MoonShine Tavern in Canton

MoonShine Tavern in Canton (Gene Sweeney Jr., Baltimore Sun photo / February 28, 2013)

In its aim and ambition, Moonshine Tavern is nothing like the Gin Mill, the cozy Canton bar and restaurant it replaced after nearly 16 years of service.

Like many of the nearby bars on Boston Street, the Gin Mill was more of a casual place for dinner and drinks than a hot spot.

I talked to Moonshine Tavern co-owner Shanna Cooper in January, and it was clear that she and partner Jacob Millisock hoped to make Gin Mill a distant memory.

"We're not looking to be a hole-in-the-wall bar," Cooper said.

Judging from my handful of visits to Moonshine Tavern — which smartly doesn't overplay a "moonshiners" aesthetic — Cooper and her staff have achieved the goal rather quickly.

In little more than a month, Moonshine Tavern has become what seems to be a destination bar rather than a quick stop on a Boston Street pub crawl. It's had no problems drawing and keeping a crowd. Unlike Gin Mill, where seats at the bar were almost always available, Moonshine Tavern's upstairs and downstairs bars have been crowded on weekends. Weeknights have been more manageable, but either way, the overall rise in traffic can't be ignored.

What's the reason? The moonshine gimmick certainly plays a role. Often thought of as contraband, the moonshine served here is legal and very potent. Our bartender — who struggled in the weeds on opening weekend but made up for it with humor and knowledge more recently — explained the liquor's high alcohol level comes from being distilled an extra three to four times.

Late on a Friday night, our group found a spot at the large square bar downstairs, which looked the same as Gin Mill's setup. We were familiar with the bar's adequate beer selection (the 11 taps and 17 bottles offer just enough variety, such as Abita Turbodog and Sixpoint Righteous Ale), so our group shared a flight of moonshine. (But, of course, not before a round of Natty Bohs, $2.25 each from 10 p.m to midnight.)

The "flight" is an $18 sampler of five shots of moonshine. Our other bartender, who was very personable but said she was only helping out for a couple of weeks, recommended we each get our own flight. We were hoping to remember the entire night, so we declined and shared the hooch instead.

The bartender warned that the 90-proof MBR White Dog, made from a mash of white corn, rye and malted barley, would "suck," and it was indeed the harshest. The flavored moonshines, which the Tavern also uses in its cocktails, were much more approachable, with Midnight Moon's Strawberry moonshine tasting best. Still, we felt silly ordering it and the Ole Smoky Moonshine Cherries, even if both boast 50 percent alcohol content (about 100 proof). None of us touched the High West Silver Oat, the bar's most potent spirit at 176 proof.

"Moonshine is simply an inspiration," Cooper said. "We are not defining ourselves by the drink moonshine."

That's a convenient caveat, but it doesn't completely stick. Moonshine Tavern is betting on its menu (although this isn't a food review, it's worth noting that my meals here have been average at best) and use of moonshine as its main selling points, at least right now.

Moonshine Tavern is an impressive accomplishment for two first-time bar owners. But the key to it achieving the fandom Moonshine's owners covet will depend on it moving beyond the novelty of its namesake. Cooper made it clear she wants the best bar in Canton, and after more than a month of operating, Moonshine Tavern is already in a better position than its neighbors on Boston Street.

Moonshine's management knows it's easier to create a quick buzz on Boston Street than to maintain a consistently packed house, so there are plans to book DJs and bands. There are even talks to add sidewalk seating and a second-floor balcony. It's all proof Cooper and Co. know that winning Canton's crown is going to take a lot more than really strong booze.

Moonshine Tavern

Back story: First-time restaurant owners Shanna Cooper and Jacob Millisock replaced the Gin Mill with Moonshine Tavern in late January. It's been the rare bar hit on Boston Street so far, especially on weekends.

Parking: Mostly metered on the street, but free on side streets if you can find a space.

Signature drink: A flight of moonshine is five shot glass-sizee samples for $18. If drinking straight, try a flavored moonshine, such as Midnight Moon's Strawberry. For those in search of a cocktail, the Irish Mule ($9) is a simple and mellow combination of Irish moonshine and ginger beer.

Where: 2300 Boston St., Canton

Contact: 410-327-6455, bmoreshine.com

Open: 4 p.m.-2 a.m. Monday-Friday, 11 a.m.-2 a.m. Saturday and Sunday