Moonshine brings distilleries success
In a clearing amid 80-foot pine trees off a winding highway in rural Somerset County, travelers can buy moonshine — legally.
At the unassuming Tall Pines Distillery, 3 miles from the Maryland state line, Keith Welch aims to create an authentic, if slightly upscale, experience.
Welch and distillery co-owner Daniel Fay are mashing, fermenting and brewing moonshine “the same way the old-timers did it,” but call themselves “a different class of hillbilly,” Welch said.
A small store area features a rustic wood counter, shelves lined with glass jugs of moonshine, flasks and etched shot glasses. Vintage Edison light bulbs are strung overhead.
In the back, their equipment is a little more modern — and completely legal — but the process of hand-mashing local corn, fermenting it in barrels and distilling it in a stainless steel pot is still virtually the same as that used in backwoods sheds by bearded bootleggers.
“Everyone's interested in moonshine,” Welch said, describing the brisk business since the distillery opened earlier this month. “It's almost been taboo to even mention it. ... That's not so anymore.”
Craft distilleries have seized on Americans' love of authentic, locally made products, especially those with historical ties to the area where they're made. None of the Pennsylvania-made moonshines are sold in state stores, giving customers the authentic experience of sipping in a softly lit distillery room off the beaten path.
Since state lawmakers created a license specifically designed for small distilleries in 2011, craft spirit makers have popped up across the state.
State Liquor Control Board records show there are 52 active limited distillery licenses statewide with another nine held in safekeeping. The American Craft Spirits Association pegs the nationwide total at about 770 distilleries.
Craft distillers in Pennsylvania can make up to 100,000 gallons of liquor a year, a fraction of what large-scale distillers generate, and they can sell their products on-site in addition to state stores.
Instead of names like white lightning, hooch or “mountain dew,” Tall Pines uses tree-themed names for its varieties, such as Forest Fire — the strongest brew it plans at 140 proof — or Pine Sap, a sweeter concoction flavored with whole cinnamon sticks and vanilla beans.
“Some moonshine you taste can be strong and not too pleasant,” said Welch. “Some can be strong and smooth.”
Ridge Runner Distillery in Wharton, Fayette County, debuted its moonshine when it opened last July, owner Christian Klay said.
Moonshine is among the easier products to make because it's primarily made of corn and doesn't need to be aged, he said. Plus, the historical tie between moonshine — made by distillers who didn't want to pay tax on whiskey — and rural Western Pennsylvania made it a no-brainer.
“There's been one sort of moonshine or another being made here since before the Revolutionary War,” Klay said. “We're just a few miles from the heart of the Whiskey Rebellion. ... After Prohibition, there were still tons of illegal stills in the hills around here. And there still are.”
Ridge Runner sells apple pie, root beer and peach-flavored moonshines as well as rum and vodka at its distillery, which sits across the street from the Christian W. Klay Winery, owned by Klay's parents.
In Brookville, Jefferson County, Jennifer Black said she and her husband, Dave, opened a little moonshine distillery to make enough money to replace Dave's income when he left Penelec as a welder.
Now, Blackbird Distillery can't keep up with the demand for its 15-plus flavors of moonshine made entirely without machinery. The glass bottles are hand corked and dipped in a hot slow-cooker of wax to seal them, Jennifer Black said.
The distillery also offers smoked meats and cheeses and homemade canned goods.
“Never in a million years did we expect this. Never,” Black said.
Elsewhere in the region, Disobedient Spirits, founded by a pair of professors from Indiana University of Pennsylvania, sells its Blue Dog corn whiskey at its shop on Main Street in Homer City. And McLaughlin Distillery, which opened earlier this year in a single-family home in Sewickley Hills, Allegheny County, offers plain moonshine, bourbon and vodka.
Kari Andren is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 724-850-2856 or firstname.lastname@example.org.