People - August 2006

Distiller doesn't have a bootleg to stand on
by Chris Richter

Shh, don’t tell anyone: Catdaddy Carolina Moonshine isn’t what it claims. It’s corn liquor, but not the potent popskull distilled in stealth that blockaders ran down back roads. It’s 80-proof, same as Jack Daniel’s sipping whiskey. And unlike the real stuff, it’s legal.

Its maker, Madison-based Piedmont Distillers Inc., is licensed by federal and state revenuers — unthinkable for real moonshiners. “They don’t pay their taxes. We do,” President Joe Michalek says.

Though it plays by the rules — the U.S. Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau approved the labeling and formula — the company is proud of moonshine’s history. Catdaddy’s container looks more like a premium-liquor bottle than a clay jug, but each is embossed XXX, and the brand comes from the nickname shiners bestowed on their best batches. In another nod to its heritage, Piedmont is sponsoring a driver in three NASCAR races at Lowe’s Motor Speedway this year.

No ol’ boy down from the hills, this distiller is a native of Goshen, N.Y., who worked for New York ad agencies. He moved to Winston-Salem in the mid-’90s to toil for R.J. Reynolds Tobacco, winding up as vice president of marketing for the Winston brand in 2002. After sampling flavored moonshine at bluegrass and mountain-music festivals, he wondered why nobody was selling it legally. That led him to contact a German still maker and learn that some folks in Madison had bought one, incorporated, but not sold anything.

Michalek, 38, bought the company in 2004, installed filtration and bottling systems and shipped his first batch last September. He won’t say how much he paid for or has invested in Piedmont — secrecy is another trait he shares with makers of genuine white lightning. Nor will he reveal revenue or his recipe for flavoring Catdaddy, only that it’s a bit sweet with a hint of spice. The booze is made in a former train station, where Piedmont’s four full-time employees and about a dozen part-timers work.

A 750-milliliter bottle goes for $19.95, pricier than moonshine you sip from a Mason jar. It’s sold in South Carolina, Illinois, Wisconsin and more than 200 Tar Heel ABC stores. This month, it’ll hit shelves in Georgia. Though not the only ersatz shine to be found in liquor stores, Catdaddy is the nation’s only flavored kind. And there’s another advantage it has over the authentic: You don’t have to hide it. “This isn’t,” he says, “something you’ll find in your attic or backyard.”