The Carolinas, North and South, blessed with mountain streams, dense woodlands and dark hollows proved ideal for illicit whiskey making. Many hereabouts realized that corn was more valuable when used to make white liquor instead of cattle feed.
Colorful moonshiners “Popcorn” Sutton, Barney Barnwell, “cherry bounce” king Amos Owens, future NASCAR legend Junior Johnson and their like inspired songs, books, movies, the recent “Moonshiners” TV series – even the Thunder Road roller coaster at Carowinds.
Relaxation in federal and state laws concerning distillation of spirits – whiskey, rum, vodka and gin – now allows the making of legal liquor.
Some of these native spirits are available in liquor stores and bars. Better yet, take a distillery tour. Here are my recommendations.
Southern Artisan Spirits, Kings Mountain
Southern Artisan Spirits is so busy that demand for their signature Cardinal American dry gin saw production increases of 100 percent – every month – for the past year.
Owned and operated by 33-year-old twins Alex and Charlie Mauney, this enterprising duo “taught ourselves distilling” Alex explained, “first making wine in our parents’ garage.”
Following legalization, they worked on unique whiskeys and gins using regional recipes from the 1700s, experimenting by adding herbs and botanicals. Result: Cardinal American, a modern-style sipping gin.
Boasting wild harvested botanicals – juniper berries, grains of paradise (a species of ginger), frankincense, clove, spearmint and orange peel – Cardinal American dry gin won double gold at the San Francisco World spirits competition in 2012; scored 93 at the Beverage Tasting Institute in Chicago in 2011; and took a bronze at the International Wine & Spirits competition in London in 2013.
New in 2014, Barrel Rested Cardinal gin is aged in unused bourbon barrels for six months. “It completely changes the character of the gin” Alex explained. “It boasts a whiskey-like flavor, great for twist on classic martini drinks or an exceptional Negroni.”
Also new: Turning Point Carolina is un-aged rye whiskey made from 60 percent rye, 20 percent corn, and 20 percent rye malt. “We intend to set this back in barrels, rendering a straight rye available in two years.”
Tours ($5) by appointment only (call 704-297-0191). Details: www.southernartisanspirits.com.
Muddy River Distillery, Belmont
Muddy River Distillery produces Carolina Rum. “We started the company with money I had been saving to build a house” said Robbie Delaney, who married wife Caroline a month before their first batch tricked from the vat.
The fifth legal distillery in North Carolina, it’s the only one dedicated to making rum: distilling, aging, bottling and doing everything else in-house at their recently expanded facility.
Delaney, a general contractor, read an in-flight magazine article , how craft distilling is following in the footsteps of craft brewing, so gave distilling a try. Opening in February 2012 they released their first product, Carolina Rum – sweet aroma, surprisingly smooth taste, subtly different to other rums.
Queen Charlotte’s Reserve, an American white oak barrel-aged rum, was released in October.
“Already we’ve moved from a 500 square-foot space to a 6,100 square-foot distillery to keep up with demand,” Delaney said.
Tours (45-minutes; $10) include a taste of each product and a Muddy River shot glass. Details/tour schedule: www.muddyriverdistillery.com.
Piedmont Distillers, Madison
Former bootlegger Junior Johnson’s original Midnight Moon, distilled at Piedmont Distillery, is a white corn whiskey (80 proof, meaning 40 percent alcohol) in such demand when we drove there to collect moonshine as Christmas gifts, every jar was packed away for shipment as far as Alaska. Infused jars boast Original, Apple Pie, Cherry, Strawberry, Cranberry, Blackberry and Blueberry.
“Pretty sad a man can’t even get a bottle of his own likker for his’self,” joked Junior – sneaking a dozen souvenir jars just for us. (By the way, his daddy’s ’shine was 100 proof).
Due to distillery constructions, tours are not currently offered; they may resume in late summer. Details: www.piedmontdistillers.com.