published Thursday, January 23rd, 2014

MoonPie Moonshine expected to hit shelves next month

Poll
Would you drink MoonPie Moonshine?

MoonPie and Limestone Branch Distillery officials on Tuesday examined the line of MoonPie Moonshine jars that will debut in Tennessee, Kentucky and Indiana in about a month.

And in the excitement, someone held a just-printed MoonPie Moonshine jar against the flourescent warehouse lighting of Chattanooga Labeling Systems, and it was a moment of realization: If you could bottle the South, it would look like this.

The Campbells and the Beams, Tennessee and Kentucky, are teaming up to combine the flavor and brand power of Chattanooga's MoonPie with another Southern tradition: Moonshine distilled at a small craft brewery in central Kentucky.

MoonPie Moonshine, as it's been dubbed, will feature the three most popular MoonPie flavors -- chocolate, vanilla and banana -- and is expected to hit shelves as early as the beginning of February.

Part of the plan

The venture comes out of Chattanooga Bakery's ongoing effort over the last five years to expand the MoonPie brand.

You've likely seen it happening: the MoonPie General Store; a line of curvy, die-cast MoonPie delivery truck toys; MoonPie T-shirts and throwback MoonPie advertisements.

"This is probably the sixth category we've gone into," said Tory Johnston, vice president of marketing at Chattanooga Bakery. "We know that the brand has just an Americana, nostalgia appeal."

And America is eating it up, so to speak.

MoonPies are now distributed in 48 states. MoonPie-licensed products are in major stores like Cracker Barrel and Wal-Mart.

But the company's ear bent toward the world of spirits when craft brews -- and moonshine in particular -- emerged as a trendy new area in the industry.

Also, MoonPie's history allows for a natural dovetail into the world of adult drinks, particulary for men.

"Our brand has always been known as the 'working man's lunch,'" Johnston said.

That nickname was given to the snack cake because of the MoonPie's relationship with the 20th century coal miners in Kentucky.

In 1917, Chattanooga Bakery salesmen and the miners struck up a relationship. According to MoonPie myth, the bakery sculpted a snack cake built on the hunger pang dreams of the miners, thus birthing the MoonPie, the "working man's lunch."

And the rest is history.

'Two wonderful families'

Wednesday afternoon, Johnston sat with the Beam brothers -- co-founders and owners of Limestone Branch Distillery -- in one of Chattanooga Labeling Systems' conference rooms.

Opened jar packaging sitting on a long table, the three examined the jars and bounced ideas and potential changes in labeling off one another.

And as he's been since day one, Steve Beam was exuberant.

"Like it says on our lid now: It's two Southern traditions in every jar."

  • photo
    MoonPie Moonshine jars sit on the conveyer belt before being placed in boxes at Chattanooga Labeling Systems on Wednesday in Chattanooga. The co-founders of Limestone Branch Distillery in Lebanon, Ky., met with the vice president of marketing and new business development at Chattanooga Bakery to get a first look at their jars for the co-branding jars being produced at Chattanooga Labeling Systems.
    Photo by Erin O. Smith.
    enlarge photo

It wasn't a total coincidence that MoonPie, in its nationwide search for a distillery partner, wound up working with the Beams, who boast a family legacy equal to that of the Chattanooga Bakery Campbells. Beam said his family's brewing history goes back seven generations.

And those other Beams in Kentucky, the Jim Beam family who also happen to be famous distillers?

The Limestone Branch Beams are trying to avoid any branding or copyright overlaps with them, even though they do actually share some lineage with the Jim Beam family.

It very well could have been those other Beams, or their representatives, in Chattanooga on Tuesday. Chattanooga Bakery looked at the big boys when it began seriously considering a line of MoonPie alcohol drinks.

But being new to the scene, company officials decided the best way to ease into the market was to take on a smaller, craft distillery.

Looking at home, Johnston said Chattanooga Whiskey Company was approached, but they were occupied with the construction of a new distillery.

And then Chattanooga Bakery and Limestone Branch Distillery found each other. MoonPie had found its partner, and both sides knew it.

"They were just a great partner," Johnston said.

'Working man's reward'

The result is something totally new and which sounds totally radical, but also intriguing to anyone who likes MoonPies or a biting drink.

Johnston and Beam have each sampled the stuff, and they both say it's delicious.

"And I'm not a big spirits drinker personally," said Johnston. "But it is delicious."

At first, the moonshine will be offered in MoonPie's three most-popular flavors: Chocolate, banana and vanilla.

"The banana's pretty awesome," said Beam. But his favorite is "a toss-up" between that and chocolate.

MoonPie fanatics ought not worry about the drink being an imposter, MoonPie only in name.

The company which provides MoonPie's snack cake flavoring -- a North Carolina lab called Mother Murphy's -- is exporting MoonPie's flavors to Limestone Branch to be mixed in the moonshine.

Even so, Chattanooga Bakery executives know not all of MoonPie's fans are going to be onboard the moonshine train.

Johnston said the company knows that kids will pick up anything with the MoonPie logo on it, partly because of the very marketing ventures that led to MoonPie moonshine.

For that reason, MoonPie Moonshine will be sold exclusively at liquor stores and the MoonPie store, and not in supermarkets, where it can be confused for anything but an adult drink.

"We're age-gating it, in that respect," said Johnston.

He also hopes that MoonPie's spirit-spurning consumers don't take offense by the company's offering an alcohol product.

"I would understand that, but this is really about celebrating our male heritage. Celebrating our 100 years," he said.

The MoonPie will turn 100 in 2017 -- it's been a century of evolution in which Kentucky's coal mines have been boarded up, or placed under heavy pressure by the government to think about it.

And it's been a century wherein the MoonPie became less the "working man's lunch" and more the subject of Saturday morning commercials, aimed specifically toward a younger audience.

All the more reason for a return to the MoonPie's roots, Johnston and Beam say.

Both say that MoonPie Moonshine is in honor of the men who made MoonPies and Kentucky spirits popular in the first place and are calling today's revamp of the working man-MoonPie relationship "the working man's reward."

Contact staff writer Alex Green at agreen@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6480.

about Alex Green...

Alex Green joined the Times Free Press staff full-time in January 2014 after completing the paper's six-month, general assignment reporter internship. Alex grew up in Dayton, Tenn., which is also where he studied journalism at Bryan College. He graduated from Rhea County High School in 2008. During college, Alex covered the city of Graysville and the town of Spring City for The Herald-News. As editor-in-chief of Bryan College's student news group, Triangle, Alex reported on ...

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