By RACHEL WESTON
Russell Burlew, owner of the North Bridge Avenue bottle shop, was among the retailers who received a confusing letter from borough hall this spring directing them to remove illuminated and neon signs from storefront windows. The signs violated borough ordinances, they were told.
After an outcry by business owners, some of whom have had their signs for decades, enforcement of the orders has been halted by the borough council, which is reviewing the sign ordinance.
Meantime, though, Burlew went ahead and removed 15 signs that advertised beer and other beverages and found a new use for the space: a moonshine display.
Using the situation as initiative to spruce up the window, Burlew replaced the signs with jars of moonshine. And just like a bootlegger, Burlew fashioned his own still – though this one is all for show.
Several reflective copper stills, mason jars and whiskey barrels now beckon customers to enter the store. Wooden beverage boxes harkening to Crate’s historical roots as a 19th-century soda factory are tucked beneath the stills.
The store has been carrying three brands of American made moonshine for over a year. Sales are brisk, reflecting increasing demand around the country, Burlew said.
For example, in 2010, Ole Smokey launched a distillery in East Tennessee; in 2013 it quadrupled its production.
“It is a relatively new product, and it is taking off,” Burlew noted.
He described the typical moonshine customer as ranging from age 21 to 81. “I had one 80-year-old woman come in one day, and she bought four different bottles,” he said.
With options ranging beyond white lightnin,’ or original moonshine, the unaged whiskey made of corn mash comes in many fruity flavors. Burlew said apple pie is the top seller, with cherry not far behind. Lemon drop, blackberry, strawberry, blueberry and caramel flavors also line the shelves. Proofs range from 40 to 100.
“This is made for the average consumer,” Burlew said. “They aren’t trying to kill you with this stuff. All of them you can drink straight. The apple pie you can heat up a little bit. Maybe microwave to get it warm when it is cold outside.”
Those in the know substitute moonshine in cocktails that call for vodka, gin or tequila. In the recipe section of its website, North Carolina-based Midnight Moon suggests mixing the strong stuff with champagne, crème de cacao or just a splash or vermouth for a moonshine martini.
Still, Burlew considers the proposed limits on neon, “a negative for my business,” he said. “The signs lets people know we have a liquor store. From the outside, it looks like a really small store. Inside, it is 6,500 square feet. The signage in the window lets people know we are here.”
Crate’s 1940’- era neon sign in the parking lot was not included in the borough’s aborted enforcement action.