Raise a mason jar to one of the premier all-American spirits. —INGRAIN, Winter 2018
STORY / Mike Smith
White dog, white lightning, skull cracker, fire water, hooch... Moonshine isn’t going to win any awards in the polite name game. Don’t let that steer you away from tasting the latest generation of one of the first all-American spirits. Today, distillers large and small are paying tribute to what was once considered a rough, unfinished, and undrinkable (by highfalutin city types) backwoods corn “likker.”
Before discovering the benefits of barrel aging, America’s pioneering distillers were drinking the corn whiskey they made straight off the still as early as the 1800s (smart folks; we’d have done the same). The clear, high-proof spirit tasted faintly of its corn-fed roots. But let’s be honest: Flavor wasn’t the end game. Moonshine packed a hefty proof punch that warmed many bellies in the Appalachian Mountains and throughout the South.
More than 200 years later, even with various grains (wheat, barley) and other flavorings (fruits, herbs, spices) often thrown into the corn mash and lower-proof options, these unaged corn-based spirits are still rowdy as all get out. By current regulations, to qualify as a corn whiskey, moonshine must be fermented from a mash of at least 80% corn and cannot come in contact with charred wood (if stored in new charred oak, for instance, the spirit would technically be a bourbon). It takes a talented ’shiner to distill a product that is both drinkable and unique enough to warrant another round (we mean that in a good way).
MOONSHINE: HISTORY IN A MASON JAR
Though commercial moonshine has been legal to sell since 2010, true moonshine is still very much a backyard secret. For starters, unlike brewing, home distilling is still illegal (it is legal to own a still, just not to use it without the proper permits).
Part of that law is based on consumer safety. Stills handmade from old car radiators (used as condensers) won’t go down on the books as the most brilliant of mankind’s inventions; lead and other contaminants, like antifreeze, led to blindness, gout, and even death. The proof of many moonshines was also riotously high.
Still, there was plenty of good ’shine that was perfectly safe to nip on those long summer nights. The real reason it didn’t sit well with Uncle Sam: tax evasion. Many home distillers lived off sales from their illegal operations, and they sure weren’t about to report them on their tax returns.
Even legendary Appalachian ’shiner Marvin “Popcorn” Sutton, the “granddaddy” of moonshine, wasn’t immune to the law. Federal authorities raided his North Carolina home and (surprise!) found hundreds of gallons of homemade spirits; a raid a few years earlier had done little to stop Sutton’s makeshift distillery. The fact that he self-published a how-to book, Me and My Likker, and appeared in numerous documentaries talking about his shining life, didn’t help his court battle. (Gotta love a guy who shows up to court in bib overalls.)
In 2009, he was convicted of illegally distilling spirits and died just one year before selling moonshine became legal. Today, the legend of “real” ’shiners like Sutton lives on in the renewed interest in the spirit men like him came to love.
Ready for some moonshine recommendations? Check out Get Shiny.