We Talk All Things Moonshine with Mark Taverner of Silver Creek Southern Moonshine
If you hear the term moonshine and automatically think hillbillies and banjos, you’re not alone. This is an association that needs to be shaken though, as moonshine is actually so much more than that. Like many spirits, moonshine is having a resurgence, and Mark Taverner is one of the guys who is making that happen locally. His brand, Southern Moonshine is distilled at Silver Creek Distillery in Johannesburg.
If you know anything about moonshine, you’ll know that this bootlegged drink is an important part of American history. It tells the story of a group of people who turned to distilling in order to pay their taxes. When it was taxed by the government, production and sales went underground and it earned itself outlaw status.
This rebellious essence is part of what makes moonshine the stuff of legend and it is only now beginning to be fully appreciated.
We chat to Mark Taverner about Southern Moonshine and how his passion for craft distilling came to be…
Firstly, can you tell us a bit about the history of moonshine?
I could write a book! Many of the hardy Scots-Irish settlers in the Great Smokey Mountains had a history of distilling grains into alcohol. In America they made a local drink from Indian corn, they had a plentiful supply of ‘soft water’ and plenty of wood to fuel their stills.
Although these settlers were relatively self-sufficient, they needed some cash money in order to pay their taxes – they needed a product that had real cash value and was easily transportable – whiskey production was the answer.
Before the Civil War, no stigma had been attached to the mountain people who made whiskey. By the end of the Civil War, U.S. Congress had levied a 2 dollar tax per gallon on alcohol production. Not much changed but the honourable occupation of producing untaxed whiskey was now illegal and the distiller became an outlaw. Along with the outlaw status, terminology for the distiller changed as well – the distiller became a ‘Moonshiner’ and his product ‘moonshine’.
Can you tell us a little about yourself and how you got into distilling?
I am originally from Port Elizabeth; I studied marketing and went into the motor industry and held several management positions. I had always wanted to run my own business however and had flair for catering and entertaining. I bought my first restaurant in 1983 and from there on out, I continued to work in the restaurant, hospitality and food production industries in varying roles for many years.
My creative and innovative spirit still burned deep within though and during a Harley Davidson tour to the USA in 2014, I noted the rise of craft distilleries and the legal production of moonshine. After two and a half years of study and research (including a stint at Moonshine University in Louisville, Kentucky) I set up my own craft distillery in Randfontein, Gauteng, with the aim to produce South Africa’s largest range of moonshine.
The state-of-the-art production facility is tucked away in an old mine building ‘in the middle of nowhere’.
What is the difference between moonshine spirit and say, gin or vodka?
Moonshine is traditionally a grain spirit. Our Southern Moonshine is an unaged grain spirit or white whiskey and is made from white and yellow corn, wheat and malted barley. Our Clear Moonshine (Sippin Whiskey) is a complex spirit and one can savour the grain character without the influence of oak barrel maturation.
Vodka is a clear spirit that can be made from several base products (including potatoes) but is distilled at a very high proof and most of the flavours are distilled out!
Gin, on the other hand, starts with a neutral spirit that is enhanced with the infusion of juniper berries and several other exotic botanicals.
Can you tell us a bit more about the range of Southern Moonshines?
Clear Shine is our hero product (Double Gold Winner) and is distilled from white corn, yellow corn, crushed wheat and malted barley. It is proofed down to 50° ABV (or 100% proof in American parlance) and is authentic as it gets.
Best enjoyed: as a base of a cocktail like a “Mountain Margarita”.
Charred Shine is a complex moonshine is created from our Clear Shine and is flavoured with an oak barrel essence/flavour. It is also proofed down to 50% ABV.
Best enjoyed: on the rocks.
Flavoured Moonshines (24% Abv/48% Proof-Spirit Aperitifs)
Apple Pie Moonshine – “As American as Apple Pie” this is our number 1 flavoured Moonshine (Gold Medal Winner) and is a hit with all age groups.
Salted Caramel Moonshine – caramel flavour with a salty finish also (Gold Medal Winner).
Bon Fire Moonshine – a hot cinnamon Moonshine that is not too hot or too sweet (also Gold Medal Winner).
Chocolate Moonshine – a taste of dark chocolate and black coffee – (Silver Medal Winner).
Best enjoyed: chilled as a shooter or over crushed ice.
Can you tell us the inspiration behind the name Silver Creek and Southern Moonshine?
The starting point for any early distillery was to identify a Creek or reliable source of sweet water, so I knew the word ‘creek’ had Moonshine significance and told a story.
Silver Creek comes from a meeting I had with Rod Dry from the Silver Creek Mountain Band – a Bluegrass Band that I have followed for nearly 40 years. Rod would be the perfect Moonshiner with his long grey hair and bare feet!
I told him I wanted to call my new distillery ‘Silver Creek Craft Distillery’ and he thought that would be cool. As Moonshine is and was a product of the Southern States, I thought it apt to call our product ‘Southern Moonshine’.
What has been the most rewarding part of starting Silver Creek Craft Distillery?
I suppose it is the journey of discovery and learning a new skill and craft and creating something out of nothing. The enthusiasm and support shown by my wife and family and all who know me has been hugely rewarding!
What has been the most challenging part of Southern Moonshine?
There have been several challenges – but I suppose it is finding the right people to assist you along the journey. My consultants Kevin Knight (Finance and Operations) and Mike Orrey (Branding and Marketing) have been amazing.
My technical team in South Africa (Distillique) and in the U.S.A. (Moonshine University and Flavorman) have assisted me in every step of this two and a half year journey.
What is it about spirits that gets you so excited?
Having been in the hospitality industry for most of my life, running restaurants, bars, fast food establishments and producing bulk food ingredients, I was looking for something to reignite my passion and enthusiasm for creating a new product and brand. I found the answer in craft distilleries and Southern Moonshine.
Buy Southern Moonshine online at the Silvercreek Distillery website.
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