By Richard Thomas
Until their bourbon comes out, Lexington’s Barrel House Distillery has only one point of interest for whiskey drinkers: their Devil John Moonshine. Made in the literal barrel house of the old James E. Pepper Distillery, this ‘shine is named for “Devil” John Wright, a.k.a. “Bad” John Wright, one of late 19th Century Appalachia’s more colorful figures.
I’ve read partially conflicting accounts on Devil John. Born in Wise County, Virginia, John Wright enlisted in the Confederate Army during the Civil War, and wound up in the bushwhacking scrapes of the Trans-Mississippi. According to some things I’ve read, he was captured, and thereupon offered a choice between incarceration or enlisting in the Federal army. Wright chose the latter.
All accounts agree that after the war Wright settled in his native Wise County, becoming a lawman, and later a Pinkerton, working as a coal company hired gun in the wider region. The latter job frequently took him to southeastern Kentucky.
“Devil” John Wright was also a moonshiner, and his descendant Pete Wright is a co-founder of Barrel House. Hence, Devil John Moonshine.
Devil John is a corn and sugar ‘shine, and combination that serves as the foundation for the best moonshine. This isn’t the sort of thing you could run your car off, though; Devil John is bottled at a relatively mild 90 proof (45% abv).
The nose off Devil John is potently aromatic, with corn husk scents wafting right out of the glass and carrying easily a few feet. Up close, the nose is like a pot of buttered corn on the cob coupled to a slightly chalky, grainy note, and a mildly alcoholic bite. Basically, it’s smooth, slightly sweet and moderately booze corn, and that is the essence of pretty much any clear stuff that has a mashbill of 80% or more corn.
Consequently, the flavor is corny and grainy, with a fat, smooth texture. It stays clear, but silky and thick right up until the moment the tongue becomes coated with a gentle spiciness. The finish is clear, light, a little warm, and carries on for a spell.
Not all whiskey drinkers have a taste for the clear stuff, and much of the growth of interest in moonshine itself is driven by mixologists and hipsters. However, I have one foot planted on eastern Kentucky roots, and have been drinking moonshine made by people I know or friends of people I know for twenty years now. My one quirk is I like my clear stuff chilled, and I think that helps make Devil John, already a decent ‘shine, even better by suppressing the grainy note and allowing the sweetness and spice to shine.
Devil John is listed at $29.99, but is sometimes discounted to below $25.