Distill my heart, legal moonshine is back

Good news about drinking locally.
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Drink locally, employ locally: Mount Baker Distillery sees new opportunities.

Good news about drinking locally.

When I was an editor at Washington magazine back in the ‘80s, I kept a mason jar of moonshine on my desk, something to share with special visitors. A friend had picked it up somewhere up near Darrington, our state’s little-bit-o-Appalachia. That area was settled by many folks from the Carolinas and Kentucky who came to mine and cut timber in the hills, much as they had done back home. Thus, the famous Darrington Bluegrass Festival (in July), and the heritage that goes with it.

My moonshine was clear as water and smooth as silk, real sippin’ likker. An illegal still was busted in Darrington in 1989 by state and federal liquor agents. I don’t know if it was the source of my batch, but the agents said that the confiscated moonshine was 46 percent pure grain alcohol and sold for $30 a jug. The Feds said it was the best they ever tasted. One agent was quoted in the newspaper giving it a five-star review: “It’ll fry your eyes off.”

This comes to mind because of several sea changes taking place in the state’s alcohol industry. Because of the passage of Initiative 1183, Washington state has shed one of the last legacies of prohibition by allowing private sales and distribution of hard liquor. Costco funded the initiative, and will get its money back because now you’ll be able to buy booze by the forklift. Another recent change allows small, craft distilleries to make and sell liquor direct to the public. The state has approved some 40 distillery licenses since 2008, and more are in the pipeline.

No need now for illegal stills, which were popular during the Depression and never quite died out in the Cascades’ “Tarheel” country. It may soon be possible to get legal moonshine. One producer, Mount Baker Distillery, plans to make a liquor called Abe Smith’s Mt. Baker Moonshine, based on an old family recipe. If it’s half as good as what occupied that jar on my desk, it’ll be a hit.

The road to a new, fairer, and private liquor business will be bumpy as distribution systems shift, taxes go up, and the old system evolves into something new. But ultimately, it’ll be a big positive, another local market for Washington’s agricultural products. Our beer business boomed in part because of the quality of our water and hops, the wine business because of the grapes we can harvest and crush. Distillers will benefit from what our farmers grow: potatoes, grains, berries, fruit. We’ve long been able to eat locally, now drinking locally will come in many more flavors and varieties.

We will also continue to wrestle with the downsides of the demon rum, but this is nothing new. Drunks will find liquor wherever it is, and are unlikely to develop a taste exclusively for artisanal vodka from Spokane. Liquor will be more widely available as the kinks in the system are worked out, and you’ll also see more products of local distilleries at your QFC. It won’t seem weirder than finding Hale’s or Chateau Ste. Michelle on the shelf.

The proliferation of craft beers and fine wines has been nothing but beneficial to growers, restaurants, bars, and tourism. In the 1960s, if you wanted a fine wine, you pretty much had to go to San Francisco to load up your trunk with vintage bottles. Now in Seattle, you can eat a superb six-course dinner, each dish paired with an outstanding wine variety you’ve never heard of from a regional winery you’ve also never heard of.  You will go home happy with your curiosity piqued. That is success.

The richness and strength of that industry has come far in a generation. In 1984, I participated in what was billed as the first organized tasting of Washington wines in Paris (organized by current Crosscut contributor Ronald Holden). Our wines were young, but raised eyebrows among the snobs. Now they have the benefit of maturity, experience, experimentation, and deeper roots. And you can taste it. You can match local foods with local wines that meet any international standard, all in driving distance from where you’re sitting. It’s a far cry from when the Washington wines most available were sacramental grape juices.

Will legal moonshine taste as good as the illegal stuff of yore without its dash of forbidden fruit? I’m looking forward to finding out.

This story first appeared in the June issue of  Seattle Magazine, where the author is a regular columnist.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.