In the back left corner of my refrigerator, top shelf, sits a mason jar of strawberry moonshine, which I purchased back in 2003 from a Virginian friend. If you’re not aware, Franklin County, Virginia is the moonshine capital of the world, although I’m sure you can find this stuff all over the South, provided you know the secret handshake. I take it having a brother-in-law grease monkey at a local garage, with one lazy eye and a Skoal ring outline on the breast pocket of bib overalls, comes in handy.
The jar is still pretty full. What once seemed like a novel idea, slamming down shots of moonshine once a week or so, became a not-so-good idea once it dawned on me that outside of a public place with wine and beer openly flowing, this stuff is a hard go, smells vaguely like paint thinner, that “hard liquor” smell amplified about 10 times. Even from a shot glass, you’d be wise to sip it. The jar has strawberries floating in it. I’m not quite sure what the expiration date on this stuff is. All I know is that about once every six months, I have a go at a shot glass and have a hard time finishing one. It’s potent stuff.
My introduction to moonshine came via that Virginian friend and a few parties/social events held at the Brooklyn Brewery, where he worked. A strange place to work, too, from what I’ve gathered. (This was before a majority of the company was let go when the Brewery sold off it's distribution division.) Seemed like half the staff were low-level drug dealers (pot, mushrooms, psychedelics, etc.). They got their employees through ads place in the Village Voice, so it had to be an interesting work place. (It seems like working in a brewery could be a pretty cool gig, so long as it stays small and local.)
I haven’t been out there in a few years, but every Friday, they open the Brewery, or at least the main space on the first floor, to the public, putting out picnic and folding tables, and simply tapping some of their product on one end of the room, while allowing customers to buy wooden chips on the other to purchase the beer with. Since the whole brewery operation was right there, stacks of yeast and grain were piled on wood pallets in the huge cinderblock room. It was like drinking in a K Mart Garden Center. I like Brooklyn Brewery product – it has a distinct taste, goes down pretty easy, and some of their higher-end product is very good. With my friend working there, I could often get those wooden chips at $1.00 a pop (as opposed to $3.00 the public pays), so you better believe I got hammered more than a few Friday nights out there.
But as time went on, the place became over-run with slumming Manhattanites and bozo kids fresh out of college, with that sickening frat-boy/beer pong take on life. I saw the transformation from leisurely, fun local hang out for aging hipsters and Brooklyn locals to horribly over-crowded, no-fun place that got too popular with the kind of people who, once you understand urban life, ruin everything they come in contact with via their money and arrogance. Same thing has happened to the Bohemia Beer Garden here in Astoria, where once upon a time you could casually drink Czech pilsner and eat sausages, sitting at a picnic table in an outdoor courtyard at night. Now, it’s that same slobbering crowd of spoiled brats who always spell bad news to me, roughly the same people who are moving out here in droves and driving up the rents. There’s a constant line to get in and security guards: two things a local pub/bar should never have in the 718s.
Every now and then, the Brewery would have a special event or allow the workers to rent the place for private parties. The biggest special event was always the Monster Ale night in late winter, when they rolled out that barley-wine malt ale (which had an alcohol content of well over 10%), served in special brandy glasses. You could always tell a neophyte: when he got his brandy glass, he’d blanche and say, “Why such a small glass?” Believe me, after two Monster ales, your average drinker would be hammered. The only times I have ever seen double in my adult life were Monster Ale nights – I didn’t think such a thing was possible until it happened to me. One night, I distinctly recall a series of girls being carried out of the place over the shoulders of some large men, like sacks of grain, when they could no longer move their legs, and their mouths would only say “ga-ga-ga-phlew.”
For some of these events, my friend would invite up his hometown friends from central Virginia. I don’t know what it is about Virginians, but from what I’ve seen, they’re some of the nicest people on earth: well-mannered, friendly, open. I’m sure it’s like any place else, that there must be pricks galore if you spend enough time there. But in general, every Virginian I’ve ever known has been a good soul. These guys were no exception – the kind of people you want to hang with in a bar.
Sure enough, those guys would bring some moonshine with them every time. Understand that just going to one of these events, most people there, me included, would be getting hammered just drinking the brewery product, which was often the best seasonal product on tap. I remember the first time I tried it – just straight moonshine. The turpentine/gasoline quality was in full effect. I blanched. I can’t drink straight moonshine – it’s too brutal. I don’t know what the proof is on that stuff, but there’s a good reason why it’s illegal. The stories of people going blind drinking it probably aren’t bullshit.
