Exploding moonshine: The new golden age of outlaw liquor

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(CNN)Moonshining is a vocation that speaks to the American pioneer spirit.

In the golden age, folk heroes like Marvin "Popcorn" Sutton and Doc King avoided high alcohol taxes by hitching their stills to souped-up cars and lighting out for the Appalachian woods after dark, where they distilled eye-watering liquor from corn mash, to be sold in mason jars off the books.
They played a game of cat and mouse with the authorities, as illegal distilling was an offense that carried jail time. But it was also high risk for the hated "revenuers" from the liquor authority, who were sometimes attacked, tarred and feathered.
The product itself could be dangerous. For much of its 300-year history, moonshine referred to any illegal home-made spirit, including low quality brews with deadly contaminants. Today it usually describes clear, unaged whiskey, and standards have improved as the distillers no longer need to operate in the shadows.

    New dawn

    When the global financial crisis hit the Appalachian heartlands, counties all over the region tapped into one of the few growth industries by legalizing moonshine. The first legal distillery in Tennessee opened its doors in 2010, and others followed in Kentucky, Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina.
    "We somewhat cheated by learning from the bootleggers down by the river outrunning the revenuers," says Trey Boggs, who along with his brother Bryan founded Palmetto Moonshine, which became the first legal distillery in South Carolina in 2011. "The recipe is tried and true, the only difference is we pay taxes ... We make the real thing and use mason jars, nothing fancy."
    A 2012 explosion at the Anderson County factory highlighted the danger of no-frills distilling, but the damage was light enough that the company could take it in good humor. "Our shine's so good it's on fire," Palmetto announced.
    But while the business takes pride in its local roots, the liquor has gone far beyond South Carolina. Today, Palmetto Moonshine sells in 24 U.S. states. It has spread across Canada and launched in the United Kingdom, with new distribution deals struck for the Caribbean and South Africa. Sales have risen from 5,000 cases in 2011 to 25,000 in 2014.
    The British connection was formed when Callum Burt received a moonshine jar as a Christmas present, and realized it was not available anywhere in the United Kingdom.
    "I started talking to the top six legal moonshiners in the U.S.," says Burt. "Palmetto were the first to say 'when can you start?'"
    Moonshine UK was born, but adapting from U.S. to EU regulations presented a challenge. Burt had to change the size of the jars and remove all traces of the word "whiskey" -- which must be aged three years to meet European criteria. Ingredients were adjusted for Palmetto's flavored varieties.
    The moonshine is now on sale in 50 British bars and through an online retailer, with plans to supply every city in the country. It has been popular enough to inspire competition, and Burt believes the tradition is as much of a draw as the taste.
    "In the UK we like Americana at the best of times, and all the infamous history really lends itself to a drink like moonshine."

    More than a drink

    The liquor has certainly made serious contributions to U.S. culture. Nascar racing grew out of prohibition-era bootleggers racing each other and escaping police in their modified cars on wild country roads. It has become an icon of American values, according to Jaime Joyce, author of "Moonshine: A Cultural History of America's Infamous Liquor."
    "It's part of the American cultural heritage," she says. "It's about standing up to the government. Refusing to pay taxes. Supporting families when jobs and resources are scarce. People really respond to that."
    From Robert Mitchum's "Thunder Road" to the songs of Bob Dylan and Cat Power, the resonance reaches far beyond Appalachia to a global market.
    "Moonshine has huge crossover appeal," says Joyce. "Its renegade reputation makes it alluring to consumers who want a little taste of tradition. It makes them feel a little outlaw, too, without breaking any laws."
    The author believes that legalization could usher in a new golden age. She points to liquor giants Jack Daniels and Jim Beam launching their own varieties, and legal Nascar racing teams sponsored by legal moonshine, as hooch goes mainstream.
      Certainly, legal businesses have enjoyed spectacular success across the industry. The fastest growing brands are selling over 200,000 cases a year -- challenging the whiskey giants -- and with moonshine tourism increasingly popular, prospects appear bright, further boosted by the emergence of a vibrant craft liquor scene.
      The only loser is the black market, as the bootleggers' services are being rendered obsolete. But there will always be purists who keep their business in the woods, and the police busy.