In the heart of dimly lit Appalachian hollows, whispered tales of clandestine operations and secret recipes echo through the ages. At the crossroads of tradition and rebellion, lies a spirit so elusive, it's shrouded in intrigue and steeped in history—the notorious elixir known as moonshine.
Whether you're a curious bystander or a fervent history buff, join us on a journey into the world of moonshine, where hidden stills, covert operations, and a touch of rebellion converge to create an unforgettable tale.
First things First: What is Moonshine? A Brief History
Moonshine is a high-proof liquor, typically whiskey, that is traditionally made or distributed illegally . It is also known as mountain dew, choop, hooch, homebrew, mulekick, shine, sneaky pete, white dog, white lightning, white/corn liquor, white/corn whiskey, pass around, firewater, and bootleg. The term “moonshine” has been used since the 15th century, but it was first used to refer to illicit liquor in England during the late 18th century. The word “moonshine” was derived from a tradition of creating the alcohol during the nighttime, thereby avoiding detection.
Moonshine has a long and storied history in the United States. During the Prohibition era (1920-1933), the production and distribution of alcohol was banned in the United States, leading to a rise in the production and consumption of moonshine. Additionally, the production and distribution of moonshine contributed to organized crime.
The key to running a successful bootlegging operation was a paramilitary organization. At first, the street gangs didn’t know a thing about business, but they knew how to handle a gun and how to intimidate the competition. They could protect illegal breweries and rum-running operations from rival gangs, provide security for speakeasies, and pay off any nosey cops or politicians to look the other way.
The Twenty-first Amendment, which was ratified in 1933, repealed the Eighteenth Amendment, thereby legalizing alcoholic beverages again. However, the production and distribution of moonshine without a proper license is still illegal in the United States . Moonshine is often produced locally, but in some cases, it is legally produced in licensed distilleries . Several recipes continue to use 19th-century and Prohibition-era distilling traditions and techniques . Although attempts have been made in a few states to legalize the home distillation of alcohol for personal consumption, U.S. law forbids unlicensed distilling .
The Secret in the Sauce: What makes up Moonshine
Producing moonshine is both an art and a craft. It involves a careful balance of ingredients, equipment, and know-how to create a spirit that captures the essence of the raw materials used. Corn, a staple crop, is commonly associated with moonshine due to its abundance in the regions where this tradition thrived.
The process of making moonshine involves grinding corn, rye, or barley into a mash, which is then soaked in hot water with yeast to ferment the mixture. Yeast, malt, and sugar are added according to the moonshiner’s taste. Copper is used for the pot (called a still) as well as for all piping. The still is then heated to 172 °F (78 °C), at which point the alcohol evaporates and distills through a pipe at the top of the still. As the mixture cooks, the sugar sometimes gives off a sweet odor, which was often tracked by revenue agents and used to locate illicit stills. Unlike traditional whiskey, which is aged, moonshine is not aged.
6 Qualifications to Making Moonshine
Despite its historical reputation for being illicit, moonshine has a set of standards it needs to meet to be qualified as a legitimate spirit:
- Ingredients: Traditionally, moonshine was made with ingredients readily available to the distiller, often including corn, sugar, or fruit. Modern variations might incorporate a wider array of ingredients, but the essence of moonshine lies in the use of raw materials in their unaged form.
- Distillation: Moonshine is distinguished by its simple distillation process. It is typically distilled once or twice, allowing it to retain more of its raw and rustic character. This sets it apart from commercial spirits, which often undergo multiple distillations to achieve a higher level of refinement.
- Pot Stills: Moonshine is often produced using pot stills, which are simple, traditional distillation apparatuses. These stills contribute to the spirit's distinct flavors and textures, as they are less efficient at separating impurities compared to column stills used in commercial distilleries.
- Unaged Character: Unlike aged spirits like whiskey, moonshine is unaged. It doesn't spend years in barrels, allowing it to maintain a clear and unaltered appearance, as well as a unique and potent flavor profile.
- Proof: Moonshine is typically bottled at a high proof, often exceeding the levels of commercial spirits. This high alcohol content contributes to its intense and bold flavors.
- Craft Production: Although legality varies from place to place, legitimate moonshine is often produced under licenses or regulations that ensure safety and quality standards are met. Craft distilleries dedicated to honoring the tradition of moonshine often emerge, producing artisanal variations while adhering to legal requirements.
The Future of Moonshine
In the modern era, the allure of moonshine has evolved beyond its illicit roots. Craft distilleries and enthusiasts are reviving this tradition with a focus on quality and innovation. They create variations that incorporate diverse ingredients and techniques, while still capturing the essence of the original spirit. Today, moonshine stands as a testament to the human spirit's drive to create and innovate, reminding us of the rich history that shapes our drinking culture.
Interested in trying it out? Here are some of the best moonshine brands available in the USA:
- Sugarlands Jim Tom Hedrick’s Unaged Rye: This 100-proof spirit packs a spicy rye punch with hints of black pepper. It is produced by Sugarlands Distilling Co. in Gatlinburg, Tennessee.
- Ole Smoky Blue Flame Moonshine: This 128-proof moonshine is made from a blend of corn, rye, and barley malt. It is produced by Ole Smoky Distillery, LLC in Gatlinburg, Tennessee.
- Copperfish Cornish Moonshine: This 80-proof moonshine is made from a blend of corn and barley. It is produced by Copperfish Distillery in Holly Hill, South Carolina.