Commentary

At least go back to making moonshine in the woods, Junior

Imagine Ed Hinton's disappointment when he learned recently that backwoods-made, midnight-hauled moonshine -- the lifeblood of early NASCAR -- is actually fancy-pants, pinkie-in-the-air vodka. Oh, the travesty!

Updated: December 19, 2008, 9:28 PM ET
By Ed Hinton | ESPN.com

Junior JohnsonAP Photo/Rick HavnerJunior Johnson's gone legit? His Midnight Moon is likely available at a fine spirits retailer near you.

In this time of tinkling ice cubes and holiday punch, have you grown tired of spiced rum? Is bourbon too obtrusive in your eggnog? Is scotch just not festive enough? Mulled wine too sweet?

Well, then … have you considered moonshine?

Versatile stuff, moonshine.

Moonshine on the rocks. Moonshine martini (shaken, not stirred). Shine and soda, with a twist. Maybe a big bowl of moon nog. And for your holiday brunch, how about Moonshine Marys with a little Tabasco and a celery stalk?

This is particularly appropriate for NASCAR enthusiasts this time of year. Why drink everyday liquor when you can celebrate with the very elixir from which all NASCAR life originated?

I should point out quickly -- before my house is raided by ATF agents -- that my holiday hints are entirely legal, thanks to one Robert Glen Johnson Jr., better known as Junior Johnson, the most notorious moonshine runner ever to hit NASCAR.

Junior, 77, and his business partners are making and selling moonshine legally from an old distillery that had been shut down since a federal raid in 1930 in Madison, N.C. Junior and friends obtained a license by agreeing to pay the state and federal tax on the liquor they produced.

Much of moonshine lore involved the avoidance of paying tax, but Junior and friends have preserved the flavor for polite society.

Junior Johnson's Midnight Moon ("Carolina Moonshine," the label elaborates) is made from his daddy's recipe, which is "over 100 years old," Junior said the other day.

It's been handed down through a lineage that never considered moonshining wrong, just a violation of unjust federal tax laws. It was, simply, a way to make a living for families on hardscrabble Appalachian farmland.

It's the same recipe that filled the thousands of quart jars, in cases, that revenuers hauled out of the Johnson household in 1935, when Junior was just 4. They were sliding the cases down on planks from the attic, and Junior and his brother Fred had a grand time riding the cases down the slides.

"The officers would fuss at us: 'You young'uns git your hind ends outta here!'" Junior recalls. "We says, 'We live here! You'uns git outta here!'"

It's the same mash -- fermented from corn, malt and sugar -- Junior was getting ready to boil when he went down to stoke his father's still in the predawn hours of a morning in 1956 and found revenuers waiting in the woods. He was so fast, so artful on the road that they had never caught him by car -- and never would -- so they had to tackle him on foot.

He did a year in federal prison, and he couldn't even vote or get a passport for another 30 years, until he was pardoned by President Ronald Reagan in 1986.

Same mash, but different distilling process. It's triple distilled for smoothness, and it's held to 80 proof.

"Moonshiners make it 100 proof," Junior said in present tense, for there is still some illegal moonshining today -- largely to keep the tradition alive. "And the 100-proof stuff, it burns the s--- out of you."

Thus terms such as "white lightnin'" and "white liquor."

But it was in researching Midnight Moon that I discovered a secret that somewhat burst my bubble about all the lore of moonshine runners turned race drivers.

Moonshine is vodka.

Junior Johnson
AP photo/str/xnJunior Johnson always did know how to have a good time.

Glorious, grassroots, pop-skull, rotgut, backwoods-made, midnight-hauled moonshine is nothing in the world but prissy, fancy-pants, sipped-at-the-club vodka.

All those bootlegger turns Junior and all the other runners -- all the way back to legendary Lloyd Seay of Georgia in the 1930s -- did, all the 150 mph chases they won, they were hauling vodka?

It just wouldn't have been the same if, in the most notorious moonshine movie of them all, "Thunder Road," the theme song had gone, "There was vodka, vodka to quench the devil's thirst …"

Or if John Denver had sung, "Misty taste of vodka, teardrop in my eye."

Viewed another way, the mad monk Rasputin held his sway over the Romanov dynasty while sloshed on Russian moonshine.

Or James Bond could have insisted on a moonshine martini, shaken not stirred.

All these years of covering NASCAR, and writing copiously about the crime that birthed it, had left me feeling like something of a connoisseur of moonshine.

Over the years, I'd been given Cherry Bounce, a North Carolina specialty in which the moonshine is poured over a quart jar full of wild cherries to age. It's usually about 100 proof.

Strongest of all was "peach brandy," 150-proof moonshine poured over a large, peeled peach in the jar and aged until it developed the smoothness of, oh, kerosene.

Best of all was a delicacy of the northern Georgia mountains, double-distilled moonshine aged with strawberries, as smooth as any fine French cognac you'll find.

But I'd never had any unflavored moonshine. I assumed that because it's often called "moonshine whiskey" or "corn liquor," it had some sort of rough bourbon flavor in the raw.

Junior, who still follows NASCAR closely and still has plenty of expert opinions, had been touting his legal moonshine to me, off and on, for more than a year when I finally bought a bottle at a liquor store in North Carolina.

I took it home, poured a shot and winced with expectation of a harsh corn flavor. But it tasted like vodka, and when I read the label, sure enough, it said, "100% grain neutral spirits."

With my shocking discovery, I phoned a friend and fellow North Carolina resident, he a Tar Heel from birth and a connoisseur of moonshine since age 14.

"You go ahead and write that moonshine is vodka," he warned. "They'll run you out of this state."

Then what does it taste like?

We've held some taste tests, and we wear the vodka people out.

-- Junior Johnson

"It tastes like -- well -- white liquor," he said. "Stroooong alcohol taste."

Well, that's vodka.

Junior made no bones about it. Moonshine always has been straight grain alcohol, he confirmed, before the flavoring is added. All that flavored vodka you see nowadays is, in a way, just a descendant of Cherry Bounce and peach brandy.

Now liquor stores place Midnight Moon alongside premium brands of vodka.

"We've held some taste tests, and we wear the vodka people out," Junior said. "Everywhere we've had a taste test, we've won it -- against Absolut, and all of 'em."

But with the triple distilling, the purity, the smoothness -- and all that state and federal tax -- comes a price. Midnight Moon runs about $19.95 a bottle.

I told Junior I wish he'd go back to making it in the woods, so there wouldn't be such heavy tax and his moonshine wouldn't cost so dang much.

He got a big laugh out of that.

It's not as if he doesn't know how.

Ed Hinton is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at edward.t.hinton@espn3.com.

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