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What is moonshine?

American history is delightfully soaked with less-than-legal booze. Today’s history lesson comes in a mason jar: it’s moonshine time.

Say friend, looks like you’re a little lost out in these woods. A person could get hurt out here. We’ll point you back to the path, but you’d better forget that you saw us and our little distilling - I mean camping - operation. So what did you see? That’s right: nothing. Here, have a mason jar of this. On the house.

That’s the vibe when it comes to moonshine. Distilled in backwaters, clearings and other hiding spots, true moonshiners operated on a need-to-know basis. Cue the jug band and let’s finally get our hands on some of this forbidden spirit.

Moonshine is our catch-all word for a distilled spirit made illegally. Presumably, the scofflaw distillers produced it by night, under light of the moon, so as to evade detection. It has different names all over the world, but here in the United States we landed on moonshine, which we think is pretty solid.

Is moonshine illegal?

Yes. True moonshine was, is and (probably) always will be illegal. The legal moonshine that you’re buying on Drizly captures the backwoods spirit of the original, but also the spirit of not paying massive fines to the ATF. You can’t make and sell liquor the same way you would lemonade. Alas, the world just doesn’t work like that. Legit distilleries have to register with the Tax and Title Bureau and pay tax and licensing fees.

History of moonshine

Early American farmers grew tons of grains like barley, corn and rye. These grains fed the nation, but surpluses made perfect candidates for liquor fermentation and distillation. Farmers excelled at doing this at home, on whatever equipment they could source, totally off-the-books. In a time before stainless steel kegs and refrigeration, high-ABV spirits like corn whiskey were more stable products than beer, which spoiled relatively quickly.

You may wonder why moonshine is historically illegal. Undocumented distilled spirits production quickly became illegal and the reason is - as usual - money. The United States taxed spirits as early as George Washington’s time. Breaking up with the British Empire wasn’t cheap, and by the time we had agreed to see other people, the US had racked up some serious debt. The “whiskey tax” aimed to raise funds to pay those debts. 

As you might imagine, lots of amateur distillers were pretty angry about new taxes, and refused to pay up. The backlash became known as the “Whiskey Rebellion”. Things got pretty tense, with Washington having to intervene, but it never quite came to violence. Maybe they just talked it out over a drink. 

The message to distillers who didn’t want to pay was clear: either get out of the game or take your operation into the wilderness. This is where the mythological idea of the backwoods still and mason jars of clear super-hooch intersects with reality. The more remote your distilling operation, the better chance to avoid the law.

Prohibition revived moonshining in a big way, and underground distilleries worked with organized crime to keep the booze flowing. After prohibition failed, moonshining declined, but it never really faded completely.

The process

A historically American moonshine whiskey recipe contains a healthy blend of cereal grains, namely corn, malted barley and maybe some spicy rye. The moonshiner would create a sour mash using warm water, yeast and friendly bacteria that you might find in yogurt. The ingredients ferment in the still, creating alcohol. The fermented mixture then gets distilled by heat, condensing in another vessel as a formidable alcoholic spirit. That’s the shorthand process.

Should I make moonshine at home?

Please don’t! Distilling is very dangerous, as pure alcohol is a volatile substance. It also takes training to be able to discern drinkable ethyl alcohol from toxic versions like methanol. Stories about bad moonshine blinding and killing people are not all hooey. Oh, and it’s still illegal: The government packs some hefty penalties for home distillation, so it’s best you browse safe, delicious moonshine here on Drizly and leave the dirty work to the professionals.

Moonshine vs. whiskey

How is moonshine different from other whiskeys?

No barrel aging. Most backwoods distillers didn’t have charred american oak barrels to age their moonshine, so they simply drank it as is or cut it with other natural flavors. Bourbon and scotch whisky get their color from barrel aging, whereas unaged whiskey is clear. We refer to it as “white whiskey”. Straight moonshine is the same, and while it’s not as complex or “pretty” as amber bourbon or scotch, it’s strikingly potent and provides a neutral canvas for other flavors and killer cocktails. 

How do you make moonshine taste like whiskey?

Depends on which whiskey you're talking about, but American bourbon whiskey legally needs 51% corn minimum. The biggest flavor contributor isn't the sour mash, but the barrels themselves, so unless you’ve got freshly charred oak barrels at home, your best bet is to buy some Buffalo Trace White Dog and compare it to their lovely straight bourbon. The White Dog is much stronger but more neutral in flavor with just a touch of corn sweetness.

Is Midnight Moon Moonshine whiskey?

Midnight moon moonshine” - what a monumental mouthful! Yes, this is whiskey, but we’d call it white whiskey since it isn’t barrel aged.

How much is moonshine whiskey?

Moonshine skews cheaper than most aged whiskeys. Distillers don’t need to spend money and time on barrel aging, which means a more affordable finished product. 

Can a moonshine still make whiskey?

Absolutely.

What does moonshine whiskey taste like?

Most American moonshine you’ll have will have a corn whiskey-style recipe, so you can expect delicate corn sweetness. Since they’re unaged, you won’t get any oak or vanilla flavor, but the tradeoff is exceptional smoothness for an ABV that’s usually at least 50%. Ole Smoky pins down this classic moonshine flavor very well. 

Other moonshine types and flavors

As we’ve discussed, Moonshine can come from anything fermentable. Sugarland’s Hazelnut Rum Moonshine gives you proof. Then you’ve got the moonshine flavor variations. Ole Smoky alone has everything from cherry, to coffee and even apple pie.

Drinking moonshine

Historically, friends passed around a jug or mason jar around the fire in a real communal ritual. If you’re not ready to share a jar with 10 other people, pour everyone an ounce or so in a whiskey glass. 

Moonshine food pairing

Moonshine pairs well with traditional southern comfort foods like BBQ pulled pork and cornbread. It cuts through smoky BBQ food with refreshing ease.

Moonshine cocktails

Moonshine blends some of the sweetness of whiskey with the smoothness of vodka, so you can sub it in for vodka in almost any cocktail to give it some American flair. The American Mule is a great example. Swap some ‘shine in for the vodka in our recipe. It’s fantastic.

Unpretentious and ever the rebel, moonshine really resists clear-cut categorization, and we’re cool with that. Drink it straight from the jar or mixed into your favorite cocktail. We’ve got all tastes covered here at Drizly, so order some forbidden delights tonight with Drizly!