The word conjures up images of making illegal hooch deep in the woods, a concoction so potent, so the story goes, that it could make you go blind. A “likker” so in demand that bootleggers mounted their cars with super-sized engines to outrun the law and deliver their product.
As intriguing as that sounds, that was yesterday’s tale.
Today’s story is far different, and it’s being told throughout Virginia, where 22 of the state’s 42 licensed distilleries are making moonshine.
Among the leading producers is Belle Isle Craft Spirits, located in an old Altria mail-sorting center in Richmond’s Manchester area.
Belle Isle is making five versions of moonshine, and they can be purchased in 750-milliliter bottles at most ABC stores and more than 350 restaurants across the state and in seven other states and China. But they are not available at Belle Isle’s Maury Street facility, which has no tasting room.
These are not your granddaddy’s moonshines.
Belle Isle’s original moonshine — called Premium Moonshine — is 80 proof (40 percent alcohol), smooth as silk with light aromas of corn and even a light candy corn and slight pepper finish, as director of production Gregg Brooks describes it.
This Premium Moonshine ($24.99; through Jan. 31, $21.99) can be a perfect substitute for vodka, either straight or as a base for cocktails, but it has another prime use: It’s the base for three unique infused moonshines that Brooks and Belle Isle have created in the past 15 months.
First, the base.
“Belle Isle Premium Moonshine is made from 100 percent organic corn, which we source from three family farms in Minnesota,” CEO and co-founder Vince Riggi said. “It is triple-distilled to over 180 proof, midway between vodka (190 proof) and whiskey (160 proof), and quadruple-filtered through charcoal and cut with carbon-filtered James River water.
“We run the spirit through a plate filter to enhance clarity and remove any impurities. Our products are naturally gluten-free, and they never include any artificial flavors, colors or sweeteners.”
All natural, and that’s the taste you get from Honey Habanero, Ruby Red Grapefruit and Cold Brew Coffee, all 70 proof (35 percent alcohol) and each a surprise in the mouth.
Brooks, with the company for 15 months, describes each:
Honey Habanero: “Clear aromas and flavors of honey, corn and habanero pepper. Sweet medium body with a hot mouthfeel. Finishes with pure honey and hot habanero flavor that doesn’t linger. When in doubt, just add a little fresh citrus or treat it like tequila. Honey Habanero features Virginia wildflower honey from Bubba’s Sweet Nectar in Waynesboro. From about June through October, and this year as late as November, we get our habanero peppers from local farms. During the colder months in Virginia, we source our peppers from organic farms in New Mexico or Arizona. We’re working with an organic farm here in Virginia that is building a greenhouse that will be able to grow organic habaneros year-round.” ($24.99; through Jan. 31, $21.99)
Ruby Red Grapefruit: “Aroma of freshly cut grapefruit. Bright and sweet taste with huge grapefruit notes on the tongue. Sweet citrus finish that is not tart or dry. Ruby Red is made with grapefruit base using fruit sourced from Texas and California, which we can get year-round. It’s added to our organic corn spirit, mixed and agitated before bottling.” ($24.99; through Jan. 31, $21.99)
Cold Brew Coffee: “Huge aromas of coffee, caramel and slight chocolate. Dark flavors of chocolate, caramel and molasses with a rich, sweet finish. A super versatile spirit that plays nicely with vermouths, amaros and bitter liqueurs. Perfect in smoky cocktails; pairs especially well with mezcal. Our Cold Brew Coffee infusion was a collaboration with Blanchard’s Roasting Company in Richmond. We worked together to create a taste profile for the final product, and Blanchard’s was able to source organic fair trade Honduran beans, which they roast fresh for each batch of our infusion. We round out the product’s flavor and coloring using Blanchard’s Hair of the Dog cold brew coffee concentrate. We again use Bubba’s honey to add a touch of sweetness.” ($24.99; through Jan. 31, $21.99)
Belle Isle also makes a 100 proof Premium Moonshine ($29.99).
“Belle Isle 100 is fantastic for cocktails, liqueurs, tinctures and infusions, as the extra booze helps pull out various compounds within ingredients,” Riggi said.
Belle Isle has seen its six-bottle case production increase from 750 in its first full year in 2014 to nearly 5,000 in 2016.
“What once was a backwoods spirit has now become a category all its own,” Riggi said.
Once you taste it, you’ll know why.