ARUN RATH, HOST:
If the word moonshine calls to your mind backwoods outlaws in Appalachia, get ready for a shock because now you highfalutin NPR listeners can get some artisanal hooch. Legal moonshine distilleries have been popping up around the country, and a moonshine renaissance may be underway. From WBHM in Birmingham, Alabama, Andrew Yeager reports.
ANDREW YEAGER, BYLINE: Alabama moonshine starts here in this 80-gallon kettle in a horse barn in rural Bullock County. The man in charge is Jamie Ray.
JAMIE RAY: This is where I'd steep the grain. I'll add a sack of rye to this.
(SOUNDBITE OF WATER RUNNING)
RAY: Hot water - let it steep for a couple hours, and that converts the grain to a simple beer.
YEAGER: Fermentation, some time to cook in the still, condense to liquid, and you end up with a clear, un-aged whiskey known as moonshine. Last year, Ray and a business partner started High Ride Spirits, Alabama's only legal distillery. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: We incorrectly refer to Ridge Spirits as Alabama's only legal distillery. The distillery was the first to be licensed, but others have since been licensed.]
RAY: Well, we started with the original white shine. It's 100-proof, and it's made with rye and sugar, which is the traditional recipe in this area.
YEAGER: Bullock County is known for illegal moonshine, and that's a nod to a backwoods heritage which has helped fuel a wave of small distilleries opening up around the country in recent years. Jaime Joyce wrote a new book on moonshine.
JAIME JOYCE: It has nostalgia to it. It's got a story attached to it. And it's so American, in a way that's really appealing to people right now.
YEAGER: It's a story of poor, rural families subsisting on moonshine, particularly during the Great Depression, in the face of a big, mean government. Movies romanticized it. George Jones sung its praises.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHITE LIGHTNING")
GEORGE JONES: (Singing) He brewed white lightning tiLl the sun went down. And then he'd fill him a jug, and he'd pass it around. Mighty, mighty pleasing - pappy's corn squeeze. Shh. White lightning.
YEAGER: The song goes on to talk about a government agent hunting for a still because even today, unless you have a license...
DEAN ARGO: ...It is illegal. They are breaking the law, and they may have to be caught and punished.
YEAGER: Dean Argo is a spokesman for the Alabama Alcoholic Beverage Control Board. Since the early days of the country, law enforcement has gone after illegal distillers, since they don't pay taxes on their products. Argo says Alabama saw a surge in tips about illegal activity, so the board created a moonshine taskforce last year. These are six full-time agents affectionately known as Still Team Six.
ARGO: They will go out into the woods. They will walk those trails, and they will search until they find something or until they believe that the tip was erroneous.
YEAGER: Argo says in the first year, agents destroyed 27 stills. He doesn't expect the taskforce to end anytime soon. Meanwhile, the legal trade is trying to find new converts. At The J. Clyde, a pub in Birmingham, a bartender serves up High Ridge Spirits moonshine in a cocktail called the Alabama Honeymoon. He drops in some honey, pours in the moonshine, some lemon, shake it up, add ice, top it off with a bit of local craft beer and serve. To find out what it's like, I recruited a willing taste tester.
SARAH DELIA: I'm Sarah Delia, Andrew's colleague here in Birmingham. Woah. That's really sweet and kind of sour, and the burning is there. But it's really indescribable. I mean, it's really unique.
YEAGER: This fancy $10 cocktail is infused not just with lemon, honey and beer, but with fond nostalgia that's giving this traditional underground drink a whole new appeal. For NPR News, I'm Andrew Yeager.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.