You never know what you’ll learn when you travel somewhere new. Last month, I spent some time in the Hocking Hills region of Ohio, and one of the places I visited was the Straitsville Special Moonshine distillery. Not only did I learn about moonshine, I got a history lesson that was definitely more interesting than any I ever had in class.

New Straitsville, Ohio, has a legacy of moonshine and bootlegging, and it’s known for its annual Moonshine Festival. For the first time at this year’s festivities at the end of May, festivalgoers were able to (legally) have moonshine at the 45-year-old celebration thanks to Straitsville Special.

If you think really hard back to a school history class, you may remember learning about the labor disputes in the coal mines in the late 1800s and the early 1900s. One of those disputes inadvertently led to New Straitsville becoming a major producer of moonshine during Prohibition.

Here’s the short version: Coal miners working for the New Straitsville Mining Company went on strike over wages and living conditions in the early 1880s. When they didn’t get any satisfaction, they decided to sabotage the mines. In November of 1884, they sent coal cars full of wood soaked in oil into the mines. They didn’t intend to end the mining in New Straitsville, but they did.

The fires they set traveled far underground and still burn today, although there is no evidence of it above ground. For decades the town of New Straitsville was covered in smoke, due to the mine fires.

The smoke made the town the ideal place to hide moonshine distilleries during Prohibition. Usually, smoke from distilleries led law enforcement to illegal liquor operations, but not in New Straitsville. Since the town was always covered in smoke, distilleries hidden in the openings of the mines and in the hills of the region were undetectable.

New Straitsville was the major supplier of moonshine to Chicago’s speakeasies, where people (including Al Capone) would ask for it by name. Straitsville Special was the clear moonshine; Straitsville Red had been flavored with wood chips.

Prohibition ended, but the moonshine culture continued in New Straitsville. It wasn’t until Ohio passed a micro-distillery law in 2012 that the town got its first legal moonshine distillery: Straitsville Special Moonshine.

I had a tour of the building where Straitsville Special is made and a taste of the 90-proof straight corn whiskey that’s clear, smooth and made from a 100-year-old recipe.

It’s distilled in the back room of the store that sells it. All the whiskey produced goes through the distiller pictured above. It's a small operation, but it probably won't stay small for long. The building itself has a fascinating history, and if you ever make your way there, ask co-owners Doug Nutter and Bill Merckle about it. They love to talk and speculate about what used to go on in that building.

Nutter and Merckle use a family recipe that’s over 100 years old to distil about 200 gallons of moonshine a month. From beginning to end, everything is handled by the two business partners, including the bottling and labeling.

Illegal moonshine is still made in the hills of New Straitsville, but according to Nutter, it’s the same as what his operation makes and sells.

“The only difference between our stuff and the stuff in the hills is that ours has a label and we pay taxes,” said Nutter.

Straitsville Special is smooth, nothing like any moonshine I’ve tasted before. Nutter and Merckle attribute the excellence of the whiskey to the perfected family recipe that they understandably do not share, but they also give credit to the New Straitsville spring water, which gives it a distinct taste you can’t find anywhere else.  

The town of New Straitsville charmed me. The people there know their history well and are proud of it. Within walking distance of the distillery is The New Straitsville Mine & Moonshine Museum and Robinson’s Cave where you can learn more about the town’s rich, fascinating history.

Straitsville Special Moonshine is located at 105 W Main Street, New Straitsville, Ohio. 

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Robin Shreeves ( @rshreeves ) focuses on food from a family perspective from her home base in New Jersey.

Straitsville Special: Moonshine with a smoky past
Ohio’s first legal moonshine distillery makes its home in a town with a fascinating bootlegging past.