By Steve Wood, (Cherry Hill, N.J.) Courier-Post
Inside a barrel, beside a cabin, deep within an Appalachian hollow and far from the long arms of the law is where moonshine once sparkled.
Actually, it probably still shines there today. But nowadays, you also can find the formerly outlawed liquor for sale at plenty of spirit stores and some bars nationwide.
Demand for the backwoods beverage is booming at national barbecue chain Famous Dave's, where moonshine stars in four cocktails served in Mason jars.
"They're actually a very popular drink," says James Santos, general manager of the Cherry Hill, N.J. location.
Famous Dave's stocks several flavors of Firefly Moonshine, bottled by a South Carolina company. Whether intrigued by its name or reputation, many patrons are willing to take a gamble on moonshine.
"I think the first initial one is out of curiosity. (The mindset is), 'This is on TV, this is advertised on barbecue shows or cooking shows,'" says Santos. "I think it's more like, 'Hmm moonshine, I wonder what this tastes like. Let me give it a try.' "... And there actually has been plenty of repeat orders."
Rolled out in late May for the summer, Famous Dave's four moonshine cocktails have earned a longer stay on the drink menu, whetting whistles throughout the winter. Famous Dave's' In-Famous Margarita contains triple sec, orange juice, moonshine and a rim of Famous Dave's signature barbecue rub; Stillhouse Sangria involves peach moonshine, pinot grigio, pineapple juice, orange juice; Shiner's Punch rocks cherry moonshine, Jim Beam Whiskey, pineapple juice and maple brown sugar molasses, and best-selling Fire-N-Ice Tea marries moonshine with Fireball Cinnamon Whisky, iced tea, lemon juice and a rim of cinnamon sugar.
All the sweetness helps mask the harsh dose of alcohol moonshine is known for.
"It's not as high proof as most people would think," Santos says.
Firefly Moonshine boasts a 100.7 proof. By comparison, Jack Daniel's Tennessee Whiskey touts a respectable 80 proof.
Daniel De Larosa, manager of Roger Wilco Sicklerville, says moonshine sales heat up when the weather turns cold.
"The winter time is when people start buying more," De Larosa says. ". . . When the weather changes, they like (their drinks) different."
For a tasty treat, Roger Wilco Sicklerville suggests mixing Midnight Moon Apple Pie Moonshine, complete with cinnamon sticks, with ginger ale or cream soda.
Midnight Moon and Firefly are just part of the proliferation of moonshine distillers born out of the recession of 2008, when many states loosened laws regulating distilleries to generate employment and new tax revenue.
One of the biggest operations, Ole Smoky Moonshine Distillery, sold as many as 280,000 cases of moonshine in 2012, up from 50,000 cases in 2010, according to food-and-beverage-analysis firm Technomic. Ole Smokey now is available in 49 states - or every state beside Utah.
The rise of moonshine is one of the biggest booze trends Santos has witnessed since Famous Dave's opened in 2006.
"The only thing I can compare it to is the beer industry, which has gone less mainstream, more handcrafted," Santos says. ". . . The spirits tend to follow major beer movements, as well."
Of course, that begs the question if taxable moonshine is even moonshine at all.
After all, the word "moonshine" is believed to originate from the term "moonrakers," used for those who practice clandestine business by the light of the moon, or in this case, operate an illegal Appalachian distiller to avoid taxes.
Tim Smith, an original moonshiner and new star of reality show Discovery's Moonshiners, has sampled the popular brands, but contends his Climax Moonshine is the best moonshine on any market, including the black market.
"Mine is just a real smooth moonshine," says Smith, who plied his trade illegally for decades before debuting Climax Moonshine in August. "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, whose moonshine is only available in South Carolina and Georgia so far, 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.
Smith 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."
(Contributing: Chris Talbott of the Associated Press.)