Moonshine got its name about 200 years ago because it was distilled by the light of the moon to avoid detection by the tax man. This illicit distilling of high-alcohol, clear whiskey continued across the country at least through the 1940s. Today, moonshine is perfectly legal and crafted in the sunshine, but the mystique remains.
Drawing on the edgy pedigree of backwoods booze, Sandpoint-based Mill Town Distillery puts out a range of small batch liquors: rum, vodka, and two corn whiskeys. The company, founded about a year ago by husband and wife Victor and Jessie Vachon, leans heavily on the north Idaho history of bootlegging, as the panhandle region was a hotspot for illegal hooch with plenty of hills and forests in which to stash a still. On its website, Mill Town credits its establishment to the discovery of one such still and draws from the same spring water to craft its spirits.
Boise Weekly got the chance to sit down with a selection of the artisan distillery's tipples for a (reasonably responsible) tasting. Below are the results.
No. 217 Corn Whiskey ($22.95)—Named for a Sandpoint area hiking trail, No. 217 weighs in at 80 proof, which might come as a surprise on the palate. The nose is much more pronounced than the flavor, with a winey characteristic that carries a hint of banana. The corn base is a world away from the charred barrel notes of other whiskies. That said, those familiar with grappa will find much to like. No. 217 has a clean mouth feel and warms all the way down. We suggest it with a splash of citrus.
Wildman of No. 217 Corn Whiskey ($27.45)—This is the moonshine your granddaddy warned you about. Clocking in at 60 percent alcohol by volume, we're talking about some serious white lightning. As one taster put it, a whiff off the bottle evokes "the foretaste of a nosebleed." This stuff has to be liberally mixed with branch water unless you're angling to be one and done (and on your ass). There's a Sasquatch on the label and our sense is, after too many swigs, you'd be living up to the name.
Pend Oreille River Light Rum ($22.95)—Our panel didn't have much to say about Mill Town's rum. Clear and clean in the bottle, it gives off a brisk rum aroma, but the flavor—while pleasant—doesn't do much to set it apart. Mixed, it would be perfectly serviceable, but "serviceable" doesn't quite justify the price. Props, however, go to the label text on the proper way to say Pend Oreille: "Please pronounce it responsibly. Pond-o-ray, Ponder-ay or if you are feeling sassy Pon-duh-ray."
Scotchman Peaks Barley Vodka ($22.95)—Not a lot comes off the nose, despite its unique use of barley as a base. One taster claimed to detect a note of grass clippings. In the mouth, the Scotchman Peaks (named for the high mountains that skirt the Idaho-Montana border near the Clark Fork River) feels rounded and generally inoffensive. We mixed it with grapefruit juice, a splash of soda water and a lemon garnish. It was the clear winner of the bunch as far as a relaxed cocktail goes.
Bottoms Up: Cheers to this scrappy little distillery for its experimentation, humor and unique offerings. Mill Town's corn is clearly where its craft shines, but it's an acquired taste. The Wildman was too wild for us, but you could do a lot worse for vodka. Meanwhile, we'd suggest going for a lower priced rum for mixing.