When most folks hear the word “Conecuh” they think “sausage,” but the Conecuh Ridge in Bullock County, Ala., has a lesser-known history of illegal moonshine and illicit whiskey – whiskey you can enjoy today without worrying about pesky revenuers, sheriffs or prison sentences.
I’m talking about Clyde May’s Conecuh Ridge “Alabama Style” Whiskey, first distilled in 1946 by a real-life World War II vet named Clyde May and now distilled in Kentucky under the auspices of the (Dallas, Texas-based) Spirits Acquisition Corporation. Clyde died in 1990 but his son Kenny started making whiskey in 2002 with the help of Kentucky Bourbon Distillers (Bardstown, Kentucky), who trucked in Conecuh Ridge spring water for authenticity. Alabama’s state Legislature named it the Official State Spirit of Alabama in 2004 and this designation has stuck, despite a slight run-in with the law that Kenny suffered later that year.
Clyde May’s original product was basic moonshine – an un-aged white spirit whose name may derive from its covert, nocturnal “moonlight” production designed to avoid the notice of revenuers. All whiskey starts life as a white (clear) spirit, of course, and acquires color by absorbing pigment from barrels during the aging process. Go see the sparkling clear liquid gushing through the pipes at Jack Daniel’s Distillery if you don’t believe me. (Just across the Tennessee line in Lynchburg, Jack Daniel’s has one of the most fun and informative distillery tours you can find. I’ve taken it eight times, starting when I was six years old, but I digress …)
Moonshine has the reputation of being cheap, harsh and possibly poisonous, but Clyde May wanted – at least according to his legend – to make a more refined product. He still didn’t make a legal product (if you must pick a nit), but he set aside a portion of his moonshine for aging in small, fire-charred oak barrels and experimented with flavors until he found – again, according to legend – what he felt was the “Alabama style.” Specifically, Clyde added dried apples to his aging moonshine, which combined with the oak to produce a slightly sweet and spicy amber-colored final product.
Clyde May’s Conecuh Ridge Alabama Style Whiskey is made today from a corn, wheat and rye mash, similar to mashes used for Kentucky Bourbon, then aged for four years in charred oak barrels. I’ve read several reviews calling it “accessible” to “novice” whiskey drinkers, words that usually mark a back-handed compliment intended to suggest it’s too sweet to appeal to “serious” whiskey connoisseurs. (In the wine world, anyway, reviewers tend to assume novice drinkers want to tip-toe into the shallow end of the pool by means of a sweeter wine, like a white zinfandel.)
Back-handed compliments haven’t stopped Clyde May’s whiskey from winning quite a few taste awards from industry experts, though, including a 93-point score from “Wine Enthusiast” magazine and a gold medal from the Wine and Spirits Wholesalers of America at its 2012 tasting competition (not as good as a “double gold” or a “best in show,” but not shabby by any means).
Clyde May’s producers suggest you drink their whiskey neat, with an emphasis on sipping, not guzzling.
There’s some argument in the blogosphere about whether you should add ice; personally, I preferred ice in mine. This whiskey’s aromas are soft – softer than many Bourbons I’ve encountered – with maybe a hint of banana pudding if you close your eyes. Oak dominates the taste more than dried apple, bringing vanilla and tannic dryness to the fore. Given all the talk about sweetness, I expected a taste approaching Southern Comfort, but it’s actually nothing like that sweet.
Clyde May’s producers also tout their whiskey as a cocktail-friendly spirit, possibly as a key ingredient in the “perfect” Manhattan. Cocktail recipes on the Clyde May website include a drink called, in fact, the Perfect Manhattan (made with sweet vermouth, bitters and cherries), alongside a Sweet Home Alabama shooter (blended with peach schnapps) and two cocktails devised by Dale DeGroff (a.k.a. King Cocktail, founder of The Museum of the American Cocktail) – one of which sounds ideal for football season: the Crimson Clyde (which gets its reddish color from Dale DeGroff’s Pimento Bitters).
The website lists a whiskey sour recipe featuring a dash of hot sauce and although I’ve always said I’ll drink anything once, I’ve got decades of experience making whiskey sours and preferred my Clyde May mixed simply with fresh orange and lemon juices and a small spoonful of sugar. It blends well but doesn’t disappear — good if you like knowing there’s whiskey in your sour. As we head into cooler months, you can also mull Clyde May’s with apple cider and spices to ward off a chill or nurse a sore throat.
I’ve read some whiskey commentators who say folks shouldn’t sell, buy or drink Clyde May’s whiskey because Clyde started with an illegal still, served prison time and his son broke a few laws, too. I don’t want you to think I condone criminal behavior; I’m just able to differentiate between an adult beverage and the people who make it (particularly when one is dead and the other is no longer affiliated with the product). I’m not Lagniappe’s morality columnist – I’m its booze columnist. So, with my limited scope of responsibility fully established, I recommend you give Clyde May’s a shot.
Clyde May’s Conecuh Ridge Alabama Style Whiskey – formerly just Conecuh Ridge Whiskey – is available at local ABC stores, costing $30-$35 for a 750 ml bottle. You can also sip a glass at the Joe Cain Café in the Battlehouse Hotel or at the Alchemy Tavern, or – for something completely different – Pinzone’s Italian Restaurant in Fairhope has incorporated Clyde May’s into a saucy main course they call Whiskey Rabbit. (85 proof, or 42.5 percent ABV, minus the rabbit.)