NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Tim Smith, the clandestine star of Discovery’s unexpected reality hit “Moonshiners,” doesn’t have anything against the growing legion of legal distillers who are plying their brands at your local liquor store.
He just doesn’t want to drink their stuff.
“Mine is just a real smooth moonshine,” Smith said. “That’s the only way I can explain it. I’ve tasted some of the other brands trying to figure out what they’re making and stuff like that. I’m not trying to put down nobody, don’t get me wrong. Everybody’s got their own business. But everybody I taste, that’s about what I throw away.”
Smith’s Climax Moonshine is the latest entry in the big bang-like moonshine trade where new legal brands are being introduced every few months it seems. Former outlaws like Smith and the descendants of larger-than-life figures like Popcorn Sutton or Jack “Mimm” McClure – as well as corporate titans like Jack Daniels and Jim Beam – are all attempting to cash in on the growing trend.
“It has just come from out of nowhere in the past few years. There are just so many distillers popping up,” says Andrew Faulkner, vice president of trade group The American Distilling Institute. But hard number are difficult to find, in part because the definition of moonshine is a bit murky. Anything from corn whiskey to flavored neutral spirits might be marketed as moonshine.
As fans of “Moonshiners” – which drew an average of 3.25 million fans to make the show the Wednesday night cable leader – know, Smith’s been having a hard time getting in the legal game after two decades of plying his trade in shadowy ways in the hills around Climax, Va.
His brand finally debuts in Georgia this week and he hopes to be on the shelves in South Carolina soon.
“South Carolina and Georgia right now is all that’s stepped up to the plate,” Smith said in a phone interview during filming of the show’s third season, debuting this fall. “The other guys are a little bit unsure of what they want to do because I’m still listed as an outlaw.”
Smith and “Moonshiners” taps into the mythic nature of illegal outdoor distilling. Always an interesting subcategory in the American outlaw canon, the sudden availability of the over-the-counter stuff has taken the onetime cliche out of the dark valleys and into America’s trendiest bars and restaurants. You can buy moonshine drinks of every flavor and stripe, bake moonshine cookies or just drink it straight from the jar.
That the clear corn liquor has made it into the stores is an irony Tommy Townsend, maker of Grandaddy Mimm’s Authentic Corn Whiskey, chuckles at.
“Well, I guess the reason it’s popular is it’s illegal liquor being sold legally now,” Townsend said. “It’s funny. This term moonshine just came from people back in the old days making it illegally so they wouldn’t have to pay taxes on it.”
Now it goes for $25 to $50 or more down per 750 milliliters on the corner.
Townsend’s grandfather was something of a legendary figure in the field in Young Harris, Ga., the tri-state area where Georgia, Tennessee and North Carolina meet. Rumored to have influential friends in politics and law enforcement, he only served time in jail once during his day.
Mimm was the last of a breed and the recipe was in danger of passing out of memory when a friend idly mentioned the growing interest in moonshine. Townsend, the singer for the late Waylon Jenning’s band Waymore’s Outlaws, told the story of his grandfather’s business venture and the friend suggested he track down that recipe.
“He said he’d help back it, you know, because there’s lots of money in alcohol,” Townsend said with a laugh.
Smith doesn’t believe the escalation in legal moonshine has had even the slightest impact on the illegal trade – “We never could keep up with the demand no way.” – and believes it’s far more expansive than the general public believes.
Not everyone can pull it off, though. Moonshine might seem simple: You mix corn, sugar and water together and run it through an easily learned cooking process. But it really isn’t. He says the moonshine-curious should make sure the brand they buy came from the still to the store.
Anyone else is just pushing product.
“What I’ve learned over say the last 20 years that I’ve actually been deep in research on the illegal side is that those legal distilleries out there have never made legal moonshine before, have no experience at all,” he said. “They only know the process. They go to an institute where they learn the process of it from a chemical engineer. Anyone can learn the basic process. You can learn it in elementary school. It’s chemistry. But actually doing it and tasting it and understanding what you’re doing, nobody’s done that.”