Sweaty outlaw-types laboring over backyard stills. Fake drawers and secret compartments. Beat cops who look like Sean Connery, bribes, speakeasies, secret knocks, mobsters and weird afflictions like blindness and "jake leg."
Moonshine 101, right?
Nowadays, not so much. You can walk into nearly any CT package store and grab a legal bottle of high quality, 80-proof moonshine, thanks to Onyx Spirits Company, a boutique distillery founded by Adam von Gootkin, 29, and his partner Peter Kowalczyk, 31, nearly a year ago. Von Gootkin, Kowalczyk and a small staff create and market the stuff themselves out of a rustic 1,300-square-foot warehouse space in Manchester.
When I visited their facility last week, a table in the center of the room supported a prohibition-era still — two large copper urns, with a complex set of pipes running between them — that von Gootkin and Kowalczyk use to demonstrate the distillation process. Near the entrance, 10 or so industrial-size containers, filled with "finished product" — 160-proof moonshine — waiting to be blended, sat next to a large metal blending vat. Jugs of spring water drawn near the Middlefield-Meriden line rested across the room, adjacent to a small hydrometer station, where the team verifies they've blended enough water and moonshine to reach the desired 80-proof strength (any more than that, they say, and your taste buds become anesthetized). At the remaining corner, a co-worker manned the bottling station. After tasting each batch for consistency, they fill four bottles at once (they have to be the perfect height), then cork them by hand and seal the tops.
"It has to be exactly 80 proof every time," von Gootkin said, as he demonstrated how to affix front and back labels to a bottle. When enough product is ready, it's picked up by the distributor and sent to roughly 1,000 liquor stores and restaurants statewide (for the first five or six months of operation, von Gootkin and Kowalczyk dealt the shine from the trunks of their cars). Von Gootkin estimated they can currently produce a batch of around 40 6-bottle cases per day, but production will increase by two or three times that amount by the end of the year.
"This is the first time, since we've opened, that we've had back-stock," von Gootkin says. "We are launching in Massachusetts, so we wanted to make sure we had enough to supply Connecticut and Mass. We haven't slept much in the last nine months."
What does or doesn't qualify as authentic moonshine is very much up in the air these days. "Historically it's been made from all kinds of things: apples, peaches, raisins," said Matthew Rowley, a San Diego-based food historian, writer and author of Moonshine! "Only in the last few years have people done this sort of revisionist history, where it's all thought of as corn-based. There are a lot of really great spirits out there, but I take a curmudgeonly stand against what some people are calling 'moonshine.'"
The definition of moonshine, Rowley continued, is any spirit that's made illegally, so legal moonshine is an oxymoron. "I understand what people mean by it, but sometimes it does a pretty solid disservice to what people in the past created as moonshine." There were, and continue to be, moonshiners who make their spirits only with corn, but that changed when sugar became cheap in the early 20th century. "There was this unquenchable thirst for liquor during Prohibition, and you could make it a lot faster if you used table sugar than if you fermented without it," Rowley said. "Even what we consider to be authentic, old-school moonshine is made from sugar. Our father's and grandfather's moonshine was made with sugar."
Still, von Gootkin and Kowalczyk said theirs is an historically accurate recipe, with a few minor tweaks. "Our goal was not just to create a Connecticut moonshine," von Gootkin said. "It was also to create the highest quality American moonshine ever. It's taken us three years to get to this point."
They may have achieved that. Their basic mash, von Gootkin said, consisting of corn, grain and spring water, is "very different than the southern kind." Down south, he said, folks moonshined to keep food on the table, but because the economy fared slightly better in New England during Prohibition, taste and quality were bigger concerns. "You had a lot of farmers who were moonshining here, but they were doing it for personal consumption. What that means is that you had a higher caliber of whiskey, a better quality whiskey."
They've also embraced their outlaw roots. When I left the warehouse, I headed over to Moonshine Mixology at the Pond House Grille in Glastonbury, the first of several late-summer promotional events they'd planned for the month of August. A tuxedo-ed gentleman supplied me with a password (it was "jazz"), which I slipped to an attendant behind a closed door that led to a well-appointed ballroom, where dozens of young people mingled and a pianist was rocking "Stairway to Heaven" and "Moondance" (naturally). Set up around the room were tasting stations; the first yielded the Royal Middleton, a concoction with muddled blueberries, lemonade and Moscato that was chilled and strained. It became immediately apparent that moonshine goes great with just about anything, adding a flavor that's somewhere between vodka and whiskey (straight up or over ice, it falls somewhere between Bourbon and Scotch), with enough of a distinctive taste but not one that overpowers. From there I sampled a Moonshine Manhattan, made from sweet vermouth and bitters and served with a tart maraschino cherry. A bartender at another station was putting together Wild Orchids, made with moonshine, elder flowers, Bitter Truth violette liqueur, Tahitian vanilla, white cranberry juice and a splash of lemonade, while in the back of the room patrons visited a potato bar with a choice of three spud dishes (made with moonshine). The owners spoke to the crowd, then drinkers were invited to create their own moonshine cocktails. A table, covered with dozens of barroom mixables, was thoroughly mobbed. (Mine ended up being a simple drink consisting of moonshine over ice with a dab of hot sauce and a single green olive.)
But why moonshine? "Quite frankly," von Gootkin said, "we walked into a liquor store, and we saw that none of the products were made locally. We're importing almost 100% of our liquor that we drink in the state. We were frustrated with that." After some digging, they thought, "Instead of making another damn vodka or rum or something else where you've got 500 of them when you walk into a store, let's make something totally authentic to Connecticut. Let's make something that has a history here."
Onyx recently hired a brand manager for Connecticut, which brings their actual number of full-time employees to four, and von Gootkin said that employee numbers five (a promotions person), six (a brand manager for Massachusetts) and seven (a marketing manager) will be in place by the end of 2012. They're currently looking for a space that's 10 times the size of their current digs, which they believed will end up being within a few miles of where they are now.
"We aren't exactly sure yet," von Gootkin said. "We'll know in the next few weeks."