When the moonshine boom first started, I can’t say I was all that excited. I tried the first few to hit the market and it fell flat for me. It’s not that I don’t respect the craftsmanship, or look down on it. It just never did much for me.
Then an acquaintance of mine, George Smith, started arguing with me that I had it wrong. When he opened a distillery, he said, I’d see what he was talking about.
I’m involved in a local guild for food professionals and farmers called the Piedmont Culinary Guild. The mission is to build up our local culinary scene and connect the area’s food and beverage professionals with their local food producers. To help raise money as well as awareness, the group holds events that let the public experience this. For a competition last weekend between chefs from PCG and the American Culinary Federation, I was asked to create two cocktails using local ingredients.
As luck would have it, one of the sponsors was my friend George and his new moonshine, Copper Barrel. This gave me a great excuse to see what the fuss was about and do some research.
Copper Barrel has been open in downtown North Wilkesboro and its moonshine has been in ABC stores for a couple of months. The distillery is on Main Street in a rehabilitated furniture factory. It is a wonderful space, fairly compact but well laid out. The staff is friendly and very much looking forward to October, when they can sell the liquor on-site.
After my visit, I got to work testing out recipes. I knew I wanted a seasonal local ingredient that was a little less obvious than peaches. After hooking up with Barbee Farms in Concord, I decided cantaloupe would be the thing.
I remembered a shrub a friend made last year with cantaloupe and decided to start there.
Shrub is basically an infused simple syrup that uses vinegar instead of water. I used white balsamic vinegar and added fresh cayenne peppers. After steeping and getting the shrub just right, we started testing it with all kinds of muddled herbs and the moonshine. We tried Thai basil, Italian basil, mint and, in desperation, cilantro.
Cilantro was the clear winner. It adds counterbalancing flavors to the sweet, tangy shrub, without overwhelming the moonshine. The drink has a lot of steps, including the shrub. But I think it’s well worth it on a late summer afternoon.
If you would like a good introduction to shrubs, go to imbibemagazine.com/homemade-drinking-vinegars/ . Or Michael Dietsch has a great book on them called “Shrub: An Old Fashioned Drink for Modern Times.”
Kevin and Heather Gavagan are Charlotte cocktail nerds who host public and private cocktail events. Follow them on Twitter (@hauntbarCLT) or email HauntbarCLT@gmail.com.
1 1/2 ounce moonshine, preferably Copper Barrel
1 1/2 ounce Cantaloupe Shrub (see note)
Small handful of cilantro
Muddle the cilantro in the bottom of a cocktail shaker. Pour in shrub and moonshine.
Add ice and shake. Double strain (see note) into old-fashioned or rocks glass.
Garnish with cantaloupe chunk from shrub process and a cilantro sprig.
Notes: Double-straining removes all the tiny bits of cilantro and produces a more attractive drink. To do it, hold a small kitchen strainer over the glass and pour the contents through the cocktail strainer and the kitchen strainer into the glass. To make cantaloupe shrub, cover about 4 cups of peeled, chopped cantaloupe with 1/4 cup simple syrup and refrigerate overnight. Strain the syrup, setting aside the cantaloupe for garnishes, and add about 4 tablespoons white balsamic vinegar to finish the shrub.
Yield: 1 serving.