What is Moonshine?
Moonshine, the liquor of prohibition… A lot of people that grew up near the Appalachian mountains grew up with the mysterious clear liquid in their parent’s fridge. Advised not to take a sip, it may have turned off an entire generation from ever drinking Moonshine. In school we all learned that this was the type of liquor that illegal bootleggers made during the dark years of the prohibition era. It makes me shiver just thinking about a time in any country where liquor might be illegal. That was the case for Moonshine until very recently, so now that it’s legal, what exactly is it?
Since becoming legal, Moonshine has had a strict description in the United States, but that’s just in legal documents. The variation actually varies, but for the sake of not confusing you (or ourselves) we’ll leave at this- Moonshine is homemade, unaged whiskey, marked by its clear color, corn base and high alcohol content, it has been known to peak as high as 190 proof.
The more broad definition, found in Merriam Webster’s dictionary Moonshine is, “A kind of alcoholic drink that people make illegally.” Because, technically, Moonshine is the term for any kind of unaged spirit (though it’s whiskey 99% of the time) made illegally from someone’s home. Online resources show that it can also be considered a clear rum.
The actual word, “Moonshine” comes from the term, “Moonrakers” which was used to describe the people from Wiltshire, a county in the West Country of England. Commonly known via a folklore these Moonrakers were smugglers of French Brandy back in the day. Apparently, smuggling was a big business in England in the 1700s. Okay, so enough terminology, how do you make Moonshine?
This is where the broader definition of Moonshine comes in. The process to make Moonshine is the same as any distilled liquor, you mix, you fermentate, and you distill. It’s all about the ingredients you use that make it unique or different. The most common ingredients are: Corn Meal, A Grain Mat, Such as Rye or Barley, Water, and Yeast.
The things you have to keep constant are a nutrient, (like cornmeal), water, and yeast because they are needed for fermentation to occur. Way back when, in one of our first posts we taught you What Liquor Is, so you already know that during the fermentation process, the yeast breaks down the natural sugars and turns them into alcohol. In the Moonshine world this is called the Mash. After waiting just three to four days this Mash is transferred into a pot still, it is then heated up, the vapor that it creates travels into a thump keg and rises again. Then, the vapor is condensed into a liquid, and voila you have Moonshine.
There are many ways that professionals Moonshine brands make their white liquor, most of them are held in secrecy due to some old family recipe, tradition, and legalities surrounding the method. There are also plenty of sites we found that teach you how to make it at home, mash and all, here is one we thought was thorough.
A brief history:
So those Moonrakers we mentioned earlier, professional English smugglers, they’re characters from a folklore story. No idea whether they were ever true or false, but it’s fun to speculate. Per Wikipedia, the story talks about a group pof locals who had hidden contraband barrels of French brandy from customs officers near a village pond.
They waited until nightfall to try and retrieve their precious barrels, upon doing so they were caught. How did they get out of it?
They would point at the moon's reflection and saying they were trying to rake in a round cheese. The officers thought they were bananas and simply laughed it off and walked away. However, in America, Moonshine came to our shores via immigrants.
Specifically, it was Scottish and Irish immigrants from the 18th century, they settled in the southeastern abandoned areas of the country. They brought the Moonshine recipe and method over and the spirit quickly became a staple of Southern culture.
However, like with all good things, it got too popular. Given the country’s size at the time it wasn’t long before the government found out about Moonshine and quickly became interested in taxing it.
One of America’s founding fathers, Alexander Hamilton to be exact, imposed a tax on whiskey production in 1791, making any untaxed Moonshine production illegal. Quick to think on their feet, whiskey drinkers managed to avoid the tax by making and buying Moonshine at night. This is how Moonshine kept its name in the states.
Fast-forward a couple hundred years and American citizens find themselves amongst a World War, Great Depression, and Prohibition Era. Talk about the dark ages…
Anyway, because people still had to drink, the old Moonshine method resurfaced and illegal Bootleggers began making Moonshine by the tons, and they varied in spirit form to accommodate the taste of those buying it.
Moonshine was a factor of the booming business of bootlegging, the stills in the Southeastern states supplied the rest of the country with the illegal spirit. Sometimes, the demand was so high, Moonshine was poorly made and contaminated, this only contributed to its bad reputation.
In the defense of the distillers, Moonshine was not that easy to make. One myth surrounding the white liquor was that, if contaminated, it could make you go blind.
We aren’t trying to scare you away from Moonshine by saying that, but the answer to the myth is both a yes and a no. You see, back in the early days of Moonshining, some horrible human being occasionally would add unsafe things to the Moonshine mash or distilled liquid.
Stuff like gasoline, paint thinner, or other dangerous chemicals. Anything with a high methanol content can cause blindness.
Moonshine vs. Vodka:
The closest thing to Moonshine is probably Vodka. They’re similar in color, distilling process, and they don’t need aging. However, there are some critical differences you definitely need to be informed about. Based on the definition of Moonshine as unaged whiskey, here are the key differences:
-Technically any grain can be used to make whiskey, but it doesn't become "whiskey" until it has been placed in an oak barrel. Also in the rules: Whiskey has to come out of the still at 95% ABV (190 Proof) and then cut with water to nothing lower than 40% ABV (i.e. 80 Proof or higher). Learn more about What Whiskey Is.
-Vodka can be made from corn, but unlike whiskey, it can be made from really anything that can be fermented. This includes vegetables and fruits, we explain Vodka further in our article, here. Vodka has to come out of the still at >95% ABV, but as long as it is cut with water at the minimum of 80 proof (40% ABV) or higher, it's vodka. No matter what it started with.
-The same exact corn "vodka" can be called whiskey if is comes out at the 95% ABV and then is placed in oak barrels. But look out! We specifically say "placed" and not "aged" in oak. This is because whiskey has no age requirement. So if you ever find a label that says, “white whiskey” but it doesn’t read "moonshine" it means the spirit in the bottle has at least touched oak. If it just reads "Moonshine" and has not ever touched an oak barrel, then that’s real Moonshine.
-Corn "vodka" that comes out of the still at 96%ABV or higher, but doesn't touch oak is still Vodka, but technically could also be called "Moonshine".
Moonshine became legal in the US in 2009, opening the world to the business of Moonshining, and thus allowing several distilleries in eastern Tennessee that had been home to unlawful moonshine production for decades to operate calmly. It’s beginning to be a nice substitute in some craft cocktail recipes, so be on the lookout!
One thing is for sure, Moonshine is strong and it has been carefully made into a powerful spirit through the years. Whether you like vodka or whiskey, we suggest you give the ol’ Cooch a try. Let us know how wild you night gets. Thanks for reading, and as always…