Moonshine magic

Well- known for a series of PE restaurants in the ’80s and ’90s, Mark Taverner gets his ‘shine on’ these days with his new range of American-style moonshines 

Those of a certain age, or long memories, will remember back when the Bay didn’t offer a lot of choices for eating out – hotel dining rooms and pubs, old-school members’ clubs, and a handful of restaurants worth writing home about, were about the sum of it in the early ’80s.

And then along came young maverick Mark Taverner, who ditched a motor industry sales career to follow his passion for food and hospitality, opening a series of restaurants that played a part in shaking up a rather staid local dining-out scene.

Many a deal was struck, secrets kept, and gossip exchanged across the tables of Nelson’s Arm in Trinder Square, a precursor to fine dining and “the” place for the city’s captains of industry and power-brokers to do business in the big-spending expense-account ’80s.

Then came “Old English”-styled pub The Anchor. Long before the onset of franchised, themed pub-restaurants, never mind craft beer, The Anchor served draught beer on tap and took pub lunches up several notches (focusing on value meals – all were priced under R10!).

In a first for PE, a special liquor license allowed the pub to serve alcohol without patrons having to buy a meal, earning The Anchor its popularity as an afterwork drinks hangout, as well as an award for Mark from the national hospitality association Fedhasa for creative and innovative marketing.

Cadillac Jack’s was possibly before its time for PE – on the beachfront spot that’s now Blue Waters Café, Mark established a full-on American-style diner serving up what we’d now call gourmet burgers (with memorable curly fries and onion rings), complete with rock ’n roll memorabilia, an in-house ’50s and ’60s music radio station, and frozen cocktails served from a bar built around a vintage Dodge.

Fast-forward 20-odd years, via a move to Johannesburg and work in industrial catering and the quick-service franchised restaurant game, and Mark is still indulging his love for American iconography – this time shaking up the liquor world and tapping into the trend for craft beer and small-batch handmade spirits with American-style moonshine.

Inspired by the rise of craft distilleries and legal moonshine-making while on a Harley Davidson tour in the US in 2014, he spent the next two-and-a-half years researching the business – including a stint learning distilling history and techniques at Moonshine University in Louisville, Kentucky, the “spiritual home of moonshine”, before setting up Silver Creek Craft Distillery in an old mine building in Randfontein in Gauteng.

Once the preserve of hillbillies and tax dodgers who made it illicitly under the cover of darkness, hence the name, moonshine these days is perfectly legal, and safe to drink, if produced by a licensed distillery, but it retains the “devil-may-care allure of its shadowy past”, says Mark.

The range of Clear Shine and Charred Shine, along with a quartet of flavoured moonshines, is all made by hand, in small batches – from mashing and fermentation of the grain mix of yellow and white corn, crushed wheat and malted barley, through to triple-distilling and bottling of the unaged spirit, with each bottle numbered and signed by chief distiller Mark.

His wife, Sharon, is equally hands-on, controlling the bottling, labelling and dispatching, and the distillery employs only two other people.

That may have to change soon, as the moonshines in their distinctive jug-style bottles are receiving rave reviews everywhere they go, and just after their debut late last year garnered a fistful of medals at the Michelangelo international wine and spirits awards – double gold for the Clear Shine, gold for the Apple Pie, Salted Caramel and Bon Fire flavours, and silver for the Chocolate.

An old boy of Marist Brothers in Walmer and alumnus of PE Technikon, Mark is the youngest of four Taverner brothers – siblings Alan and Clive are well-known for their Tavcor Motor Group VW and Audi dealerships.
Eastern Cape connections always run deep, no matter where we find ourselves in the world, and moonshine serendipitously reunited Mark with childhood friend and now business associate Mike Orrey.

“Mike was at Grey, and we had a great group of friends, mainly because we all spent our holidays at Bushmans and Kenton. We renewed our association when I met up with Mike at Whiskey Live in Johannesburg – Mike is a whiskey expert and branding specialist – and I asked him if he’d like to get involved in a new craft distillery I was setting up.”
Although based in Johannesburg, Mark retains his association with Kenton and had “a bumper season” promoting Southern Moonshine to restaurants and liquor stores in the area over December, as well as launching the latest addition to the range – Prohibition craft gin, which became “an instant bestseller”.

In another PE connection, the products are being promoted locally by liquor industry veteran Ray Hitzeroth, who Mark first met when Ray’s dad was his army commanding officer back in the days of compulsory national service.

All those local connections have no doubt ensured that Southern Moonshine is widely available in the Eastern Cape – in Preston’s stores along the coast from East London to George, as well as pubs and restaurants in Port Alfred, Kenton and PE, with a local launch party planned for March.

So, what does Southern Moonshine taste like? Pretty darn delicious, actually!
Approaching it by smell, as I usually do with wine, honestly the Clear ‘Shine has a nose akin to paint-stripper. However, in the mouth it’s smooth and complex, a grain spirit in its purest form as it’s unaged and has no oak barrel influence, really enjoyable sipped with ice.

The Charred Shine takes the original close to a good bourbon with the addition of oak barrel essence mellowing it out for slow sipping enjoyment. It’s a bit like savouring a good whiskey, with peaty and smoky-woody notes softening and enriching the spirit base.

Both are suggested as served neat over crushed ice, as the anchor of a long drink with a mixer, or the base of any number of creative cocktails.

As for the flavoured spirit aperitifs, it’s easy to understand the attraction of Apple Pie with its sweet-sour combination of apple and “momma’s puddin’ in-a-bottle”; and the burnt sugar and hit of salt in the Salted Caramel (my favourite) is delicious.

Bon Fire with its clear cinnamon flavour – hot and zingy – and the dark chocolate-coffee notes of the Chocolate variant round out the range of warming flavours.

Serving suggestions are neat as shooters, with crushed ice, or mixed up in cocktails.

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