Thursday, November 8, 2012

Iconic Spirits: An Intoxicating History Book Spotlight

Mark Spivak will be touring October 15 – January 13 2012 with his nonfiction book, Iconic Spirits: An Intoxicating History.
This tour is part of a Kindle Fire giveaway. All tour hosts who participate are eligible to win!
Iconic Spirits: An Intoxicating History (Lyons Press; hardcover, $16.95), by Mark Spivak, is a compelling portrait of twelve spirits that changed the world and forged the cocktail culture. Some are categories and others are specific brands, but they are all amazing, resonant and untold stories. Each chapter closes with recipes for the most popular and important cocktails.
What’s the relationship between moonshine and NASCAR? Why was absinthe considered to be the most dangerous substance on earth? What was the cause of the Gin Craze in 18th century London, an epidemic of mass drunkenness that continued for fifty years? How did a homeless man become the 165th wealthiest person in America?
“These are the best types of stories,” says Spivak. “They are the kind a writer could never make up.”
256 pages.
You can visit Mark online at

Book Excerpt: Chapter 1
Moonshine, Rum-running, and the Founding of NASCAR
Drive out of the city of Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and the landscape turns rural very quickly. By the time you reach Wilkes County, the soft, rippling hills have become higher and steeper, and the valleys are dotted with frame houses, farmland, and working tractors.
Joe Michalek, the energetic and genial president of Piedmont Distillers, is at the wheel. It’s 6:30 a.m., and we’re driving out to have breakfast with Junior Johnson—driving on Junior Johnson Highway, an eight-mile stretch of US Route 421 named for the famous race car driver. We ease off onto old 421, which used to be known as Bootlegger’s Highway. Sixty years ago there were nearly 400 stills in Wilkes County, and the roads here were dirt—“nothin’ more than cow pastures,” according to Junior. Bootleggers turned off their headlights at night to avoid detection and navigated by the light of the moon.
Robert Glenn Johnson Jr., known as Junior, was born in Wilkes County in 1931. He began running moonshine out of the hills at the age of fourteen, using his dad’s rebuilt 1940 Ford. He became the fastest man on the dirt roads, the one bootlegger the law couldn’t catch. In time, he took his cars, his speed, and his nerve onto the race track and became one of the greatest drivers in NASCAR history.
Author Tom Wolfe called Johnson “the Last American Hero.” The nickname stuck, and it became the title of a 1973 movie about his life, a Hollywood extravaganza starring Jeff Bridges. Wolfe not only wrote at length about the legend of Junior Johnson in his breakout 1965 Esquire piece, he also helped create it.
Junior was already an idol throughout the South at that time but was relatively unknown outside the region. The story captured him at the height of his racing career, and it also took the legend and burnished it so brightly that it became visible around the country.
The entrance to Junior’s estate has wrought iron gates and brick barriers chiseled with the initials JJ. It almost seems palatial, but this is a working farm with more than 800 head of cattle. We pull up in front of a large shed. Half the building is a garage housing Junior’s 1963 Chevy racer, his son Robert’s race car, and his rebuilt 1940 Ford bootleg car. The other half resembles a fraternal hall. Racing memorabilia clutters the walls, and Junior holds court on one side of a long folding table. At eighty, his once-formidable bulk has thinned out, and his hair has turned white, but he is alert to every nuance of every conversation, including those he seems not to hear.
“These old Fords was the ideal car to haul whiskey in,” he tells me later on as we stand there admiring the glistening black bulk of the restored bootleg car. “They drove good, and they had a lot of space to pack whiskey. It got to where you hardly saw a car out late at night ’cept this kind of Ford, and you knew they was haulin’ whiskey. Everybody had ’em. I was drivin’ around the farm since I was ’bout nine, so by the time I was fourteen, I was a stable enough driver to haul whiskey.
It was sorta like a milk run: You had your customers, and you planned your route. You started after it got dark, because the revenuers knew the bootleggers, and we knew them. If they could see you, they’d figure out the times you was travelin’ and target you, but they couldn’t do it in the dark.” It was one big happy family, except that the revenuers—government agents charged with stopping the sale of improvised, untaxed liquor—had the power to arrest you if they caught you. And given that they stood no chance of collecting the unpaid taxes on a generation’s worth of moonshine, they’d just as soon lock you up.
Monday through Friday Junior cooks breakfast for his “boys,” a combination of friends, business associates, and hangers-on. There are bowls of scrambled eggs and grits, plates of biscuits, and platters of breakfast meat. The regulars include former moonshiners such as Millard Ashley and Willie Clay Call, father of Piedmont’s master distiller Brian Call. Known as the Three Musketeers, they worked together in what the locals refer to as the “liquor business” or the “whiskey business.”
Michalek mixes seamlessly with the boys, eating sausage and joining in their good-natured grumbling and banter.
He moved to North Carolina in 1995 to work for the tobacco company R. J. Reynolds, which at the time was a sponsor of Junior’s Winston Cup racing team. His moment of epiphany occurred at a blues jam session way out in the woods, when someone offered him a taste of peach moonshine from a Mason jar, and he was amazed by the smoothness of it.
He left RJR in 2005 to start Piedmont Distillers and eventually persuaded Junior to partner with him on a legal line of moonshine called Midnight Moon.
“Because I was an outsider,” he says, “I noticed that everybody here had very strong reactions on the subject of moonshine. I started reading about it and became intrigued with it. There’s an incredible collection of characters associated with it, but at heart it’s a way of life—an attitude of irreverence born of survival, mixed with an element of competition.”
“Just about every house in the county was involved in the liquor business,” says Junior. “They was either makin’ it, buyin’ it, sellin’ it, or growin’ the corn for it. My dad had five stills runnin’ all the time. If they busted one, he’d just move it somewhere else.”
Disclaimer: Mary Bearden personally reviewed these products. I did not receive any monetary compensation for my review, just a sample product. All opinions are mine and belong to me solely. My thoughts and opinions may differ from yours.