Why So Many People Are Making (Legal) Moonshine

James Rodewald Photo © Christopher Peter Testani
By Ray Isle Posted October 16, 2014

Bold-flavored gin, high-proof vodka, excellent moonshine and more news on the American craft spirits movement from editor-turned-bartender-turned-author James Rodewald. 

Bold-flavored gin, high-proof vodka, excellent moonshine and more news on the American craft spirits movement from editor-turned-bartender-turned-author James Rodewald.

Q. Who are some of your favorite craft whiskey producers?
A. The ones who are doing it right, who realize that to make great whiskey, they have to take the long view. It takes time. These producers also represent a remarkable can-do spirit. At Balcones in Texas, for instance, Chip Tate built the entire distillery himself, the stills and everything, in an incredibly tiny space. At Woodinville Whiskey Co. in Washington state, they’ve been laying down whiskey for almost four years now. They’ve made a commitment—an expensive one—not to sell any of it until it’s ready.

Q. What other kinds of American craft spirits are on the rise?
A. American craft gin is spectacular right now. New York Distilling Company and St. George and Distillery No. 209 in California—they’re all making really, really good gins. It’s partly because Americans don’t have a traditional style of gin production they’re going up against, like the British do. So these gins all have very, very bold flavors, and often lots of native botanicals—Douglas fir, for instance. One good thing about Americans: We’re not afraid of flavor.

Q. How about vodka? Does it even make sense as a craft spirit?
A. If you’re doing everything right with vodka, you’re making a really neutral-tasting spirit. That as a goal is the opposite of everything the craft world is about, which is more flavor—and more ingredients! But at Project V near Seattle, Mo Heck is doing things on a tiny scale, and doing them well. Hers is the only 160-proof spirit I’ve ever tasted that was palatable. It’s kind of amazing that you can put that in your body and not freak out.

Q. How come so many people are making moonshine?
A. Obviously, it’s not real moonshine, because that would require them shooting it out with the revenuers. It’s white whiskey, or corn whiskey—essentially just unaged spirit. You could even call it a corn eau-de-vie. When it’s well done, it’s pretty good: Tuthilltown in New York puts out an unaged corn whiskey—they actually call it that—and it’s delicious. But mostly, moonshine is something distilleries can get to market in a matter of days or weeks rather than years, and when they put a goofy “moonshine” label on it, it sells. I still can’t see anyone going back to buy a second bottle, though.

Q. When you were researching the book, did you end up tasting anything that was god-awful?
A. Oh, yeah. But I don’t remember the horrible things as much as the good things—you forget the “quick spitters,” as they used to say about bad apples. But there are definitely people doing some things where you wish they had friends who would say to them, “Are you kidding me?” I tried one whiskey that tasted like raw mash, really strange, but I’m told it always sells out. I guess there are places where local patriotism just trumps the desire for quality.

Q. What do you think about the future of craft distilling?
A. That’s hard to say. Craft spirits are still a tiny, tiny part of the liquor world. I mean, craft beer is still a tiny part of the beer world, and it has 20 years on the craft spirits guys. And making craft spirits is expensive, so there’s probably going to be a shakeout.

Q. You were working as a bartender in Marfa, Texas, over the past couple of years. How was that?
A. It was a blast, partly because Marfa attracts such interesting, odd, creative, smart, fun people. But when I was trying to set up the bar, I couldn’t find any of the spirits I was looking for. It took some work—I tracked down distributors and called producers I knew, and managed to get a lot of the things I wanted. Pretty soon, all the bars in Marfa were using them, too. I feel like I made a huge contribution to the town. I am so proud that Carpano Antica has come to Marfa, Texas.

Q. What was the strangest thing anyone ordered?
A. The most surprising orders were always from my coworkers at Cochineal, which makes me suspicious of their motives. They were always trying to get me to do strange things with espresso, mint and Fernet Branca—which really wasn’t bad.

Related: Best Bars in America
Best Cocktail Bars in the U.S.
Cooking with Spirits

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