World’s Best Moonshine
Paying homage to the history of South Carolina moonshine, a Greenville distillery offers up the best unaged whiskey the earth has to offer
Long ago, in the early formative years of this great land, scores of people migrated from Europe to settle in America. Bringing with them the wisdom and knowledge of their ancestors and homelands, each sought to make a home for themselves somewhere in the vast North American landscape. One particular group, known as the Ulster Scots, left Scotland, Northern Ireland, and Borderline England and headed for the Pennsylvania colony in America, arriving at Philadelphia and Chester in the 1700s. They took part in the Great Wagon Road migration, heading west, venturing south, and traveling down through the Carolinas. Eventually, many of them chose to settle in the Appalachian hills, nestling their homes amongst the rolling peaks and valleys of northeast Greenville County. Known for being fiercely independent and immensely proud of their heritage, these Celtic descendants quickly set to work, using the recipes of their ancestors to distill grains for whiskey and curative tonics, which held a high monetary value in the era’s bartering society. Some of the settlers made whiskey for the government, while many others took advantage of a Native American grain—corn—and used it in their home-distilled spirits.
After the Civil War, a Federal excise tax was levied against private distilleries. The settlers began moving their home operations into the forests and valleys and working only at night (by the light of the moon), to avoid detection from the law. Hence, “moonshine” became the common name for homemade unaged whiskey. Over time, the area of Greenville where the independent, slightly rebellious Ulster Scots settled became known as the “Dark Corner,” a place with as many rumors as people and where moonshine was always stocked, even during Prohibition.
Joe Fenton grew up in the Dark Corner, and tasted his fair share of various moonshine recipes over the years. An ever-present part of Fenton’s life, he developed a true taste for moonshine and often researched recipes and distilling methods as a hobby. He graduated from Clemson University with an electrical engineering degree and later found himself working for the world’s largest spirits provider, Diageo, installing bottling lines at their New York facility. Watching the process was “the kick in the butt” Fenton needed, according to his wife, Roxy, and he began designing a plan to open the place of his dreams—a South Carolina-based moonshine distillery. He set to work raising funding, and finally in 2011, with the help of friends and family members, he opened Dark Corner Distillery, South Carolina’s first legally operating whiskey distillery since Prohibition.
Tucked away on Greenville’s bustling Main Street, the distillery occupies a cozy storefront separated into two sections: the merchandise room and the tasting room, the latter only accessible by patrons of legal drinking age. Ambient lighting and wood floors create a warm, welcoming feeling—one mirrored by the staff as visitors enter the space. In the tasting room, the tasting bar and wall of whiskey barrels are definite points of interest, but it is the glass-walled distillery that steals the show. The birthplace of every bottle of spirits the company produces, the distillery features an 80-gallon copper still, originally designed by Fenton, and heated by an open flame to pay homage to traditional distilling methods. Placards detailing the process line the walls, where customers can follow along as they watch the distillers practice their craft. Afterward, the tasting bar beckons, where for just four dollars, visitors get a shot glass and can choose six different products to taste and compare.
Dark Corner Distillery’s flagship product is their “World’s Best Moonshine,” an aptly-named unaged corn whiskey that has won more awards than any moonshine in the US – thirty-three, to be exact. Second in popularity are their flavored whiskeys, like Apple-achian Shine, Butterscotch Shine, and Carolina Peach Shine, all mixed with their World’s Best Moonshine and made with only natural flavorings like apple and peach juices. The distillery also tried their hand (and succeeded) at making an aged whiskey in the form of their Lewis Redmond Bourbon. Named after a folk hero of Appalachia deemed the “moonshining Robin Hood,” the whiskey is aged in charred American white oak barrels for approximately two years until it is ready for drinking. Afterward, the barrels are re-used to make a wheat-based “Stumphouse Whiskey,” a favorite among whiskey aficionados for its complex flavor and silky overtones. Perhaps most treasured, though, is the distillery’s Journeyman’s Reserve. This aged gin is an unusual and unique product, and each run, given a subname like “Elder Tiger,” only consists of a few dozen bottles. Hand-labeled and only sold in the Greenville distillery, the rare bottles are a collector’s dream.
Currently, Dark Corner Distillery is made up of one copper still, eight employees, and two buildings (the distillery and a warehouse for inventory), but that will soon change. The company is currently under-going an expansion, but they say they are committed to remaining a small craft spirits company.
“We truly are making small batch whiskey,” says Roxy, also general manager of Dark Corner. “You come into this distillery on Main Street, start tasting at the bar, and you can see the copper still that your spirits came out of. It’s right here, just like the farms where we source our corn, the workers we employ, and even the moonshine-based jams, jellies, and soaps we sell in our merchandise store – everything that can be local is local and we plan to keep it that way.”
Dark Corner Distillery’s products can be purchased at their distillery at 241-B North Main Street, Greenville, SC, online, or at various liquor stores in South Carolina, Washington, DC, Maryland, Georgia, Florida, and Texas. A store locator and online delivery options are available via www.darkcornerdistillery.com.
By Jana Riley
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