The strawberry variety went down much easier – something about adding fruit to it diluted the smell and took off that extremely hard grain alcohol edge in the taste. Still, again, you don’t want to be throwing down a shot glass of moonshine – doing so provides one of those gasping, heart-grabbing episodes. I didn’t learn the hard way – I saw a few people try it before me, convinced they could handle anything via their drug usage and alcohol abuse, and the look of surprise on their faces as they ran into that brick wall was something to behold. I sipped mine. And I can tell you after two or three shot glasses of moonshine, I was totally in the bag, barely able to stand up straight. (Understand, I’m factoring in about 3-4 beers leading up to this.)
I should have known when I offered shots to two girls from Virginia who had moved to New York. They took the shot glasses with perplexed looks on their faces, mumbling thanks, but not really meaning it. They knew about moonshine, and I guess not wanting to get falling down drunk, a few minutes later, each sheepishly came up to me and said, “Thanks, but no thanks.”
I didn’t get puking, falling-down drunk on moonshine, probably because I stopped after two or three. For some reason, I recall the taste of strawberry moonshine those few times being very nice: sweet and while not as hard to digest as straight moonshine, at least cut enough to go down without coming straight back up again. (I’ve had very negative experiences with whiskey. Just ask Ian Lamb in Scotland. On whose guest-room carpet I vomited a big lamb and potato dinner one night after he tried to break me in on various types of Scottish whisky. I never developed a taste for that stuff, and never will.)
A few years later, I tried to get my friend to pick me up a jar of strawberry moonshine next time he visited Virginia. It took awhile. For a few years, there seemed to be a major crackdown on the industry. Understand that moonshine is treated by the government like any other illegal drug – probably not as harsh as cocaine or heroine, but you better believe there are major bucks poured into shutting down any illegal alcohol trade. From what I understand, it’s a shadow industry, with stills, much like crystal meth labs, run in the deep woods on private property, so agents would somehow have to infiltrate a line of trade and trace the product back to its source, which must be hard as hell. On top of that, anyone with a few crock pots and some corn can make moonshine. Poke around the web, and you will find “do it yourself” still pages that, frankly, I’d be afraid to try in terms of explosions and burning down the house.
But, finally, one of those times, he came back with a good-sized Mason jar of moonshine, for which I paid $30. And there she sits in the fridge in late summer 2007, four years on. Still about three quarters full. You know what? I’m going to try some now to see what happens …
… I’m still alive. What strikes me most, being totally sober and at home, is the alcohol smell that comes off the shot glass in waves. Again, sipping this stuff, I would never dream of downing a shot glass of moonshine. You can feel it go down, like reverse heart burn. The taste still isn’t bad. I don’t know how moonshine ages, whether it’s like beer and gets skunky after time, or like fine wine that gets better in time. I must have been crazy to be drinking this shit on top of a few beers – just not a good idea.
I’ll keep it back there in the corner, but will have to get in the habit of pawning the stuff off on curious visitors and guests. I once bought a case of Monster Ale from my friend at a great price, and that shit sat in my apartment for close to a year before I pawned the remainder of the case (i.e., all but three bottles) off on a New Zealand nanny I knew from the local bar. (She and the Irish bartender would often go on benders that would begin at 9:00 on a Saturday night and not end until 9:00 on a Sunday morning. I’ve never drank like that, but some folks somehow pull it off, no doubt wasting an entire weekend on recovery.) She loved the stuff, but I felt weird drinking it alone in my apartment, like I should be wearing a raincoat while doing so and sniffling. Moonshine is no different. It’s the stuff of dumb public displays, not contemplative pints or glasses of red wine after a hard day in the office.
Still, I’ll keep it there. My connection to a bubbling crock pot in a shed somewhere in a far-off corner of Appalachia. A very relaxed guy sitting next to it. Shotgun on the floor as he slumps in a ratty, abused recliner. Watching reruns of American Gladiators on ESPN Classic with no pants on. The same way I am now, worlds away in New York. Although, as noted above, I’m about 2/3rds through this shot glass, and there’s no way on earth I’m going to finish it.