The production of moonshine is deeply rooted in the history of America. “People think of whiskey as the quintessential American spirit, but really, it’s moonshine that tells so much more about the history of the United States,” says Jaime Joyce, author of Moonshine: A Cultural History of America’s Infamous Liquor. We almost had our first civil war because of it, in the 1790s, when distillers in western Pennsylvania refused to pay taxes on their whiskey.
Her Book is a blend of American history, pop culture, and a peek at what’s going on with contemporary distillers. “There are some great stories in this book, and some great real-life characters, including NASCAR Hall of Fame legend Junior Johnson—he did prison time for moonshining—and a woman named Willie Carter Sharpe, a Depression-era moonshine transporter with diamond-studded teeth.” Yes, they had mouth bling in the 1930s. “Moonshine money paid for hers, most likely.”
One of the biggest legacies of moonshine is the Internal Revenue Service. “That agency began, in 1862, and the distilled-spirits tax was a major moneymaker for the U.S. government.” The agency gave rise to revenue agents whose job it was to collect taxes from distillers and break up illegal distilling operations. “The early reports from the agency read like crime novels with these very detailed accounts of revenuers staking out distillers in the woods, having shoot-outs and stand-offs.”
What’s the difference between moonshine and white whiskey?
Technically, moonshine is white whiskey because it’s un-aged. “Barrel aging is what helps give whiskey its color, but before whiskey touches a barrel it’s a clear spirit.” The major difference between white whiskey and moonshine is the fact that the term moonshine is a reference to a product for which taxes have not been paid. “There are lots of products sold today that call themselves moonshine for the sake of nostalgia, tradition, mystique. But the same product could just as easily be called a white whiskey.”
“Moonshine and white whisky do have many similarities with this historic spirit in that they’re both un-aged whiskies, clear in color and has a raw grain nose with creamy corn tasting notes,” says George Dickel National Brand Ambassador Doug Kragel.
The major difference is the production of the spirits. “George Dickel No. 1 exemplifies the difference between white whisky and moonshine.” Dickel’s white whiskey is chill charcoal mellowed to exacting specifications at their facility in Tullahoma, Tennessee.
How is moonshine made?
Although traditionally made from corn, moonshine can and has been made with just about anything that ferments. “In the 1700s in the U.S., distillers in the north made moonshine out of rye. In the southern U.S., moonshine’s traditionally been made from corn,” says Joyce. Some moonshiners even made their liquid from sugar because it was extremely cheap and quick to make. “Today, many of the moonshines you’ll see in stores are either corn whiskey or grain neutral spirits.” The process of producing moonshine is exactly the same as for making whiskey, except for the fact that moonshine doesn’t spend any time maturing in casks.
Most of all, Joyce hopes people will understand that not all moonshine will make its drinker go blind. “Not the stuff available in stores, anyway. If you get your hands on the illegal variety, though, drink that at your own risk.”