“It’s my daddy’s recipe,” 79-year-old NASCAR legend Robert “Junior” Johnson said.
The former NASCAR driver and car owner never dreamed that 55 years after he was arrested and sent to prison for his involvement in the family business — making moonshine — that he would once again be involved in making some of the “smoothest, cleanest spirits on the market.”
“No way,” Johnson said.
But there he was at the Pell City ABC store Friday signing bottle after bottle of his Midnight Moon moonshine and his Midnight Moon Fruit Inclusion spirits in apple pie, cherry and strawberry flavors.
“Back in the old days, we’d put fruit in our moonshine,” he said. “People always liked the fruit-flavored shine the best. I guess it’s because it was so easy to drink. Adding fruit to the jar made our moonshine really smooth and taste even better.”
And now the Johnson family secret is legal.
Joe Michalek, founder of Piedmont Distillers Inc. in Madison, N.C., said the two teamed up and introduced Junior’s Midnight Moon in 2007. Last year, the new fruit moonshine hit the market. For the first time in Alabama, the fruit version of the shine was sold Friday at the ABC store in Pell City.
Michalek said he hopes the fruit inclusion moonshine will become a permanent fixture on ABC store shelves in Alabama.
Johnson said Friday he grew up in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, where it was not uncommon for folks to make a little moonshine for profit.
“I say one out of every three families was making moonshine,” he said. “It was a way of life, really.”
Johnson said he is glad to share his father’s moonshine recipe with others.
“I’m sure the stuff he made back in the day was a little stiffer,” joked one local race fan, who came into the ABC Store in Pell City to have his NASCAR hero sign a bottle of the finest “moonshine” on the market.
John Kilmer of Prattville said he decided to take off work and drive to Pell City to meet the “living legend.”
He pushed a buggy full of Midnight Moonshine, choosing an assorted collector’s case of the original and two each of the three different fruit flavor spirits to the store exit.
“One to keep, one to try,” Kilmer said.
Johnson said even though his family made moonshine for a living, he’s not much of a drinker himself.
“I’ll have a beer every now and then,” he said.
Johnson said he was involved in the family business when he was only 8 or 9 years old, along with his two brothers.
“I would do anything I could to help my father,” he said.
As Johnson grew older, he learned to drive and started distributing the family recipe to customers 20-30 miles away in soup-upped cars.
This is where he learned to make cars go fast and the talent to keep one step ahead of the law. That skill eventually translated to success on the racetrack.
“I knew I needed to make my own way, and I started driving race cars,” Johnson said. “I got real serious with racing.”
During a return trip home in 1956, his father asked him to “fire up the still.”
Johnson explained you had to start the still before dawn or someone would see the thick smoke and report you.
However, that morning, there was a surprise party waiting for him.
“Eighteen revenuers surrounded the still, and I got caught,” he said.
He was given a two-year sentence, but made parole after 11 months and three days.
Johnson said he returned to the moonshine making business, but eventually made his way back to racing. He was pardoned by President Ronald Regan for his moonshine conviction, and now Johnson is making and selling his father’s moonshine recipe legally.
“You are a legend,” Dave McCormick of Moody told Johnson Friday at the ABC Store, and he thanked Johnson for all he has done for NASCAR racing.
But McCormick did have one question he was itching to ask Johnson.
“Was it more fun making it when it was illegal?” he asked.
Johnson paused, leaned back in his chair and looked McCormick straight into the eyes.
“Well, it was more exciting,” Johnson said.
Contact David Atchison at firstname.lastname@example.org.