Out of the shadows: White lightning goes legit

Hocking College students in period clothing pose with the distilling equipment in New Straitsville.

For centuries, moonshine has loomed large in the American imagination — the illegally produced liquor was a key part of the underground economy of many states in the South and in Appalachia. During Prohibition, backwoods moonshiners helped supply speakeasies across the country. NASCAR has its roots in the souped-up cars used by moonshine runners to transport booze. Moonshiners have been the subject of dozens of movies, hundreds of songs, and numerous TV shows, from The Dukes of Hazzard to Moonshiners, a reality show on the Discovery Channel.

In Ohio, New Straitsville was once considered the bootleg capital of the state, and the town still hosts an annual Moonshine Festival. However, until a few years ago, you couldn’t legally drink moonshine at the festival. Thanks to changes in federal and state liquor laws, not only can you now buy moonshine there, you can buy it right off the shelf just about anywhere in the state. The first legal moonshine distillery opened in New Straitsville in 2014, and several more such operations have been launched across the state ever since.

“Moonshine is a big part of the culture and history of New Straitsville,” says Betty Young, the president of nearby Hocking College, which bought the distillery as part of its new fermentation science program.

“This was the first distillery opened under the new Ohio laws, and it is a historic town when it comes to moonshine.”

Roots in Prohibition

Moonshine is a colloquial term for high-proof, unaged whiskey that, for most of the history of the country, was made and distributed illegally. While largely associated with states like Kentucky, West Virginia, and North Carolina, illegal stills also flourished in southern Ohio before, during, and after Prohibition. For years, bootleg liquor provided an important source of income in a part of the state with limited economic opportunity.

In Ohio, moonshine is primarily made from corn, which goes through a mash process. After the mash ferments, it is loaded into a still and heated to release the alcohol vapor. The vapor is collected and condensed into the whiskey. To get a higher proof, the moonshine often is re-distilled in a doubler or thumper.

“Moonshine is something you had to make quick. There’s no time for aging or mellowing, so you had to make a better spirit that could be consumed straight off the still,” says Vinnie Carbone, owner of Canal Spirits Distillery in Canal Fulton, near Akron, where patrons can sample and purchase bottles of his Apparition moonshine.

Carbone was familiar with moonshine (his family hails from Kentucky), but spent most of his adult life working for the county sewer department. While that job wasn’t glamorous, it did lead him to the vacant basement location where his still now sits. “Canal Fulton is a town full of history,” Carbone says. “I had serviced this building and I knew it had an old basement that wasn’t used. I approached the owner about renting it, and we struck a deal.”

Taking advantage of the craft craze

With the recent explosion of small craft breweries and regional wineries, craft distilling seemed to be the next logical step. Hocking College bought the New Straitsville distillery a year ago and hosted its first event there during the 2018 Moonshine Festival. The college is currently working on a rebranding and development effort and plans to manufacture a variety of moonshines, as well as rum and a coffee liqueur.

As part of the fermentation science program, the facility will serve as both a business and a laboratory for students to gain hands-on experience (they can also learn how to operate a brewery or winery).

According to Young, the college is helping to create a workforce for what is emerging as an important piece of the economic development puzzle in southern Ohio and other parts of the state. Microdistilleries can be tourist draws and help foster growth of other nearby businesses, such as restaurants. “We don’t start anything here that doesn’t lead to jobs or business development, and the fermentation program has been a great add-on to our culinary program,” she says.

In addition to traditional moonshine, most distilleries offer flavored varieties — Canal Spirits sells apple pie and blackberry flavors, among others.

“That’s part of the fun,” Carbone says. “You get to see what you can create and make it different and interesting.”

In New Straitsville, Hocking College plans to have a new moonshine product ready for release at this year’s Moonshine Festival.

This year’s Moonshine Festival will take place in New Straitsville, May 23–27. For more information, visit the New Straitsville Facebook page.