Saturday 14 April 2018

Palmetto: secrets of the old-school shiners

While writing the post about O’Donnell Moonshine I was reminded about an email I’d yet to respond to, from another “moonshine” manufacturer. This one is from the Palmetto Distillery in South Carolina, via their UK distributor. Unlike O’Donnell and Bootlegger, which are European products made from wheat and flavoured to taste a little like what they think consumers think moonshine might taste of, Palmetto is a genuine unaged corn whiskey.

We associate moonshine with the Prohibition era, but in fact the history of illicit distilling goes back further, to the 1700s, as small-scale distillers sought to avoid taxes. The Palmetto distillery is run by Trey and Bryan Boggs, using a recipe they trace back to their ancestor Dock Boggs, who began moonshining in the early 1900s to make a bit of extra money. They describe it as South Carolina’s first legal moonshine: I must admit I would have thought that moonshine was, by definition, illicit, but clearly it is being defined in some other way here, because they say that the production of it was only legalised in 2010. As far as I can tell, prior to this the making of unaged whiskey simply wasn’t legal. 

The Boggs brothers also make a barrel-aged whiskey with 21% rye, but the unaged moonshine is 100% corn. It’s made in a custom copper pot still with a secret weapon they call a “thumper”, through with the spirit passes after it leaves the still. This is a cylindrical object, and I wondered if it was a sort of column still. Mark from the UK operation says it is more like a secondary pot still, but a bit of research reveals that a thumper, or thump keg, is a fairly traditional bit of moonshine kit, and simply contains water, presumably kept at a specific temperature between 78 and 100 degrees C—which is to say below the temperature at which water condenses but higher than the temperature at which ethanol condenses. The vapour coming off the still is bubbled through the thumper to strip out some of the water in it before the vapour is condensed in the next vessel. The object of the exercise is to get a higher proof spirit.

The website also describes the spirit as “triple distilled”, so I assume it passes through both the still and the thumper three times. This whole contraption is, they say, exactly how the moonshine was produced back in the day.

American Moonshine
The plain moonshine is bottled at 52.5% ABV. I say “bottled” but as with most such products it comes in a screw-top mason jar. I open the jar and approach it cautiously, expecting fumes like those from Georgia Moon. But the nose is light, slightly fruity, and comes on a bit like fino sherry; as you take it away from your nose you are left with a lingering biscuity trail. On the palate it is strong, to be sure, but surprisingly smooth considering the ABV and the lack of age. Not what my experiences with Georgia Moon led me to expect. I’m pretty sure I’ve never tried unaged whiskey before, and it is hard to describe—it has something in common with grappa and vodka, and yet not. There is a slight mustiness (not at all unpleasant) and a fruitiness to the mid-palate. The finish is smooth with a slight hint of wood; overall it has a pretty unctuous mouthfeel. 

It’s worth noting that, after having tried the infused versions of Palmetto, when I return to the unflavoured spirit I am now struck by a more strongly recognisable whiskey character.

Peach Moonshine
In keeping with most foodstuffs designated as having the flavour of a particular other thing, I expected a blast of synthetic fruit, but this is pretty understated, with the spirit to the fore and a dusty veil through which it is hard to discern the peach. (I handed it to my wife without telling her what it was and she was unable to identify it as peach.) 

Coming after the plain spirit, this is sweetened and juicy; less like a liqueur than a long drink knocked up by mixing the spirit with a little (not too much) peach juice. It is low-key but grows on you. And it’s not too sweet, with nothing cloying about it. The lack of peach aroma is a little disappointing but in the mouth it is a well balanced drink.

Apple Pie Moonshine
I’m struck by the cloudy appearance of this one, though in fact the peach version has this too, as do the other infusions. The nose here is gentle but warming cinnamon; as with the peach, the actual fruit notes are subtle. There’s a slight woodiness. The palate shows a mild acidity from the fruit but the cinnamon still dominates. There are other flavours in there, which are hard to pin down (but perhaps something I recognise from apple juice rather than apples per se), but nothing that really strikes you as like biting into an apple.

This one is particularly disconcerting given that the small jars in which the samples are supplied are basically the same ones in which you find jam at hotel breakfast tables. The nose is recognisably jammy—not fresh strawberries but cooked. I swear I was convinced I could smell toast too, though I’m sure that was just an autosuggestion. On the palate it is indeed boozy jam. But again the emphasis is primarily on the booze.

As with all the flavoured drinks in the range, the fruit here is not sparkling, Technicolor and bubblegum-intense. It is quiet and almost ghostly, redolent of neglected sheds and mossy verandahs in late afternoon dappled sun. Like someone just brushed the dust off a long-forgotten mason jar, tasted its venerable and faded contents and thought, “This is quite nice, actually.”

Not black or dark red in colour, but muted and frankly brown. The sort of observation that makes you pretty confident no artificial colours or flavours were deployed. But this final sample bucks the trend by having quite a powerful aroma, an aroma a bit like cough syrup. On the tongue it has a stronger acidity than the others, doubtless from the berries, but it still reminds me primarily of medicine—not just generally, but of some very specific linctus from my childhood.*

United colours of Palmetto: (left to right) American Moonshine, Peach, Apple Pie, Strawberry, Blackberry

As with O’Donnell Moonshine, the plain version is the one I’m most interested in (and you can always add fresh fruit to your spirit if you want a mixed drink). But the fruit versions here clearly have been made with real fruit—they have the colour and smell of stewed fruit, rather than synthetic primary colours and chemicals tastes. And—the blackberry aside, for me—they make pleasant drinks, still spirit-driven, like ancestral recipes for taking the edge off your moonshine using the produce that was to hand.

But for me the real revelation from all of this is the unadulterated spirit itself. It is not just a creditable stab but a genuinely palatable drink with a character of its own. If what the producers say is true, then this is achieved without additives or modern-day techno-fudges aimed at finding a quick and easy way to produce something for vodka drinkers with a little of the faux-frisson of the Prohibition era’s glamour. If what the producers say is true, this is the real deal, made in exactly the way it was back then. There can no doubt that a lot of moonshine was much less pleasant than this, shored up with dubious contaminants in a cynical attempt to engineer something that wouldn’t make customers gag. But Palmetto Moonshine shows that you could produce an enjoyable corn whiskey without risky and expensive time in a barrel.

* You’re right, this was just an excuse to use the word “linctus”, something I find frustratingly lacking in everyday life.

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