First there was home-brew beer. Then wine. Now there’s another DIY liquor movement: Bootleg. Firewater. White Lightning. Hooch. Call it what you will, this is not your cousin-brother’s moonshine.
Last summer, my wife and I took the kids to a bluegrass music festival on the banks of the Shenandoah River in Virginia, where I got rip-roaringly drunk before noon. A man in a straw hat with a long white beard—I know, the ultimate Appalachian cliché—passed me a mason jar with a clear white liquid in it. Being a Northern transplant to these rural parts, I didn’t want to be rude and refuse. The liquid was cool and clear and tasted like peach schnapps. Actually, better than peach schnapps—that stuff to me has a treacly, overly sweet aftertaste; this was smooth and crisp, distilled to perfection. There’s a great country song by George Jones called “White Lightning,” and a few minutes later I was a character in it:
Well a city slicker came and he said “I’m tough— I think I wanna taste that powerful stuff” He took one g-g-glug and drank it right down And I heard him a-moanin’ as he hit the ground.
Actually, I didn’t hit the ground—I was seated at the time—but suffice it to say after two sips of that old dude’s hooch, my wife was left holding the kids the rest of the afternoon.
Well a city slicker came and he said “I’m tough—
I think I wanna taste that powerful stuff”
He took one g-g-glug and drank it right down
And I heard him a-moanin’ as he hit the ground.
When the mists finally cleared, I was surprised not by how strong it was—some home-brewed moonshines are 120 percent proof—but how good it tasted. I’d long been under the impression that home brew, mountain dew, white lightning, whatever euphemism it’s going by these days, tasted like battery acid.
Many of the myths surrounding moonshiners and their hooch are suddenly becoming the stuff of rural legend. While moonshining can still be a dangerous life—in 2007, the legendary Marvin “Popcorn” Sutton was arrested in Tennessee by federal agents who found 850 gallons of his hooch stored in an old school bus on his property—the overwhelming reputation moonshine has for being poison is unearned. Drinks expert Matthew B. Rowley, who wrote the book Moonshine! and blogs at Rowley’s Whiskey Forge (matthew-rowley.blogspot.com), explains that get-rich-quick bootleggers during Prohibition are to blame. They took over the liquor trade from respected family distillers and put little premium on quality, adding “acid, lye, embalming fluid, horse manure, methanol … or anything else they thought would speed the fermentation” process. Quality crashed, as did the market for good distillers, from which they have never recovered.
Artisanal distillers are finally reclaiming moonshine’s reputation, dedicating themselves to craft, flavor, and taste—as opposed to profits. Today’s moonshiner, in fact, is just as likely to be a hipster with a handlebar mustache in Brooklyn, Portland, or Oakland as he is a grandpappy up a holler in the Blue Ridge Mountains.
The changes in brewing laws in the 1970s that helped produce the wealth of micro beers we see in the U.S. today have had a run-on effect on small-batch liquor distilling, since making liquor requires some of the same equipment and ingredients as home brew: a still (usually copper), water, yeast, sugar, and grain or fruit—the base of the drink. Unlike with home-brew beer, however, the moonshiner also requires a cool, coiled copper pipe through which vapors of the mash pass once it is heated to 172 degrees. The vapors condense into a clear, high-proof liquid: moonshine. True, hip urban liquor distillers—hipstillers, if you will—don’t produce the same volume or have the established illicit network of buyers and sellers as their country cousins do, but the techniques are similar. The results, however, are often worlds beyond.
“Home-distillers are as much a part of the artisanal craft generation as mixologists and gourmet coffee roasters,” says Damon W. Boelte, 31, bar beverage director at Brooklyn restaurants Frankies Spuntino and Prime Meats, and host of the Heritage Radio Network show The Speakeasy. “Moonshine is a rural lifestyle product—made with extreme dedication.”
“Moonshine” can refer to any unlicensed, untaxed, home-distilled liquor, be it grain-based, fruit-based, or sugar-based, although historically it tends to refer to unaged, white, grain-based (often corn) whiskey—known in the industry as “white dog.” It’s white (clear) because it hasn’t been aged in oak barrels for months or years as, say, traditional whiskey has been. The difference in taste is subtle but marked: Aged whiskey has a smoked, oaky flavor from time spent maturing in barrels; well-made white dog is crisp, delicate, and sometimes floral—the sweet taste of the original corn not overpowered by the oak of barrels.
The boom in cocktail culture (not to mention the popularity of HBO’s Boardwalk Empire) has seen a surge in production of corn-based white dog—of both an illicit and licensed kind—something Boelte has seen firsthand at his bars. “Mixologists don’t tend to use vodka in most contemporary cocktails because it’s flavorless, but a lot of cocktail drinkers prefer vodka to dark drinks such as whiskey and bourbon.”
Enter white dog: It’s whiskey but it’s clear and flavor-filled—a perfect substitute for vodka. White dog is now being bottled and sold legally by licensed small distillers and many major whiskey companies, cashing in on the cocktail culture zeitgeist. Technically, this is not moonshine because it’s legal (the distiller has simply taken the time and paid the money to get a license), but it looks and tastes like moonshine whiskey, often right down to the guerrilla-style bottling and labeling. Shine On Georgia Moon, a popular legal white dog from Kentucky, for one, has a handwritten label, while Tennessee’s Ole Smoky comes in a mason jar.
For obvious reasons Boelte doesn’t use any illegal white dog mash in his bars, and won’t reveal names of people he knows who make it, but legal brands such as Buffalo Trace White Dog Mash #1 and Death’s Door White Whisky from Wisconsin are all the rage in cocktail bars in New York, Chicago, and San Francisco. At Prime Meats, Boelte makes a delectable concoction called the Good Word, mixing Buffalo Trace White Dog with Chartreuse, maraschino liqueur, and fresh squeezed lemon juice. Had he used traditional aged whiskey, it would have a smoky taste and a dark finish; instead it’s crisp, clean, and fruity. Cocktail consultant Tad Carducci recently added an Albino Old-Fashioned to the menu at Bar Celona in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, using Death’s Door White Whisky. Major commercial whiskey companies are also cashing in, since they get a huge mark-up on white dog simply because they don’t have to wait years aging it. Maker’s Mark has a Maker’s White, sold only at their distillery in Loretto, Kentucky.
One needn’t restrict oneself to white dog, though. On his radio show, Boelte reviews all types of ’shine that he’s sought out—or been sent—by dedicated amateur distillers from Maine to New Mexico. He equates these craftsmen with the locavore movement. “The mash they use is made from what’s available and grown locally. So I’ve tried some great whiskey from near the cornfields of Western Pennsylvania that tasted like a crisp, more floral version of normal whiskey, and some really smooth brandies from Appalachia, made from apples or pears actually grown in the mountains.” The apple-based drink is essentially Calvados; the peach drink, a sibling of schnapps, was what I tasted at that music festival.
Though you can find legal “moonshine” in a whole lot of bars and liquor stores, sourcing a true outlaw purveyor is still hard. I haven’t found one, but summer is here. I’m looking forward to seeing my old friend in the straw hat at the bluegrass festival on the Shenandoah River again. This time I’m booking a babysitter.
Creativity is just connecting things