CHARLOTTE, N.C. - Before he moved to North Carolina in the mid-'90s, Joseph Michalek's New York buddies kidded him about going to the land of moonshine and Mayberry.
Within months of arriving in Winston-Salem, he began to notice a glass jar quietly passed around at bluegrass festivals and racetracks.
"I'd never seen nor tasted moonshine, but it was pretty obvious that's what it was," Michalek, 38, said. "I was prepared for the worst, but I sipped it, and it was delicious, much smoother than I expected. It had a hint of fruit in it; I'd never tasted anything quite like it."
What Michalek tasted was a moonshine "hybrid," which has grown in popularity in recent years at barbecues and ball games throughout the Carolinas - usually offered from a friend's back-pocket flask. The corn whiskey infused with local peaches, apples, cherries or strawberries is sweeter and smoother than the 180-proof, clear liquor with a bouquet of paint thinner.
Old-timers call the fruit-infused liquor sissyshine.
"You'd be surprised at who's drinking that stuff, too," said Arthur Black, a South Carolina peach farmer. "It ain't farmers in overalls. It's yuppies in places like Charlotte."
Michalek saw a business opportunity.
In 2005, he started Piedmont Distillers in Madison, north of Greensboro - the first legal distillery in the Carolinas since before Prohibition. He produces Catdaddy: Carolina Moonshine, which is sold in a half-dozen states. Catdaddy is moonshiner slang for "best of the best."
Michalek, who won't divulge his start-up costs or his sales, works with four full-time employees. He produces Catdaddy in small batches - 300 gallons, triple-distilled in a German copper pot still. A batch yields about 1,500 bottles, which are filled, corked and packaged by hand in Madison's former train station. A 750-milliliter bottle costs $19.95.
Real moonshine comes in two "flavors": legal and illegal. The essential difference is that one is taxed and one is not.
You can go into almost any liquor store and buy moonshine, such as Georgia Moon Corn Whiskey, Platte Valley Corn Whiskey, or Catdaddy. The federal tax on a gallon of whiskey is $15.50.
It is legal to own a still; you can buy one online for less than $800. If you want to produce any alcohol in your still, you need a federal permit. Under the alternative-fuels law, you can make up to 10,000 gallons a year of ethanol, which can power engines when mixed with gasoline.
"Yes, you can have a still, but it must be permitted, and you can produce spirits for fuel use only," said Art Resnick, director of public and media affairs for the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau of the Treasury Department. "Let's make this perfectly clear: It's illegal to make moonshine, which is untaxed spirits."
Even if a person wanted to make moonshine at home and pay federal taxes, it's not that simple. It requires a federal distiller's license and is cost-prohibitive for anything other than a business.
On Michalek's journey to become a distiller, he said, he got some curious looks as a "fast-talking Yankee with a hard-to-pronounce last name" asking questions about the production of moonshine.
"But I was interested in the high-grade premium stuff, and once people understood I respected the quality of their product, they opened up," he said. "They take a lot of pride in making good whiskey. It's truly becoming a lost art."
What Michalek learned was that he wasn't interested in the old-style, 180-proof stuff with enough bite to take the chrome off a trailer hitch.
"I don't see how anyone can drink that stuff. It should be illegal," he joked.
Catdaddy is not straight corn whiskey.
"It's flavored moonshine. A lot of homemade moonshine is fruit-infused, and our recipe is, too, but we've added two more flavors to make it unique," said Michalek, who brought the proof down to 80 to make it smoother.
True to his craft, Michalek won't identify the three flavors he adds, other than to say it's a fruit with spices similar to vanilla and cinnamon.
Davis Clark of York, S.C., grew up on a farm and had his share of the old-style moonshine.