By Harriet McLeod
CHARLESTON, South Carolina (Reuters) - Two entrepreneurs are taking advantage of South Carolina's new micro-distillery laws to make traditional moonshine whiskey legally in the state for the first time.
The Dark Corner Distillery will open next month in Greenville, where engineer Joe Fenten and longtime home beer brewer Richard Wenger will produce and sell small batches of 100-proof moonshine from a custom-made copper still.
The distillery, housed in a 1925 building, will also include a tasting bar and a museum dedicated to the history of the Dark Corner, the local mountains that were once full of moonshiners, feud and mayhem, Fenten, 27, told Reuters.
The area was settled, along with the nearby Smoky Mountains of Tennessee and Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, by Scots, Irish and Welsh who migrated down through the Appalachian mountain chain from Pennsylvania in the 1700s.
"They thought it was their inalienable, God-given right to make whiskey," said Fenten, a Dark Corner native. "It was a hard life. If you could make an extra 10 cents more for a gallon of whiskey than you could for a bushel of corn, then why not?"
Moonshine traditionally was the term used to describe illegally distilled corn whiskey often made covertly by the light of the moon. The product made at the new distillery will be un-aged corn whiskey, but will be taxed and regulated.
The area came to be called the Dark Corner in 1832 by South Carolina politicians seeking to nullify federal law and who cursed the people of the mountains as Unionists, said Dean Campbell, a Dark Corner native who is the distillery's official historian.
Whiskey taxes after the Civil War and then Prohibition in the 20th century made the place more lawless, Campbell said.
News accounts in the 1920s called the Dark Corner "a little Chicago" because of federal agents' raids on stills, killings, and gun and knife fights that broke out after church, he said.
Illegal moonshine is still being made there, Campbell said. In June, sheriff's deputies busted a still in Landrum, South Carolina, and confiscated 2,000 gallons of illegal white liquor along with $150,000 in cash.
State lawmakers in 2009 altered existing liquor laws in a way that lessened the financial burden on small distilleries, paving the way for the Dark Corner Distillery to set up shop.
Fenten said city officials and business groups in Greenville have supported the new venture, but "the second you say moonshine, people's eyebrows raise up."
Despite the drink's reputation, legal moonshine makers also have popped up in other states, including Oregon, Wisconsin, Montana, Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, New York and North Carolina.
Fenten and Wenger, 44, are experimenting with fresh grains and flavorings and plan other products such as bourbon, peach and grape brandies, and beer schnapps. Unlike some competitors, they do not use neutral grain spirits, or pure grain alcohol, which cheapen the product, Fenten said.
The moonshine will be as smooth as vodka, he said. "It's got a kick but it doesn't numb your mouth."
(Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Cynthia Johnston)