Hilton Head Island liquor store owner, distiller team up with Gullah women to produce moonshine

eshaw@islandpacket.comJanuary 21, 2014 

Hooch, White Lightning, Hillbilly Pop, Radiator Whiskey and Mule Kick are just a few nicknames for moonshine, an illegal spirit distilled in backwoods Appalachia since the 1800s.

Moonshine has Lowcountry roots as well. On Daufuskie Island, the Gullah called it "scrap iron," perhaps for the metal still it was made in or the iron will it took to drink it.

If the self-explanatory monikers are any indication, then moonshine is not something one consumes quickly or easily.

The original name, "moonshine," is said to emanate from bootleggers who illicitly distilled the unaged corn whiskey by the light of the moon, far away from the prying eyes of Prohibition revenuers.

Thanks to new South Carolina micro-distillery laws, moonshine is now legal -- if the appropriate taxes are paid -- and coming back in a big way.

In accordance with its increasing trendiness, its nicknames are getting more inviting. At Sea Pines Liquor and Market on Hilton Head Island, moonshine goes by Midnight Moon, Tillman's Baby and Black Spirit.

It used to come in one flavor: alcohol. Now, the mind-bending proofs are sweetened with the flavors of apple pie, raspberry and lemonade.

"The first perception of moonshine is that it's made in a radiator and that it'll blind you. Once people get past that and actually taste it, they realize it's as tasty as anything they've ever had," said Jeff Gould, the owner of Sea Pines Liquor and Market.

Gould is one of the handful of South Carolinians taking advantage of moonshine's new legality.

Two years ago, Gould had two varieties of moonshine available in his store. Now he has more than 100.

"We see the whole liquor store turning into moonshine," he said. "It's amazing where this has gone in just a short period of time."

As a top moonshine retailer in South Carolina, Gould is working to rapidly expand his business, even shipping cases of 'shine overseas.

Gould owns five distilleries, two of which are in South Carolina, and a spring in the North Carolina mountains, because "moonshine is meant to be made with pure mountain spring water, just like Kentucky bourbon is made with limestone water," he said. He also owns an orchard in North Carolina that provides the fruit for the apple pie moonshine, his best seller.

"What you're seeing here is a new twist to an old industry," Gould said. The twist is the abundance of flavors, the fancy, health-code-abiding distilleries and the aggressive business plan. But the base is a collection of old family recipes and an appreciation for where moonshine came from. Both Gould and his wife, Debby, are from North Carolina and familiar with moonshine.

After opening a retail store on Daufuskie Island, Gould discovered the Gullah had a similar appreciation. He approached three Gullah sisters about adding their family recipes to his moonshine.

Janice Gordon, Amelia Stevens and Cynthia Murray grew up on Daufuskie Island. Their grandmother used to sell moonshine made from a still their uncle operated. Moonshine was a part of their family and their culture. It was used in times of sickness and in health, in celebration and in sorrow.

When someone took sick on the island, they would send for Meme, or Lemon, as their grandmother was called by non-family members. Before leaving, she'd grab a couple jars of roots brewing in moonshine and a handful of dried herbs for making a Gullah hot toddy.

"I didn't go to the doctor until I was 13. Any ailments I had, my grandmother treated. It apparently worked," Gordon said.

People up in the mountains of North Carolina have moonshine in their medicine cabinets, too, Gould said. "When I came here to the Lowcountry and found out the Gullah had done the same thing, I saw the link between the two," he said.

When someone died on the island, friends and family of the deceased would have a "sittin' up," where everyone would stay awake through the night, sipping moonshine and telling stories. It was also a big part of Christmas season, for visiting relatives and sharing a drink.

But most importantly for the sisters, it was income.

"Meme had to make a living off the island and its surroundings," Gordon said. She would sell crab and shrimp to tourists from Savannah, along with her moonshine, but only if they knew to ask. She kept it in brown paper bags hidden under the table until it was requested. A half pint cost 75 cents.

Eventually, revenuers discovered their uncle's still and destroyed it, bringing the family's moonshine business to an end.

Now, Gordon, Stevens and Murray are reviving it, with Gould's (and the law's) help. They created Meme's Fuskie Gals, a homemade moonshine and wine label with products that will be made in Gould's distilleries and sold in his stores.

Their homemade wine, called Black Spirit, is already available, and they have three moonshines coming out in March.

There will be a Black Spirit 'shine, Fuskie Mysteek, which is intended to be used for medicinal purposes, and Ole Red Eye, for the reddish color moonshine took on when tree bark was added to it.

"We're committing as much time to it as possible," Stevens said. "This culture is near and dear to us, so this is a venture that we're very proud of."

Like Appalachian moonshine, the Gullah spirit didn't have much flavor, so the sisters are working off the family recipes and tweaking them.

"It's reimagining the moonshine we grew up with," Gordon said. "The moonshine business was good to our family while it lasted. Looks like the good times are here again."

Follow Erin Shaw at twitter.com/IPBG_ErinShaw.

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