MADISON, N.C. — Native New Yorker Joe Michalek has spent the past six years trying to make a name for himself as a modern moonshiner, stilling his "boutique 'shines" out in the open, instead of down some dusty road in a moss-draped backwoods hideaway.
Nevertheless, the 43-year-old entrepreneur readily admits his smooth, trendy spirits are all the more attractive because they are so steeped in their furtive bootleg beginnings.
But Michalek's legal batches of booze, cooked up at Piedmont Distillers, are a far cry from the hooch that bubbled from hidden stills and car radiators - jars and jugs of rotgut that should have come with labels warning of their potential to blind or kill.
"People have an infatuation with Prohibition and running liquor and the bootleggers," Michalek said. "And people know it's tied to the history of NASCAR."
Michalek, born in New York, and raised mostly in the Bronx, got into the moonshine business after a bit of wheel spinning and sharp turns that led him to Madison, N.C., a town of about 2,500 northwest of Greensboro at the junction of the Mayo and Dan rivers.
There, he became part of a wave of craft distillers making moonshine and other specialty spirits across the country, and one of a handful in North Carolina, including Voardslab Distilling in Benson, which plans to make whiskey, and Troy & Sons, with plans to produce rum and a white corn liquor in Buncombe County.
Michalek, the son of a sheet-metal worker, studied business administration and marketing and came to North Carolina in the 1990s to work at R.J. Reynolds as a marketing executive.
Through friendships made then, Michalek got his first taste of moonshine, a cultural experience that initially gave him trepidation.
Moonshine is traditionally corn liquor distilled illegally. Its disparaged image emerged in the Prohibition years of the 1920s, when demand for home-produced alcohol was high. Unscrupulous bootleggers would often cut corners, not only using more sugar than corn for their mash, but also distilling their concoctions in car radiators, adding toxic levels of lead and causing untold fatalities.
Though the repeal of Prohibition in 1933 meant alcohol was more tightly regulated and taxed, many Southerners continued to cook up secret recipes to share with, and illegally sell, to others.
Michalek steeled for his first sip, worried about what might hit his tongue. "It had a bite," he recalls. "It had a certain degree of sweetness, but it tasted like real peaches."
That first favorable taste led to others and a preoccupation with what would soon become his occupation.
In 2002, after years of sampling illegal moonshine, Michalek decided to get into making "the juice," as he says. Legally.
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