The UK supplier of one of the largest US moonshine brands Palmetto believes the corn-based spirit can thrive after he overcame regulatory hurdles to launch it on this side of the Atlantic.
Animated by a love of all things America, Scot Callum Burt from Moonshine UK tells BeverageDaily.com he decided to call time on a 10-year career in commercial and corporate banking to pursue his business dream.
“Everyone thinks they know what moonshine is due to popular culture, films like Lawless. But Moonshine UK is going to actually bring a product that says ‘this is what is’ and stands out from everything else on the shelves,” he says.
With its distinctive 700ml mason jar, shiny ‘in-your-face’ labels with US flags for the UK market, Burt predicts Palmetto Moonshine from South Carolina – which his firm buys upfront for UK sale – will create a real stir.
“I’m not going to say we’ll replace vodka. That’s a dangerous thing to say – that ‘we’re the next big thing’. But it’s an alternative, and the UK is crying out for a new drink to be honest – no-one’s really tasted it, and we want to bring it to that kind of clientele,” he says.
Walking on moonshine…
At the end of 2012 Burt emailed the top five or six moonshine producers in the States angling for UK distribution rights and “promised them the earth”. Palmetto alone wrote back to ask, ‘When can you start?’
Together with former banking colleague and business partner Stephen Bremner, Burt set up Moonshine UK to distribute the Palmetto’s products in the UK.
He describes Palmetto, started by brothers Trey and Bryan Boggs after South Carolina legalized moonshine distilling and retail sales in 2009, as “one of the fastest-growing companies of their type just now – they’re gaining fantastic traction and awards”.
“What they do so well is bring the scale to make it commercial nationwide, but use the original copper stills – keep the traditional recipes,” he explains. The Boggs brothers use a traditional recipe taken from bootleggers.
Initially, Moonshine UK brought over Palmetto samples – American Shine is its original (52.5% ABV) moonshine, and there are Blackberry, Apple Pie and Peach varieties with natural fruit compote.
‘It’s called whiskey in the States – but you can’t call it whiskey here’
“We did market tests – creating shots, bombs, mixers, cocktails, etc.,” Burt says. “After some good feedback we realized we had something here that no-one else had access to.”
After the initial euphoria died down, Burt and Bremner then spent 12 months (the last year in effect) getting the product approved by the Food Standards Agency (FSA) for UK sale.
“It’s called whiskey in the States – but you can’t call it whiskey here unless it’s unflavored and aged for more than two years, and you need to call it a bourbon before that,” he said.
“We were basically starting from scratch with something the FSA had never seen before. We went through various tests to get its signed-off as safe for consumption.”
After adapting labeling and changing the formula for the blackberry flavour – raspberry ketone (an antioxidant found in blackberries that is also used separate ingredient to add flavor) can only be used in food and not drinks in the EU – Moonshine UK is ready to go.
The company expects to start distributing the drink in Scotland and Essex in the East of England next week – the latter after a top mixologist from that county produced a cocktail list for the company and fell in love with moonshine himself.
“Without actively pushing it we seem to have a lot of people interested,” Burt said, noting advance orders and interest from smaller independent bars/pubs as well as larger chains.
But he baulks at the idea of “attacking a big capital like London”, preferring to rely on word of mouth and organic growth for product uptake.
‘We’re not growing full pelt at London’ – Moonshine UK prefers steady, organic growth
“Now is the time of craft breweries – we have time, and the size of our company lends itself to not going full pelt at London,” Burt says – noting traction in several Scottish cities.
“We’re using social media as a marketing tool and growing organically. Maybe we’d get more margin in London, but Stephen an I have a number of contacts in Scotland and that’s opened doors,” he adds.
He is also steering clear of large grocery chains for the time being, insisting that supermarkets “can kill a young company very quickly, with their margin play and payment terms – I want to steer clear of that”.
“Perhaps via a more established retailer, we could sell through to a supermarket,” he adds.
Cracking the cocktail code – Enter the ‘Moonbomb’…
Burt says a ‘Moonbomb’ cocktail and the 23% ABV flavored range have had good feedback in nightclubs, the latter in shot format, while American Shine lends itself well to higher-end cocktail bars – although outlets of both types will take the whole range.
And if demand skyrockets then Burt insists that servicing capacity is not a problem for Palmetto, which he says has distributes across the US, and is also breaking into Canada and Australia.
“I think they’re the third-largest moonshine company in the States behind Junior Johnson's and Ole Smoky Tennessee Moonshine,” he tells this site.
Finally, Burt believes other entrants will find it hard follow Moonshine UK through the regulatory process it needs to complete to sell moonshine in the UK, and notes that the few online outlets now selling imported moonshine under other brand names in 750ml bottles are breaking the law, which demands 700ml bottles.