Country’s Gift to City Folk: Moonshine leaps from back hills to top shelf

Published on Fri, 07/28/2017 - 9:22am

  It goes by many names: White lightning. Hooch. White whiskey. Mountain dew. Radiator whiskey. 

For generations, moonshine has been distilled—illegally—in makeshift stills set up in remote hills, conjuring images of bearded backwoodsmen, arcane wood-fired distilling contraptions, and alcohol served up in wide-mouth canning jars while the ‘shiners outrun federal agents in specially-modified, high-speed cars. Sound about right? 

But today, moonshine has gone legit. And that’s a good thing. 

Why now? 

All those fine spirits bearing the maker’s mark of Mr. Daniels, Mr. Beam, or Mr. Van Winkle—and many others—have their origin in American history and frontier life. You see, it was easier to get more for the corn you grew by changing it into spirits. Remember learning in fifth grade about the Whiskey Rebellion of 1791? The practice of distilling grain was so common, the government put a tax of spirits to pay its Revolutionary War debt. 

The rebellion was quickly crushed, and taxes paid…except for certain mountainous Appalachian areas around Kentucky and Tennessee where for the next 120 years or more, so-called “revenuers” would seek out illegal stills, thereby creating the moonshine mystique. Prohibition in the 20th century all but put an end to legal distilling, so much so that only a handful of distillers survived. 

Today, laws have changed, allowing the craft beer movement to give rise to hundreds of micro-breweries, along with distilleries. So along with craft beers, you are now seeing craft distillers. 

“In 1980 there were only about 13 distillers in the U.S.,” notes Colin Spoelman, co-founder of Kings County Distillery in Brooklyn, NY (proving you don’t have to be located “up in the holler” to make moonshine). “It’s only been in the last 10 years that we’ve seen craft distilling emerge and there are now well over 1000 distillers, in addition to the original 13 distilleries.” 

‘Shine, whiskey, and bourbon 

Kings County Distillery has built their brand on bourbon, so what has that got to do with moonshine? We’re going to let you in on a little distilling secret. You can’t get whiskey or bourbon without first making moonshine. 

Said another way, the moonshine you buy today is the unaged version of the whiskey or bourbon you’ll enjoy two years from now. With minor recipe variations for taste, it’s the same stuff, only fresher and not from a barrel. 

“Moonshine can mean any kind of illegally-made alcohol, but it can also refer to whiskey before it has been aged,” Colin explains. “Moonshine is what the government considers a fanciful term and therefore doesn’t define it. Historically, it meant any illegally-made spirit.” 

So, distillers paid attention to their own processes and realized, “Hey, until we can sell our bourbon, we’ve got moonshine here.” That is, the mixture of corn, other grains and barley that comes out of the still is moonshine. Bottle it in a traditional Mason-style jar, slap on a label, and done. 

“If you take our moonshine and put it into a charred oak barrel, the minute you do that it becomes bourbon. It goes through a legal switch of identity,” Colin notes. 

Business-wise, offering moonshine also means you can begin selling right away without having to wait for two or more years for it to become bourbon. This is a boon to new, cash-strapped craft distillers, be they located in cities, hills, or plains.  

But most moonshine is made on purpose.  Noted craft bourbon maker MB Roland Distillery of Pembroke, Ky. uses a mix of corn mash and cane sugar in their moonshine, so it can’t be made into whiskey…but it likely more true to backwoods recipes. (Sugar not only adds taste, but speeds up creation of alcohol.)  

Making it your own 

Blaum Bros. Distillery, however, can be found in the hills…of Galena, Ill. Brothers Matt and Mike Blaum take great pains to live like “new entry” distillers, claiming none of their forebears ever made moonshine, or any other kind of spirits, for Al Capone. However, they do produce a wide range of liquors that includes their Lead Mine Moonshine. (The town of Galena was founded on lead mining, you see.)  

While corn is the main ingredient, they also use rye and barley and nothing else to give a purer flavor. While they don’t add sugar, other flavorings, or colors—and if other distillers want to, that’s fine—the two brothers differ on how to enjoy their moonshine. Mike recommends sipping it responsibly direct from a mason jar. Matt, on the other hand mixes it with Mountain Dew (a great double-entedre, if you think about it). 

For fans, adventure in a glass 

What’s the moonshine experience like? If you are already a whiskey or bourbon sipper, get ready for something new, since it’s not always liquid lightning blasting down the throat. Kings County Distillery moonshine, according to Colin has plenty of flavors. “The moonshine does taste a little like silver tequila, but instead of tequila’s kind of sweet notes, the moonshine will have more of a grassy, bright, kind of corn-husky flavor to it. Imagine that you steeped some tequila in freshly husked corn. 

Still, the hillbilly origins are hard to overcome, so why not roll with it? That’s the secret behind Casey Jones Distillery of Hopkinsville, Ky., which makes only moonshine. Master Distiller A.J. Jones named his product after his grandfather, Casey Jones, alleged to be a true backwoods moonshiner but legitimate still maker. 

For more information 


Total Eclipse from the Moon(shine) 

To experience this year’s once-in-your-lifetime total solar eclipse, circle your calendar for August 21, 2017 at 11:56 a.m. and be in Hopkinsville, Ky. This charming little town is not only directly on the path of the eclipse’s shadow, but it also offers the longest duration of total darkness—two minutes, 40 seconds. 

The town is changing itself into “#eclipseville” with a three-day celbratory blow-out, welcoming astronomers, vacationers, campers, eclipse fans, and partiers.  

Local moonshine maker Casey Jones Distillery has released its limited edition Total Eclipse Moonshine for the observance. Dubbed the Official Drink of the 2017 Total Eclipse, this ‘shine comes from a mixture of corn and sugar cane and is stronger than their regular product, rated at 100 proof. 

Hmm, what do you think the “lights out” verbiage on the label refers to? 

Not ready for the celebration hard stuff?  They also make a range of flavored ‘shines in addition to their original—snd slightly lower proof—Casey’s Cut 92 Moonshine 

Know Your Spirits 

We have government standards to thank for deciding what’s what in the liquor store aisles. 

Bourbon—Must be distilled and aged at least two years in America, be at least 51 percent corn, and aged in new charred oak barrels. Kentucky bourbon comes only from that state. 

Whiskey—Can be distilled with barley, rye, wheat, or corn and must be fermented in old or previously used barrels 

Sour mash whiskey—A bourbon whiskey recipe that also incorporates some mash from a previous batch, similar to sourdough starters. 

Scotch—Distilled from malted barley and other grains, Scotch must be made in Scotland, fermented by adding only yeast, and must mature in oak casks for at least three years. 

Rye—Must be from at least 51 percent of the grain being rye. Also must be aged in new American charred oak barrels. 

Whiskey vs. Whisky 

Whisky (no “e”) usually refers to Scotch whisky and Scotch-inspired liquors, while whiskey (with the “e”) denotes Irish and American spirits. Curiously, the government standards list refers only to “whisky” ingredients and processes, even for American-made products.