Moonshine Is Back | Connecticut Public Radio
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Moonshine Is Back

Oct 11, 2011

Moonshine. The word evokes images of Hillbillies sipping out of jugs or mason jars, and brass stills nestled deep in the backwoods during prohibition. A Connecticut start-up has brought Moonshine into the 21st century, and as WNPR's Ray Hardman reports, the liquor is getting a lot of attention.

"Basically this is where the product is in its tanks ready to be made into the finished product. So we've got moonshine here in these two 50-gallon drums and we've got the organic..."

That's Adam von Gootkin, co-owner of Onyx Spirits company. We are in their small production room, housed in a civil war era factory in Manchester Connecticut. It is here that von Gootkin and his partner Peter Kowalcyk make their Onyx Moonshine, along with a soon to be distributed Vodka and Limoncello. But the sterile feel of the room reminds me more of a chemistry lab than a distillery.

"Here we have, you know probably a month or so later...another couple of months, it's even lighter and then within six months it's really kind of light and super smooth."

Onyx Spirits company is the only distiller in Connecticut making Moonshine. Adam von Gootkin says they wanted their Moonshine to have a certain taste:

"We kind of modeled this after a really good, 8-year, 12-year single malt...very very smooth. Little bit hard to do that because our moonshine is clear. We wanted to make sure it was clear. There's no brown. There's no aging of the oak casks. This is pure, unaged whiskey made from American corn."

Clear Corn Whiskey in an elegant, old timey looking bottle. Ok. But what does it taste like? Stephen Mateuro is the general manger of Dotcom Wines and Spirits in West Hartford, the first retail supplier of Onyx Moonshine:

"In my opinion, it's one of the most purest forms of whiskey I've had. The second it hits your pallet you can definitely tell it's not a neutral grain A) because there's flavor and weight to it and B) it does the thing that whiskey does and scotch in general does to you where once you smallow it it really opens up your sinuses and really spreads into your chest."

Onyx spirits is just another venture for von Gootkin and Kowalcyck, who also own and operate Onyx Soundlab, a full service recording studio in Manchester. As the two entrepreneurs discovered, it is much easier to open a recording studio in Connecticut than a distillery.

"There's three phases to opening a distillery: local, state and federal. You need approval from all three. Federal was the easiest. The state and the town are a whole different thing."

Part of the problem - there are only a handful of distilleries in Connecticut, and von Gootkin and Kowlayck say that unfamiliarity caused town and state officials to drag their heels in the process.

"Not because we're doing anything wrong or because of regulation issues but just because they lose plans a lot."

Ray: "You mean like, "Oh yeah its under my desk or something?"

"Not returning phone calls or filing the plans..."

"Or showing up on time when you're supposed to have a walk-through and things of that nature."

"Working with the town has been the biggest challenge."

Not to mention the thousands in up front fees and taxes which von Gootkin and Kowalcyk say almost forced them to reconsider opening a distillery. All the while, another state was actively courting them to relocate their venture:

"Well, Georgia had heard about the venture we were doing and somebody from the state hit us up and said they were interested. So inviting, so friendly, so eager to help us and keep our costs low.

But with a commitment to using Connecticut products in their liquor as much as possible, the twenty something entrepreneurs say they plan to stay in Connecticut. But they hope the state will become more business friendly in the future:

"I'm talking about large tax cuts for small businesses, at least for the first couple years. Let people like us get going, let us get some fire going, let us get some customers! And then, tax us. You know, I'm happy to pay taxes if the taxes are funding the state and keeping the place safe and keeping the street lights on and keeping the roads paved and keeping the schools open, we love it totally. But let us get up and going.

Right now von Gootkin and Kowalcyck are working around the clock to meet the demand for their Moonshine, and with 10 more liquor stores looking to add Onyx Moonshine to their shelves, they may have to turn over the operation to full time staff in the near future. For WNPR, I'm Ray Hardman.