Written by 10:34 am 2019, Editor's Picks, Food and Drink, Travel

A True American Spirit

A Moonshine Experience in
Virginia’s Moonshine Country

I didn’t visit Primland to go joyriding with a guide on one of its recreational, all-terrain vehicles. The purpose of my visit was to drink a true American spirit, moonshine.

Cover photo courtesy Primland

I admit I knew next to nothing about moonshine before arriving in Meadows of Dan, and my education didn’t begin in the bar as I had expected. It began at the resort’s Outdoor Center, where I was directed by my guide, Carl McDaniel, to put on a helmet and face mask, and strap myself into a four-wheel-drive ATV. My plan was to experience moonshine, but I guess I was along for the ride. 

We cruised along trails that were specially created for guided off-roading. As McDaniel navigated the dense, near-impenetrable forest that makes up much of Primland’s 12,000 acres, I reflected on the heritage of the region. My sportsman’s eye noted harsh ground and dense foliage that form an ideal habitat for turkey, deer and bear. I observed an abundance of wildlife but was oblivious to the signs of human existence—stonewall ruins, foundations that remained from old homes and roads—until McDaniel pointed them out as he gave me an overview of the land and its history. I enjoyed our conversation and the panoramic views. I enjoyed learning more. 

Taking it all in, I could only imagine the harsh living conditions encountered by early inhabitants, the English, German and Scotch-Irish who lived hard in these mountains. As if he read my thoughts, my guide assured me my imagination was spot on.

“For many in these parts, making moonshine was an economic necessity. The abundance of clean water, cheap corn and rugged topography was a perfect combination for bootlegging and hiding stills from the authorities. That’s why this region and nearby Franklin County became known as the ‘Moonshine Capital of the World.’”

Carl McCaniel

Riding through this remote wilderness, I didn’t have any difficulty envisioning copper stills tucked into the hills and hollows in the surrounding mountains, away from the prying eyes of the revenue agents trying to regulate and tax the production of spirits. 

After a quick round of shooting sporting clays on Primland’s world-renowned sporting-clay course, McDaniel and I said our goodbyes. My education continued in the main lodge, but the ride wasn’t over. Santana Lawson, Primland’s head mixologist, was my instructor for this leg of the trip. A native of nearby Mount Airy, North Carolina, Lawson has been a mixologist at Primland for nearly a decade and uses her imagination and passion for moonshine to create unique and tasty cocktails featuring the high-proof, traditionally local spirit.

“Moonshine has been in these parts for a very long time,” Lawson said. “Both my grandfather and great-uncle were moonshiners, so I guess it’s in my blood.” 

Sitting at the bar, I glanced over her shoulder and studied a broad variety of moonshine bottles carefully arranged on the shelves, waiting for their call to action. 

“For our signature cocktails, we exclusively use a brand of moonshine called Midnight Moon,” she continued. “It’s produced by Piedmont Distillers out of Madison, North Carolina.”

Piedmont Distillers was founded in 2005 by Joe Michalek, a tobacco marketing executive from New York. Michalek developed a strong affinity for moonshine on his numerous trips to North Carolina and used his professional background to help create a premium market for legal moonshine. 

“The ritual around moonshine is something else,” said Michalek. “There’s a lot of emotion. It’s illicit and hard to get. Midnight Moon is different from other moonshines because it marries modern distilling technology with the authentic traditions of prior generations. We view moonshine as following tradition and history, and taking the time to put it all together.”

Midnight Moon’s front man is Junior Johnson, a NASCAR legend credited with being the first driver to use the drafting technique that helped him win the 1960 Daytona 500. Johnson’s father was a lifelong bootlegger who spent nearly 20 of his 63 years in prison for illicit moonshine activities. His son’s passion for driving and claim that he was “too young to drive, but too good not to,” made him a natural to carry on with his family’s business. Johnson spent one year in prison in 1956 for having an illegal still, but he was never caught transporting bootleg liquor.

According to Lawson, the process for making moonshine is relatively straightforward, which attracted early bootleggers. Moonshiners first grind corn into meal and then soak the meal in hot water. Although other grains can be used to ferment alcohol, moonshiners prefer corn because of its high sugar content, low cost and abundance in the region.

Moonshiners then add malt to the mix, followed by yeast, which begins fermentation. They heat the mixture, called “mash,” to 172 degrees and alcohol begins to evaporate. It is then forced through coiled copper pipes and ends up in a barrel or jug where it condenses. The resulting moonshine is mostly clear, odorless and tasteless; it ranges from 80 to 100 proof. Unlike whiskey and bourbon, moonshine does not undergo aging and is ready for consumption. 

We’ve all heard stories about moonshine causing blindness. They largely date back to Prohibition, when unlawful distilling was producing large quantities of alcohol with little thought to safety or quality. In some instances, lye was added to the product to speed fermentation. Times have clearly changed. 

As I sat on my barstool at Primland’s 19th Pub, surrounded by craft beers and single-malt scotches, I couldn’t help but wonder how moonshine has risen to such prominence at this five-star resort. Lawson encouraged me to withhold judgment until I had a chance to truly experience moonshine and its many facets. 

“Moonshine is very versatile and can be used in a number of different ways,” she assured me. “It can be sipped straight, either as an aperitif or for dessert, or it can be used as a basis for one of the many moonshine cocktails that we make here at Primland.” 

In addition to the unflavored moonshine (both in 80 and 100 proof), Midnight Moon offers a variety of flavored moonshines, including strawberry, cranberry, blueberry and the flavor that I fell in love with, apple pie. These flavored versions come with a deep hue and a smooth, fruity taste, perfect for sipping or mixing. The menu of moonshine cocktails at Primland is constantly evolving. The resort offers signature cocktails, as well as seasonal and holiday concoctions. The drinks are comprised of creative ingredient combinations and handmade mixers. I assure you there is a moonshine offering here for everyone 

“I love to bring flavors together. Moonshine offers tremendous flexibility and versatility,” Lawson said.

I nodded in agreement and worked my way through the range of beverages she set in front of me. I am delighted to report her moonshine cocktails tasted as authentic as the region they were made in. I felt like an outlaw in the now-civilized Moonshine Capital of the World. My host inquired if I cared for another, and I replied with a please and a thank you. 

Eric Kallen is an avid sportsman who spends his time in Charlottesville, Virginia, the mountains of western North Carolina and the shores of Mobile Bay, Alabama

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