Moonshiner Goes Legit
Atlanta — You have to understand the role a dog plays in the manufacture of whiskey, especially that created in the dark of night, away from prying eyes of government agents.
A good dog keeps watch and lets her human know whether strangers are afoot. A crackle in the leaves, a limb snapping: She’s on it, a four-legged alarm.
That brings us to Camo, a fine hound. She comes by her name honestly. She’s got mottled fur, perfect camouflage in the Virginia woods where she found work guarding moonshine for her human, Tim Smith.
Now, dog and human have honest jobs.
Smith — a star of Moonshiners, Discovery Channel’s series about a collection of liquor-making goobers who drink, get in trouble, drink, get out of trouble, drink, then get in trouble again — has gone legit. He’s brewing ’shine with the government’s approval.
Camo? Her noble visage graces every bottle of Smith’s legal lightning, debuting in Georgia and South Carolina.
Smith came to Atlanta a couple of weeks ago. He came big-time, riding in a black Ford Excursion whose smoked-glass sides bore Smith’s likeness as well the name of his whiskey, Climax Moonshine, aka the Drink of Defiance. He was shirtless, as usual, and wore his signature camouflage hat. The name of his liquor was stitched on the back of his Liberty overalls.
The visit found him in the tasting room of Tower Beer, Wine & Spirits, where customer Maegan Joseph reached uncertainly for a short plastic tumbler. A half-inch of Smith’s moonshine glistened inside it. With his advice, she tossed it in her mouth, swished it around, then took an additional sip of sweet tea.
Gulp! She blinked once, twice. “It’s good,” she managed. Her vocal chords sounded scorched.
Smith grinned. “It’ll sneak up on you after six drinks,” he said. “Especially if it’s under an hour.”
Ask any moonshiner and he (most are men) will tell you: It’s a generational thing. Most distillers who set themselves up in business without benefit of government license learned it from a daddy, granddaddy, great-uncle or other family member. Smith says he got his start at 7, carrying jugs for his father in the woods of Climax, Va. When the elder Smith died, his son took over the art of making family ’shine.
For art it is. Making liquor on the sly calls for equal parts distilling and disappearing. Smith says he never got caught, even as the cops nailed others. Once, he hid his product in a tobacco field.
“The key is to keep moving,” said Smith, 46. “It’s hard to hit a moving target.”
He wasn’t caught, but that didn’t stop his fame from spreading. Several years ago, producers wanting to make a documentary about the illegal distillation of whiskey sought him out.
“They knocked on my door, and that documentary led to a reality show,” he said.
Smith is such a big deal these days that he has his own website. Want a Tim Smith flask? A camo cap? Log on, buddy, and have that credit card handy. He also has a site devoted to his legal liquor.
And what liquor it is. It’s 90 proof, or 45 percent alcohol. You could run it through a carburetor. Satan’s tail is not as barbed as Climax Moonshine. Thirteen years ago, about 25 small distilleries operated across the country. Today, more than 400 are producing small batches of booze, defined as less than 40,000 cases annually.
A quick glance at the white liquor at Tower proves that consumers are taking a shine to high-octane, clear bourbon.
Their names are an homage to moonshining’s colorful past: Ole Smoky, Full Throttle, Midnight Moon.
And, now, Climax Moonshine. John Layne, a big guy, tossed back an ounce or so. His eyes bulged, then watered.
“This is great,” said Layne, who recalled some moonshiners in his family’s past. “I’m used to the woods, so to speak.”
Well, so is Smith. He’s legal now, but he still has a whiff of - what? Woodsmoke? Forest? Whatever it is, Smith is cashing in on it.
“We’re in the legal business now,” he said. “We’re not doing anything illegal anymore.”
That brings you, dear reader, back to Smith’s dog. Let other booze makers adorn their bottles with a turkey or a gray goose or even a ruffled grouse. That liquor is for, well, you know ... for the birds.
If you want something that is as much bite as bark, look for Camo.
©2013 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (Atlanta, Ga.)
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