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Moonshine, out in the open

Native New Yorker Joe Michalek has spent the last six years trying to make a name for himself as a modern moonshiner, stilling his "boutique 'shines" out in the open, instead of in a 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 -- 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, who was raised mostly in the Bronx, got into the moonshine business after ending up in Madison, N.C., a town of about 2,500 northwest of Greensboro. There, he became part of a wave of craft distillers making moonshine and other specialty spirits across the country.

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, using more sugar than corn for their mash and distilling their concoctions in car radiators, adding toxic levels of lead.

Though the repeal of Prohibition in 1933 meant alcohol was more tightly regulated and taxed, many Southerners continued to cook up secret recipes to illegally sell to others.

Michalek steeled for his first sip. "It had a bite," he recalls. "It had a certain degree of sweetness, but it tasted like real peaches."

In 2002, after years of sampling illegal moonshine, Michalek decided to get into making "the juice," as he says. Legally.

Michalek gathered recipes. He read about distilling. He shopped around for a still and got lucky when he came across one he liked in the old train depot in Madison.

The owner, who never followed through with plans to make grappa, a brandy, from local muscadine grapes, had already obtained all the permits necessary to get the still running. In 2005, Michalek bought the whole thing, lock, stock and copper barrel.

Michalek's first product, Catdaddy, is a white liquor with a bit of a bite, but a bouquet -- if moonshine can have such a flowery description -- of nutmeg, vanilla and other winter holiday spices.

Through his old contacts at RJR, a group tightly linked to NASCAR, Michalek tried to bring driver Junior Johnson on board. Johnson, a Wilkes County celebrity known as the "Granddaddy of NASCAR," got his start in racing by carving tricky, hilly roads while running bootleg liquor for his dad.

The NASCAR champion rebuffed Michalek several times. But after he got a taste of Piedmont Distillers' Catdaddy -- the best from the still in bootlegger slang -- Johnson slipped Michalek an envelope with a recipe. That led to a partnership that produced Junior Johnson's Midnight Moon, the more traditional of the distiller's offerings.

The recession hit his business hard in the early years. People were choosing cheap booze over the pricier, triple-distilled corn-based whiskeys that he was marketing. Then last year, Michalek introduced Midnight Moon Apple Pie, a darker 'shine that's a little sweet and spicy.

On one recent morning, the distillery crew filled jars of newly distilled 'shine with strawberries, creating a fruit-flavored booze to mix with iced tea and other summer drinks. The distiller has added cranberries and other fruits, too.

Making moonshine legally can be a meticulous process that keeps Michalek and his master distiller, Brian Call, in and out of the lab. They do everything on the basis of weight so they get the alcohol content ust right. Any more or any less can cause problems with federal and state regulators who tax the products based on alcohol content.

"Illegal moonshining is still very much alive in North Carolina," Michalek said. "It's a family tradition handed down from generation to generation.

"Ours is a triple-distilled product, and it's taxed, and you won't get arrested for drinking it."