By Monica S. Schultz
Mention the word “moonshine” to most people and images of ignorant outlaws in the hills of Appalachia or drunken mob-driven speakeasies spring to mind.
However, the true story of moonshine has always been one of entrepreneurship in the midst of recession.
Now with craft distilling becoming more popular (and legal), the story continues, but is becoming much tastier.
“We make six types of moonshine here in our distillery,” said Flat Rock Spirits owner Brad Measel in the cozy tasting room at the distillery in Fairborn, Ohio.
In addition to making their Stillwrights Traditional Moonshine recipe, Brad, his brother, Shawn, and his cousin, James Bagford, make Cinnamon Moonshine, Peach Cobbler Moonshine, Apple Pie Moonshine, Margarita Moonshine and Key Lime Pie Moonshine — the last four of which won medals at the 2014 American Distillers Institute Judging of American Craft Spirits.
They began making moonshine in their distillery after their rigging business began to decline.
“With the economic downturn and industry leaving the area, we knew we were going to have to find a new business,” Brad explained. “We started doing research on what businesses work well in recessions and alcohol kept coming up. So we learned everything we could about distilling, sold the business Dad started and decided to start with bourbon.”
With the bourbon aging in barrels for a minimum of two years, however, the fledgling business decided to create a product that wouldn’t need the time investment to start generating revenue.
“We tried rum, but couldn’t come up with a flavor we liked,” Brad said. “Then someone said, ‘Why don’t you try moonshine?’ Well, we did, and right away we liked what we made.”
In the United States, moonshine first appeared with Scottish and Irish immigrants who came with family recipes and techniques that had been passed down from generation to generation. Over time, these recipes were altered to accommodate whatever ingredients were easiest and cheapest to acquire.
Because corn was easily accessible, but sometimes difficult to transport for sale, farmers would use their surplus crops to help subsidize their family’s income. This proved to be a profitable business for the farmers until after the Revolutionary War.
To help pay off the war debt, the newly established government created a federal tax on distilled spirits. The unpopular tax was repealed in the early 1800s; however, the tax was reinstated after the Civil War when unemployment and the country’s debt rose again.
Farmers and others who had come to rely on the extra income began hiding their stills in the back woods and running their operations at night under the light of the moon, hence the name “moonshiners.”
Hocking Hills had its fair share of moonshiners, but it was a labor dispute with the miners that hoisted the area to moonshining fame in the late 1800s.
As the labor dispute escalated, a group of workers took matters into their own hands and set fire to the underground mines. The fire raged (and continues today) spewing smoke from mine cavities and caves throughout the region.
“Moonshine starts with a corn mash,” explained Bill Merkle, one of the owners of the Straitsville Special Distillery in New Straitsville, Ohio. “After the mash has fermented, it’s heated to cook off the alcohol. The alcohol becomes a steam before it condenses back into a liquid.”
With the smoke rising in the air from multiple underground vents, it would have been difficult for authorities to determine what was smoke and what was steam from illegal distilling. And so moonshine boomed in the region.
Organizers of the New Straitsville Moonshine Festival, held annually on Memorial Day weekend, state that at the height of prohibition, more liquor came through that city than anywhere else.
When Ohio House Bill 499 passed in 2012 legalizing micro-distillery operations and sales in Ohio, Bill, his wife, his sister, his friend, Doug Nutter, and Doug’s wife decided to turn their hometown heritage into a family business.
“We’re using techniques that are more than a century old,” Bill said. “Our recipe is top secret, but I can tell you we do use the local spring water, and we filter our moonshine six times from start to finish.”
Presently the Straitsville Special Moonshine is available in traditional moonshine and hot apple pie moonshine. Bill and his partners expect a few additions to their product line before the upcoming festival.
So how do you drink it?
“Forget that it’s moonshine,” says Sheri Cranmer, owner and head mixologist of the Upstairs Bar & Grill in Waynesville, Ohio, “and think about it as flavors.”
Sheri is a fan of Stillwrights. She is the only establishment that carries all six of Stillwrights’ moonshine flavors.
“When you first mention moonshine, people are frightened,” said Sheri. “They think the drink will knock them on their seats, but once they taste it, they open up to the flavors. It’s not any stronger than a good vodka or bourbon.”
Stillwrights Traditional Moonshine at 104.7 proof, Stillwrights flavored moonshines at 70 proof, and Straitsville Special Moonshines at 90 proof are all well below the legal alcohol limit for moonshine in the state of Ohio and not too far out of the range of traditional hard liquors like bourbon, rum, vodka and whiskey.
“Anything you’d use a bourbon or a vodka with, you could use moonshine,” Sheri says, then tosses out a few drink suggestions that got heads nodding at the bar. “We sell a lot of chilled shots of cinnamon moonshine, and a lot of people like the cinnamon moonshine in their Angry Orchard. But I like to come up with new combinations and see what works.”
The people at the bar and the other bartender have a thoughtful conversation about which is their most popular drink — Moonlit Sex on the Deck, which uses both Stillwrights Traditional and Peach Cobbler Moonshines; and the Key Largo Island, which uses Stillwrights Key Lime Pie Moonshine, both Sheri’s creations. And they’re both good, especially from the Upstairs Bar & Grill’s deck overlooking the rolling hills nearby.
Sheri has already created more than a dozen drinks using Stillwrights flavored moonshines, but she likes to think outside the glass, too.
“I wanted to use Stillwrights in our wing sauce, but didn’t want it to be just another bourbon sauce,” she said. “Then it hit me — Margarita Moonshine, with just a hint of the margarita taste lingering. One of our regulars likes it so well, they ordered a side of it with their fish on Friday.”
Bill agrees moonshine can work with cooking, noting that some of his Straitsville Special customers use moonshine as a marinade.
“The alcohol from the moonshine will soften up even the toughest piece of chicken or steak,” he said, then pauses and laughs, “just like some of my customers.”