WADMALAW ISLAND, S.C. (AP) — Pam Feeney of Hershey, Pa., stood before the bar in the tasting room at Firefly distillery on Wadmalaw Island. “I’ve always wanted to try moonshine,” she confided to her friend.
Then she tipped a shot glass of clear liquid into her mouth. Her face screwed up in surprise, and her chin dropped to her chest.
A few seconds later, she regained her composure. “That was probably the strongest thing I’ve ever tasted,” she said.
“But I feel like I could get used to it.”
The truth is, there are more potent liquors out there. But moonshine’s outlaw reputation seems to have a way of stoking the experience.
Corn liquor — aka “hooch,” ”mountain dew” and “white dog,” among other colorful monikers — is creating the latest buzz in the spirit world. In the space of a few years, moonshine has emerged from the shadowy backwoods of its past to the brightly lit store shelves of its present.
It’s gaining status as an artisan product with at least one maker branding it as an “heirloom whiskey.”
Distilleries also have figured out how to make moonshine more palatable, meaning less bracing, by adding water to lower the proof and flavoring it with fruits from cherries to blackberries and more.
In February, Firefly joined the fray with six offerings: White Lightning, Apple Pie, Caramel, Cherry, Strawberry and Peach. The line soon will add another flavor, Blackberry.
Firefly is a 50-50 partnership between Jim Irvin and Scott Newitt. Irvin is the chemist, the distiller of the pair. Newitt is the marketing mastermind.
Newitt also was the bigger skeptic.
“I just didn’t think the consumer would go out and buy legal moonshine. I really didn’t,” Newitt said.
But only a month into distribution, Firefly’s moonshine is flying off the shelves. The distributor for South Carolina initially asked for 300 cases. Then he came after 900 more, Newitt said.
“Moonshine is such a happening category because of what is going on on TV: “Moonshiners,” ”Duck Dynasty, “Swamp People,” he theorizes. “The whole pop culture now thinks being a redneck is cool.”
Rachel Coker, a spirits associate at Bottles in Mount Pleasant, agrees. When the store opened in the fall of 2011, the moonshine selection was small and didn’t move much. Today, the store carries eight brands and many different flavors. Three of those are made in South Carolina: Firefly, Dark Corner in Greenville and Palmetto Moonshine in Anderson.
“Moonshine has gained a much more serious following because there’s the TV shows,” Coker said. “I believe it’s that kind of ‘dangerous’ lifestyle that has led people to be kind of fascinated with it.”
Irvin knows that danger firsthand. As a boy in rural Kentucky, he and his buddies roamed in what he calls secret “canyons,” actually ravines, deep in the woods. One day, they smelled the aroma of corn cooking and followed their noses to the source.
They saw a group of men “standing around an object, with fire underneath,” Irvin recalls. The boys ran off, scared to death.
“It’s called moonshine because the guys would make it at night so nobody could see the smoke,” Irvin explains
Now, he is a kindred spirit. And the process is basically the same, he said.
“A pot still is the kind of still they’ve had for hundreds of thousands of years; that’s how you made whiskey, rum, scotch. You have to follow the different rules for the different items, but a pot still is basically a pot you boil it in, a column that the vapor goes in that goes over to a condensing plate.”
There is some finesse involved, or otherwise so many makers wouldn’t be in the game.
Newitt and Jay Macmurphy, Firefly’s product manager, count at least 20 moonshine makers across the country at present, including some bourbon makers who are making “white dog,” unaged corn whiskey, as a way of getting instant cash flow, since the whiskey can be bottled and sold immediately.
Irvin points out that by law, as long as corn liquor has touched oak, it can be called whiskey. Firefly runs its moonshine through oak barrels for that reason. By contrast, premium bourbon whiskey may be aged in barrels for years.
What determines quality and flavor in moonshine?
“Fermentation, your base ingredients, how slowly you run the still, the water that you use, knowing the difference between heads and tails,” Macmurphy said.
He elaborated. “In your solution you have heads, hearts and tails and you keep the hearts. The first part that comes off the still is your lighter ethanols, like methanol. They’re poisonous, so you don’t want to keep them, but they also contain flavor. So you want to make a real careful ‘head cut.’ That head cut is going to be your flavor profile for your company. … You have to make a good cut” that is judged by smell and taste, he said.
Moonshine, like beer, starts with a grain mixture that’s primarily corn (at least 51 percent by law) but also barley and wheat. The grains are ground, then steeped or “mashed” over heat for an hour, but never boiled.
The mashing temperature is critical because it can create off flavors, Macmurphy said. If the temperature is too high, for example, the grains can be scorched. “So it’s real risky.”
“Yeah, temperature is a trade secret around here,” he added, somewhere between 150 and 170 degrees.
The liquid is pulled off and cooled down. Yeast is added to begin the fermentation in the still. The spent grains go to the pigs or other livestock.
For Firefly, there are two “runs” in the still. The first one is relatively fast, Macmurphy said. The second or “finishing” run is one drip per second, as the condensed vapor turns into liquid.
Firefly’s flavorings are all natural, with real fruit used in the making, Macmurphy explained. But one noticeable difference in Firefly’s case is the lack of fruit in the jars.
It was a conscious decision for a couple of reasons. One being that fruit in the jar subtracts from the liquid volume. For bars and restaurants, that negatively affects “pour costs,” Newitt said. Second, over time, the fruit in the jar will turn white and start falling apart, he said.
Two, 300-gallon stills at Firefly sort of symbolize the makeshift nature of moonshine. Irvin made them himself, insulating each with stacked bricks held in place by wire mesh. And, instead of a copper column for the steam to go through, Irvin discovered that using copper “wool” as a liner did the same trick — pulling out the impurities.
“It’s pretty Jim,” Newitt said, smiling.
Inside the tasting room at the distillery, a whole family is gathered around the moonshine display. Fresh from a tasting, the five adults have selected four different bottles of moonshine to take with them.
Jared Wutz of the Bronx, N.Y., has one in hand. “I’m a big fan of Jack Daniels and any whiskey,” he said. “This could be dangerous. This is like something I would keep in the house.”
Teddy Whitney, 42, and Katie Yarbrough, 29, also stood at the bar and sampled. Both teachers in Fairfax, Va., they were on spring break last week.
“The White Lightning is just pure gas,” Whitney said. “The flavors just make it smooth.”
In the end, they decided to buy just a bottle of the strawberry, the lowest proof of Firefly’s moonshine at just about 40. “It comes in a cute mason jar. What more could you want?” she said.
At Firefly and at Bottles, apple pie is turning out to be a fan favorite among the flavors. Coker and Bottles general manager Brent Beam say that moonshine as a whole is proving to be appealing to different demographics.
“I’ve seen more females than I’ve ever seen (buying moonshine),” Beam said. “Several ladies have come in and said they were doing tastings at their homes.”
Newitt said social media has changed the liquor industry. “I figured out that our consumer has ADD because of social media. They get on something and then they get on something else.”
Newitt said Firefly decided to make moonshine partly because the distillery needs to “reinvent” itself, a necessity for a small brand in today’s market.
“I think the consumer is always looking for something that they can tell their friends about,” he said.
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