Once a symbol of mountain rebellion and law-breaking abandon, moonshine is becoming, well, almost genteel.
NASCAR legend Junior Johnson, who served 11 months of a two-year sentence for running illegal liquor in the mid-1950s, is co-owner of a completely legal and legitimate distillery in Madison, N.C., not far from where he once evaded law enforcement officers through wheel-screeching, middle-of-the-road U-turns in a car loaded with his daddy’s moonshine.
Piedmont Distillers opened in 2005, and Johnson joined as a partner two years later. The craft distillery’s moonshine recipe, Midnight Moon, is one Johnson learned from his father, Robert Lynn Johnson Sr.
“We triple-distill it, and it’s got a real soft taste and not a burny taste,” Junior tells me, over a plate of barbecue and beans in a Tennessee hollow, where he has stopped to eat before an appearance at nearby Bristol Motor Speedway. “My daddy always run 100 proof. Ours is 80.
“We go up against them big-name vodkas and beat the fire out of them,” says Junior, who grew up about 10 miles outside North Wilkesboro, N.C. “We work them over now, I’ll tell you. We’ve not come out with anything yet that didn’t sell to the top of our expectations.”
In February of 2011, Piedmont introduced a line of “fruit inclusion spirits.” Cherry, strawberry and apple pie are the new flavors. Mason jars are hand-filled with fruit and Midnight Moon corn liquor.
“The ladies really like the apple pie,” Junior tells me. “We’re in 37 states now, and people up north, they’re just drinking these products like the devil.”
When Junior and his colleagues were in the market for a still, they visited Jack Daniel’s in Tennessee and Jim Beam in Kentucky for ideas.
“Then we contacted a manufacturer, and three days later they called back and told us there was a still available in North Carolina, just like what we wanted. And built in 1930. And we went and hunted it down, and it was all copper. It didn’t have no rust on it or nothing. We cleaned that booger up and set our fire and went to making liquor.”
Junior Johnson, now 80, is one of five inductees in the NASCAR Hall of Fame’s inaugural class. He received a presidential pardon from Ronald Reagan in 1986 for his 1956 moonshining conviction.
Midnight Moon Cocktail Recipes
Midnight Moon and Lemonade
1 1/2 ounces Midnight Moon over ice and fill with lemonade.
1 1/2 ounces Midnight Moon and a splash of dry vermouth. Shake with ice and serve in a martini glass. Garnish with an olive or lemon peel.
Midnight Moon and Tonic
1 1/2 ounces Midnight Moon over ice and fill with tonic. Garnish with lime.