Derby City Shine

“In the 1920s in Louisville, getting moonshine often meant trudging through the woods to the local still. It was highly illegal, and yet also a part of everyday life for many.”

A new moonshine distillery, which plans to open in the fall, will make it a lot easier for current Louisvillians to get their ‘shine. Derby City Shine is not only going to make moonshine available to all, it will educate about what moonshine is and how it evolved with an interactive museum and tour highlighting Kentucky’s moonshining history.

It’s all part of the remarkable, even crazy, growth in Louisville’s distilling scene. The Evan Williams Experience opened last year; Michter’s and Angel’s Envy are working to open distilleries as part of the city’s revived Whiskey Row; and Brown-Forman and others are eyeing downtown locations.

Copper & Kings is throwing its hat in the distilling ring as a brandy maker, Peerless Distilling is dropping a distillery near Portland that will start with moonshine and graduate to bourbon, and now Derby City Shine is about to take over the space at 436 Baxter Ave. – formerly Flip Flop Jack’s, Bar Louisville and others – to bring a line of flavored shine they hope will be a bridge between the masses and distilled liquors.

Here’s the thing: I was afforded a few samples and told I am one of just a handful people to try the product so far, and I’m here to say that it’s absolutely worthy.

Let’s face it, your beer-drinking buddy or vodka-inclined girlfriend may not find bourbon palatable – it’s an acquired tasted. But Derby City Shine’s apple cider moonshine is a smooth, spicy, accessible liquor that tastes good over ice or can be the basis for a cool cocktail. And it’s going to be made right here in bourbon country, with flavors provided by Louisville beverage company Flavorman.

I also sampled the peach mango, which is a pink liquor that would be perfect over ice; both are 70 proof. My favorite was the small batch cane sugar ‘shine, which has a whiskey-like bite and a 95 proof kick, but also pleases with a smooth sweetness that should satisfy many different palates. Roughly 14 flavors are planned for the distillery, with others including lemonade, watermelon and vanilla. Should be interesting to see what master distiller Harrison Hyden comes up with.

This is a state that is Pappy Van Winkle crazy; the Bourbon Trail is a hugely profitable tourist attraction. And now we have moonshine? It absolutely fits, since distilling has been a Kentucky staple for hundreds of years; Louisville’s Urban Bourbon scene is blowing up in a big way, and it is paving the way for concepts like Derby City Shine.

“We’re going against the grain,” said Derby City Shine co-founder Jay Blevins.

“We love bourbon, but it’s not for everybody. There are people who like fruitier things.”

He said the initial concept is a tourist attraction that not only offers a wide variety of favored ‘shines, but also will educate through a moonshine museum featuring historical artifacts, a distilling facility with which visitors can interact, and will serve as a destination for locals and tourists alike.

derby city shine logoI took a tour of the (estimated) 14,000-square-foot space, and at the moment it looks like the zombie apocalypse invaded a dance club. Derelict chairs, beer signs, bar amenities, tables and disco balls litter the place, but Blevins and Hyden promise great things ahead; two committed investors are on board, the building has been acquired, and architectural plans are prepared. Blevins wouldn’t reveal a target date, but suggested it will be several months before Derby City Shine opens.

The multi-level facility will include not only the museum and a custom still operation designed by Vendome, but an overlook deck where visitors can sit and watch the distilling happen if they so choose. There will be a VIP-style area – a “speakeasy lounge” – that will be part of a deluxe version of the tour. Add to the mix a space for private events and even an outside deck, and Derby City Shine should be quite an experience. There will even be replica of a moonshiner’s car on the tour that visitors can explore in search of hidden contraband.

Speaking of which, in talking to friends about this story I’ve had several people say to me, “Isn’t moonshine illegal?” Blevins and Hyden get that a lot, too. When moonshine is made without a license, it’s absolutely illegal, the term coming from moonshiners who would make the stuff at night to avoid the law. But this isn’t quite the same thing.

“You can do anything you want with the right license,” Hyden said with a smile.

Which is to say, you’re not allowed to try this at home, but a licensed distiller absolutely can. Visitors should think of these creations as exotic versions of moonshine, or as Blevins said, “moonshine refined.”

derby city shine single bottleMeanwhile, the moonshine museum will give visitors a tour of what moonshining was like in the south down through generations of distilling, especially relating to Prohibition. Blevins and his partners have already acquired moonshining artifacts that will be featured as part of the experience, including a pair of handcuffs that were used to corral Al Capone.

Perhaps the best part is that Derby City Shine is, at least at first, meant to be a totally local entity. You’ll be able to sample an anticipated 14 products at the distillery, and there will be a commercial space where anyone can stop in to not only sample moonshine but also to purchase bottles, T-shirts and other swag. The goal ultimately is to distribute the product locally to bars and liquor stores, but at first Derby City Shine will be about the experience.

“For now, we really want to be a tourist attraction, museum and a place where you can sample without having to buy it off a shelf or at a bar,” Blevins said. The historical tour and museum is a big part of the sell for the final product.

“At the end, we let them see how [moonshine] evolves into what we’ve made it into today,” Blevins said.

Both Hyden and Blevins believe their products will appeal greatly to a female audience, or to anyone whose palates have never accepted the complex flavor profile bourbon offers. Heck, imagine that you meet up with friends at a bar and people start ordering beer and wine.

“It’s kind of empowering,” Blevins said, “to say, ‘I’m drinking moonshine.'”

by Kevin Gibson

Written on April 10, 2014.