Cherries, Apple Pie, Peach and Blackberry. The Original, White Lightnin’ and Cherries are all 50%-abv, while the other flavors are 20%-abv.

A notable competitor to Ole Smoky is Madison, North Carolina-based Piedmont Distillers, which produces Junior Johnson’s Midnight Moon and Catdaddy Spiced ($20-$25 depending on the state). Junior Johnson’s Midnight Moon has proven so popular that Piedmont now produces seven variants: Apple Pie, Blackberry, Blueberry, Cherry, Cranberry, Strawberry and the original Moonshine. Last year, the brand achieved national distribution, expanding its appeal far beyond the Southeast.

Beam Inc. launched white whiskey Jacob’s Ghost ($22 a 750-ml. bottle) earlier this year, targeting the mixology segment. Unlike other spirits in the category, Jacob’s Ghost is aged for one year—producing what Beam senior director of Bourbons Rob Mason describes as a “mellow, less-harsh and lighter-bodied” product that’s designed to be versatile. Brown-Forman’s effort went in the other direction: Jack Daniel’s Unaged Rye ($52.99 a 750-ml. bottle) has no barrel aging.

Other players in the category include Buffalo Trace Distillery (whose White Dog label started much of the current craze), as well as Tuthilltown Spirits in the Hudson River Valley and Death’s Door in Wisconsin.

Moonshine also is making inroads on-premise. In Atlanta, moonshine cocktails are offered at bars including D.B.A. Barbecue, Bantam & Biddy and the Village Tap. Chicago-based restaurant-nightlife group Rockit Ranch Productions last year opened Dragon Ranch Moonshine & BBQ, an upscale bar and restaurant focused on Southern cooking with Asian influences. (The venue was closed due to an electrical fire in January but is scheduled to reopen this summer.) Rockit partnered with Journeyman Distillery in Three Oaks, Michigan, to produce a proprietary Dragon Ranch moonshine dubbed “White Dragon.” The brand is available at all six Rockit Ranch restaurants.

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