Moonshine is many things to many people. To unemployed Ma Swaller in Possum Twat, Arkansas, it’s survival economics as she sells Persimmon Punch for a buck a cup to her neighbors. To Dork Hazzard, it’s dodging (literally) the Feddies in a souped-up Charger that can run on booze. To Blind Melon Chitlin, it’s the gauge that didn’t measure the methanol correctly.
To me, it’s hitchhiking in rural Tennessee as a teenager, being picked up by a gap-toothed cracker who passed over a jam jar of clear liquid and asked if I’d ever tried ‘White Mule’ before. Not wanting to look like the callow, slumming Yankee fuckwit that I was, I replied, ‘Sure! Lots of times!’ but I could tell that he didn’t believe me. I was dutifully instructed to hold my forehead tightly before I drank, and when I asked why, he said, ‘Jest do it.’
In fact, to his profound rebel-yell-howling amusement, I swallowed and—feeling as though I had just been kicked in the forehead by the phantasmagorical white mule—gacked and grimaced and clutched my imploding brow with enough force to rip a phone book in half.
How can there not be a commercial angle to this shit?
And According to Ole Smoky Distillery, There Is…
On top of Ole Smoky, all covered in pine
I tossed my poor cookies, from suckin dat ‘shine.
– Folk ballad
So, in the mail I receive—at my request—several quart jars of Ole Smoky Tennessee Moonshine, compete with retro labels that look like they were typed on an antique Underwood.
Undertable might be more appropriate: Thar’s some whomp-ass in them thar Smokies. The signature tipple, called ‘Original’ is strong as a draft horse and about as posh, but it’s clean as the country water in that old song about Nashville Cats. The label claims that it’s 80% homegrown corn from Eastern Tennessee, with the other twenty percent being some proprietary secret that gives it ‘the distinct character of genuine moonshine’. Not sure that this is the wisest marketing strategy considering that the real backwater deal occasionally contains antifreeze, glycol and lead (potentially deadly) as well as methanol, an optic nerve poison. And yet, the fact that I am alive to use my late-model Underwood to type a review and can physically see what I just reviewed—albeit in double—is indication that Ole Smoky did make me croaky, so they won’t be heading to the pokey.
Beside 100 proof ‘Original’, Ole Smoky also offers ‘White Lightnin’’ flavor—an attempt to produce some highbrow, Hipsterberry Finn version of hooch. Five times distilled, which effectively removes anything that could be confused with character, Ole Smoky touts the bevvie as a gin or vodka alternative. But, lest you forget that it is actually nothing more than unadulterated E85 in a mason jar, the PR says it’s for mixin’ rather than mixing—just in case you snobs try to get too uptown with it.
The other flavors, Blackberry, Apple Pie, Cherries and Lemon Drop are for the feint of heart. At a pallid 40 proof—little more than strong zinfandel—they are hardly the stuff of forehead clutchery—essentially, to White Mule what Paulie Shore is to Stanislavski method acting.
With state laws relaxing marijuana penalties—even while strengthening their hold on the stuff by demanding all sorts of fees and permits and bag limits on it—you can be sure that you’ll soon be seeing upmarket schemes for investors to make more bhang for the buck. As we speak, two Yale MBA graduates called Brendan Kennedy and Michael Blue are running a Seattle private-equity fund designed to buy up the smaller marijuana-related businesses to create a single over-priced organic pot hypermart.
Likewise, it is not surprising that the once-clandestine art of backyard distilling, which has always existed in the hollers and forests of Appalachia far from the prying revenuer’s eye, should be making a run for mainstream gentrification.
What remains to be seen is if the true charm of moonshine is in its furtive, tax-free, below-the-radar illegality, or if it is something that really needs a spot on the shelves of the rich and famous.
My rotgut tells me that Ole Smoky is a fad—a flavor-the-month, something that the blue-bloods will drink for a hoot, but only once in a blue moon.
Ole Smoky Tennessee Moonshine, various flavors, around $28/750 ml.
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