Suburban bars embrace moonshine as 'the next big thing'

In July 2011, Tennessee's Ole Smoky Distillery began selling moonshine in the Chicago area. Packaged in a Mason jar and available in a variety of flavors and potencies, the spirit appealed to restaurant and bar owners.

The unaged whiskey proved so popular, in fact, that at least five spots that opened in the last two years made it the focus of their drink menus: Rack House Kitchen & Tavern in Arlington Heights, Old Crow Smokehouse in Schaumburg and Chicago, Whiskey River BBQ & Honky Tonk in Mount Prospect, and The Still Bar and Grill in Bartlett.

“There's a wide range of flavors that are not perceived as artificial,” said brand ambassador Shane McKnight. “The humble packaging of the Mason jar helps people identify with a fresher fruit experience. It makes the cocktail a lot more approachable than scotch or a rye whiskey. It's just a lot more familiar. There's a little nostalgia.”

Moonshine was popular during Prohibition and in rural areas where drinkers were looking to avoid paying taxes on their alcohol. That illicit history is part of its appeal.

Jim Leo, owner of The Still, said he sampled Ole Smoky while working on opening his Southern-style barbecue joint and was impressed.

“You can do a lot with it,” he said. “We thought it fits the theme well. We like the flexibility of the product.”

Along with serving it in drinks where you might expect whiskey ­— such as punch, lemonade and iced tea — the bar also mixes it into margaritas, sangria and even a dirty martini.

“We're taking the traditional cocktails and applying them backward to the moonshine,” Leo said.

Rack House has been serving 10 moonshine cocktails since it opened last year. The bar offers cocktails mixed with a variety of whiskeys, but since moonshine has a neutral flavor, Rack House often uses it in place of vodka. It's mixed with Red Bull in the Hillbilly Hammer, and bold drinkers can order it straight up or on the rocks.

“It really is the next big thing,” said Marika Kowalska, Rack House's director of operations. “Our customers love it. They're using it even more than our vodkas.”

Tony DeSalvo, the vice president of Samco Enterprises, the company that owns Old Crow, said moonshine fit with the bar's focus on Southern barbecue.

“If you go to Tennessee, the mountains of Appalachia, moonshine is a beverage of choice,” he said. “It's also something that's been refined. It's not something you buy illegally or walk into a general store as you're riding through North Carolina or Tennessee that you buy as a novelty.”

McKnight said barbecue and moonshine are often identified together as part of American culture. “Moonshine goes with barbecue like sake goes with sushi. It's a natural marriage.”

As moonshine becomes more popular, McKnight thinks it has the potential to supplant another Southern spirit: bourbon.

“I think moonshine goes better with barbecue than bourbon in that bourbon can be too heavy to enjoy with food,” he said. “(Moonshine) is often neutral or a crisp expression of fruit.”

DeSalvo said the quality of Ole Smoky's product is what convinced him to use it so heavily on the menu. “It's a craft liquor that is associated with a very noncraft tradition,” he said. “The quality of their moonshine is excellent.”

Moonshine's colorful history helps. Leo sees the spirit's growth as reminiscent of the craft beer movement: something that started with home-brewing but became much larger. “It's come out of the backwoods into the mainstream and we find that very intriguing,” he said.

Rack House Kitchen and Tavern in Arlington Heights showcased 10 moonshine cocktails when it opened last year. Courtesy of Rack House
Schaumburg's Old Crow Smokehouse pairs moonshine cocktails, like its Blackberry Crow, with barbecue. Courtesy of Old Crow Smokehouse
Front Porch Punch, served in a Mason jar, is one of the moonshine cocktail options at the new Old Crow Smokehouse in Schaumburg. Courtesy of Old Crow Smokehouse
  The Bees Knees is one of the moonshine cocktails served at the Still Bar and Grill in Bartlett. Daily Herald file photo by Joe Lewnard/
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