With inventive, premium infusions like Honey Habanero, Belle Isle moves to change the national conversation about moonshine.

By Zoe Denenberg
January 16, 2020
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Belle Isle Moonshine
Credit: Joey Wharton

When you hear “moonshine,” you probably think of unlabeled mason jars, full of impossibly potent bootleg spirits. Maybe you imagine one of the many, many police chases on Moonshiners, a Discovery Channel show that follows a handful illegal moonshine producers in Appalachia; episodes often include shaky camera footage of ‘shiners running through the woods to evade local police, their ultimate mission summed up by a Season 8 IMDB episode synopsis: “to stay ahead of big liquor and the law.”

For much of American history, moonshine has been associated with backwoods mischief. The spirit’s spotty reputation derives from the 19th century, when the term “moonshine” spread as slang for high-proof, often illegally produced spirits. But today, artisan distilleries like Belle Isle Moonshine are redefining moonshine as a premium (and entirely legal) all-American spirit.

Belle Isle Moonshine co-founders and brothers-in-law Vince Riggi and Brian Marks sought to dispel the stigma and general suspicion surrounding moonshine. “Folks in the spirits industry didn’t take moonshine seriously and saw it as a novelty product sold in mason jars on a back shelf,” says Brandon Day, Director of Marketing for Belle Isle. “But our community in Richmond supported our vision from day one and believed that we could elevate moonshine to be more than just a novelty.”

With no prior experience in the world of spirits, the brothers-in-law teamed up with Koval Distillery to develop the first iteration of what would become their signature product: “A product that wasn’t quite a vodka, wasn’t quite a whiskey, but it was something more, something better.”

Belle Isle, which started in 2013 as a special-order enterprise, has since blazed forth in its movement to rebrand moonshine as a uniquely American spirit. “Moonshine looks like vodka and can be used the same way as vodka or any other clear spirit in cocktails. The only difference is that one was created in Poland and Russia, the other was created right here,” says Day.

Belle Isle is known for its moonshine infusions—Honey Habanero is the artisan distillery's best-selling bottle. When it comes to ingredients, the brand remains committed to the local: “We infuse it with locally sourced honey and organic habaneros grown just 50 miles away from our distillery,” says Day. Use this fiery craft spirit in place of tequila to make a kickin’ margarita or swap it in to spice up your bloody mary.

Other signature Belle Isle Moonshine flavors include Blood Orange, Ruby Red Grapefruit, and Cold Brew Coffee (a collaboration with Richmond-based Blanchard’s Coffee Roasting Company). These specialty spirits are easy-sipping on their own, but for those looking to mix up a cocktail, Belle Isle catalogues drink recipes for each of its bottles. Try a Blood Orange Mule or a Cold Brew Negroni; the craft moonshine brings a twist to any classic cocktail. Riding the tide of viral spiked seltzers, the brand has also recently expanded into canned cocktails.

Riggi and Marks sought to create a quintessentially American spirit, but their moonshine is also inextricably tied to its founding locale of Richmond, Virginia. “Virginia is the birthplace of American spirits,” writes Day, alluding to Virginia’s long legacy of distilling. In 1620, the state became ground zero for American whiskey production; George Washington notoriously popularized the spirit, producing up to 11,000 gallons of whiskey per year at his Mount Vernon estate distillery. Given this history, Day notes that it “seems fitting” that the moonshine brand planted its roots in Virginia.

In another nod to Richmond, the company is named after Belle Isle, an island in the middle of the James River and a popular local spot for biking, sunning, climbing, and fishing. Day attributes some of the company’s success to Richmond’s up-and-coming, enterprising community: “Richmond is special to us, not only as our hometown and headquarters, but as a community that has always fostered growth and new ideas.”

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The craft spirit is currently available at bars, restaurants and liquor stores in 14 states, including Virginia, Georgia, North and South Carolina, Florida, Maryland, and Texas. Pick up a bottle to try this distinctly American spirit for yourself.