Cigar Aficionado

Shine on Harvest Moon

Two bottles of moonshine just landed on my desk.

Well, not technically moonshine, but it's labeled as such. The 'shine in question is Junior Johnson's Midnight Moon and Catdaddy Carolina Moonshine, and it does have the seal of approval from Mr. Johnson, himself a certified and convicted moonshiner, as well as a legendary NASCAR driver.

Johnson was a frequent winner on the driving circuit from 1955 to 1965. You may know him from a Tom Wolfe magazine story published in Esquire or the movie The Last American Hero, both of which championed his exploits as a runner of the illegal alcohol his father made in copper stills in the hills of North Carolina. You needed a fast car and steel nerve to outrun the federal agents. Johnson had both in spades. He souped up his car to outrun the revenuers and then developed a slew of maneuvers to outfox them. The power slide was his, as well as the bootleg turn, a 180-degree about-face when confronted with a roadblock. Never caught behind the wheel, Junior finally did time when captured tending his daddy's still. After paying his debt to society, he figured it would be more lucrative to put his driving skills to use on the burgeoning stock car circuit, where he became an instant success and folk hero. In 1986, Ronald Reagan pardoned him, restoring his right to vote. (A Democrat, Johnson recently endorsed Barack Obama.)

Anyway, he joined forces with Piedmont Distillers in Madison, N.C. to market Junior Johnson's Midnight Moon, which he describes as, "Smoother than vodka. Better than whiskey. Best shine ever."

I would agree that the product is quite vodka-like and very smooth. I would, however, take exception to the middle statement, but anyone who knows my affinity for whiskey could figure that out. The last pronouncement I would agree with, except that this is not really "shine" as it isn't illegal and it's triple-distilled in column stills, which would entail a high-profile operation that few savvy moonshiners would attempt.

I've had moonshine, and it's nowhere near as smooth as this product. The late Max Allen, who was bartender emeritus at Louisville's Seelbach Hotel, once invited me to his home to sample the wares of some of the local moonshining practitioners. Although they were invited, none of them showed. As I've said it is not a high-profile profession. Max and I sat down to breakfast and tasted six different moonshines, all in Mason jars. They weren't terrible, but the taste of fusel oil lingered on each. It's hard enough to distill alcohol under perfect conditions, but when you have to remain under cover, using homemade contraptions and without the luxury of multiple distillations to remove impurities, you're really playing catch up ball.

The guys who made the moonshine I tasted, Max explained, were doing it mostly as a hobby to keep alive a family tradition that had been passed down through the years. There's not much money in moonshine any more, but Max recalled a time in the Great Depression when running a still could keep a family going through hard times.

And it was pretty serious business. In particular, Max told the story of a couple federal agents who approached a hillbilly kid and asked him to take them to some illegal stills up in the mountains for the fee of $5. The kid asked to be paid before they went up, and the agents told him they'd pay him when they came down. The kid said, "If I take you up there, you ain't comin' back down."

P.S.— While I liked the Midnight Moon, I will not vouch for Piedmont Distillers' other product: Catdaddy Carolina Moonshine. It tastes like Bazooka bubble gum.

"He isn't driving anymore. At least on the racing track. And if that isn't line of demarcation, who of us could put our name on the bottle?" —October 31, 2008 15:00 PM
"I know the historical ties of NASCAR to moonshining, but for Junior Johnson to put his name on a bottle while still driving is a little irresponsible. Unless he's smoking a good cigar with it and is going to promise to send me some.AB" —October 31, 2008 13:14 PM