Legal moonshine sees daylight in West Virginia

Lawyer develops a taste for marketing Appalachian brew

May 23, 2002|By Francis X. Clines | Francis X. Clines,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - Some bibulous rustics call it white lightning, others call it 'shine, while the more soul-struck prefer a snort of holy water.

Whatever your designated poison, it is the crystal-clear corn liquor of Appalachia, the illegal essence of three centuries of mountain hollow stills. Payton D. Fireman, a local lawyer with a taste for marketing, has begun bottling and selling the volatile potion legally for the first time in state memory under the label Mountain Moonshine.

"Of course it's rough: It's moonshine," said Fireman to a visitor brought bolt upright and teary-eyed by a shot of the clear white whiskey. It was made from corn mash in three hot-water-boiler stills in the back of Bo McDaniel's transmission shop.

This legalized firewater ("less than 30 days old" is the label guarantee) might properly be called Boutique Booze, for Fireman, 44, has visions of doing for the economically stressed hills of Appalachia what microbrewing and vanity winemaking have done elsewhere by slaking the nation's thirst for something new to buzz about and be buzzed by.

Eureka moment

"I thought, why not mimic moonshine?" explained Fireman of the eureka moment when he was driving from New York to his home here and musing about what profitable, signature notions might lie beyond the switchback roads in the secretive hamlets of West Virginia's mountain hollows.

"Everybody's heard of moonshiners around here," he said. "You can argue that I'm creating a good way to use the marketplace to drive people out of an illegal business that has been a blight for decades."

Fireman confessed, "I've had a jar or two of moonshine over the years," and added, "I knew I could be the first at this."

But to start, Fireman sought to ask some of the canny old-timers about the secrets of their backwoods hooch-making up in the fabled mountain turnings of remote Appalachia.

What he encountered was all too few grizzled home-brewers and far more of the younger generation of hill dwellers who now defy the federal revenuers by planting and harvesting marijuana for far bigger profits than the classic moonshiners ever fantasized about beyond the copper coils of their stills.

So he largely had to teach himself moonshining by studying distillery textbooks and consulting the half-dozen other legal microdistillers who have cropped up lately in other parts of the country.

"I admire immensely the old moonshiners who did this without electricity, pumps and all the rest, humping sacks of corn and sugar up the hills," Fireman said. "And now, so many people have been telling me, `My daddy made moonshine during the Depression. It put the clothes on my back.'"

Paying federal tax

The essence of his being legal is that he pays the federal tax of $13.50 per 100-proof gallon that illegal moonshiners long have run from as a government affront.

"That's the federal government's oldest tax, the one that caused the Whiskey Rebellion," Fireman said, recalling when citizen distillers rose up against the new government and President George Washington eventually had to pardon two of them convicted of treason.

Moonshiners and government agents have been at loggerheads in the hills ever since. But Fireman insists it is time to bring moonshine out into the sunlight. He spent about $40,000 for the distilling, safety, health and record-keeping equipment required by watchful inspectors from the federal and state governments who regularly visit Bo's place.

After three years in business, the microdistiller said, he managed a profit last year of at least $1 on a bottle sold for $9. Investing eight weeks away from his law practice, Fireman distilled, bottled, labeled and marketed 6,000 fifths from Bo's place, selling it in liquor stores here and in Ohio by way of West Virginia's Alcoholic Beverage Control Board.

Nothing smooths it

"But there's one problem," he said. "There is simply no way on earth to cut this with something to make it more palatable, no way to smooth it out like vodka."

But isn't that the rugged virtue of moonshine?

Up to a point, said Fireman, who senses a far bigger market out there among drinkers who need something more than that first novelty kick of legal moonshine if they are to sip it habitually.

"I mean, a moonshine-and-tonic turns out to be not the very worst thing ever created, but we definitely needed something better," he said, reaching for a bottle of the very latest from his still: Old Oak Recipe Spirit Whiskey, in which toasted oak chips are temporarily steeped in moonshine like tea bags.

"What do you think?" Fireman asked of this gleaming potion.

Tawny in color and, yes, less searing to the tongue than the breathtaking white'shine, this new, more coddled corn liquor ("less than 60 days old" is the label guarantee) amounts to 80-proof proof that evolution continues apace in the hills of Appalachia. Two or more years of oak-cask aging of fermented corn mash produces bourbon, Fireman notes. But he chose the mountaineers' more traditional and hurried method of a few weeks of oak-chip immersion.

"I'd say a little too woodsy right now, but palatable," Fireman allowed over a glass, as if savoring a new jargon for the legions of moonshine snobs he hopes to engender.

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