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Here's what you need to know about the 'legal moonshine' boom

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The Department of Revenue counts 30 small-scale "craft" distilling operations in South Carolina. File

In May 2009, on the cusp of a national boom in small-scale "craft" distilling, then-Gov. Mark Sanford signed a law that made it easier for enterprising boozehounds to legally, commercially distill liquor in the Palmetto State. 

A decade later, the S.C. Department of Revenue counts 30 such operations in the state, and seven in Charleston County alone. Nearly from the outset, many of these small stills have sold so-called “legal moonshine:” an oxymoron in a Ball jar that has nevertheless delighted curious drinkers since its arrival on liquor store shelves.

"A lot of what drives the legal moonshining business is surprise. It’s a joke, a novelty," said Max Watman, a journalist and author of Chasing The White Dog, a book about modern American moonshine.

He takes umbrage with the contradiction of terms of "legal moonshine," arguing, as others have, that illicitness is core to the definition. Today’s "legal moonshines"—made in the light of day in commercial stills, sold in stores, and subject to taxation—would probably more accurately be described as unaged corn whiskey (also known as raw whiskey or “white dog”). But because these products are "most easily communicated by being called 'moonshine,'" Watman continued, companies wasted no time branding them as such.

Whatever you call this spirit, continued the author, the beginning of its legal boom hit around around 2012, when federal licensing requirements (in addition to most states' own, including South Carolina's) had become sufficiently liberal. At that point, craft distilling followed craft brewing from obscurity to ubiquity.

“A huge part of driving energy of boutique distilling in the beginning was moonshine,” Watman said. “It was an easy way for people to enter the market and get some cash flow while they were working on what they really wanted to do.”

Healthy shine sales in the early portion of last decade, what he characterized as an "onslaught" in a 2016 essay for The Daily Beast, brought new players into the market.

"It was faddy,” recalled Firefly Distillery co-founder Scott Newitt. The Wadmalaw company introduced its own moonshine in 2013, only to watch both local and national markets quickly get overrun by the stuff.

“In 2015, you had a lot of people in the business that aren’t there today," Newitt said. "We saw our business explode, and then come down, and now it’s starting to grow again, because there’s an interest, and less competition." 

The company, which is in the process of shifting its operation to a new facility on Noisette Creek in North Charleston, has moonshine at its core, he continued, pointing to the brand's Mason jar motif, and the fact that his co-founder, Jim Irvin, was once suspended from high school in Kentucky for making then-illegal shine.

Meanwhile, the broader craft spirits market has soared. One industry estimate projects the U.S. craft spirits to bring in revenues of over $20 billion in revenues by 2023. Over the past decade, high-profile acquisitions of smaller brands by bigger ones (Hudson whiskey to the owners of Glennfiddich; Hangar One vodka to a subsidiary of Jose Cuervo) have punctuated the category’s lucrative growth.

Firefly had its own high-profile deal in 2008, when it entered into a joint venture with the Louisiana liquor holding company Sazerac to produce and distribute a portion its sweet tea vodka.

But though legal moonshine’s momentum may have faded slightly — ”it definitely doesn’t have the same visibility” as it did, Watman said — it’s stuck around as a category thanks to customer curiosity, solid economics and regional history.

Glamorized depictions in the media, such as Discovery’s “Moonshiners” docudrama series, don't hurt, either.

“Whenever the show is on, we see a little spike in sales,” Newitt said. Today, Firefly offers six flavors of moonshine, plus unflavored White Lightning, with proofs that range from 40 to 100. 

For Watman, who lives and works in moonshine-friendly central Virginia, there’s something ironic, maybe even absurd, about legal moonshine’s relatively recent ascendance.

“The highest comedy of the liquor world that I can imagine is that there’s a section in a state-run liquor store for moonshine,” he said. “I think the moonshiners won.”

Reach Dave Infante at 843-937-5320. Follow him on Twitter @dinfontay.

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