This once-illicit hooch has turned respectable, not to mention downright tasty.
When people hear the word “moonshine,” they often titter uncomfortably. Isn’t that what hillbillies make, some unenlightened souls might say? That stuff will make you see stars, warn others. While there was once some truth in both those statements, the history behind moonshine is as American as apple pie and often just as sweet. Brands like Ole Smoky are moving beyond the somewhat sordid reputation that moonshine had in the past and actively turning it into a spirit category of its own. With moonshine-based cocktail programs opening and numerous brands emerging in what was once an empty space, moonshine is here to stay.
If the craft cocktail movement has proven anything, it’s that bartenders and customers love new spirits. The word “new,” of course, is a bit of a misnomer. One of the benefits of the cocktail renaissance is that historic spirits long forgotten have been revived, familiar spirits have blossomed into unique iterations, and spirits once given little thought have emerged in the spotlight. Moonshine would fall into all three categories.
But first, let’s talk about what moonshine is. Historically, in its most prosaic sense, moonshine was illicit hooch, distilled in the backwoods of places like Appalachia. While we tend to think of moonshine as being distinctly American, the term crops up in the 1785 text of Francis Grose’s “A Classical Dictionary of All Things Vulgar.” In that book is the following description of the term: “A matter or mouthful of moonshine; a trifle, nothing. The white brandy smuggled on the coasts of Kent and Sussex, and the gin in the north of Yorkshire, are also called moonshine.”
There’s also the term “moonrakers,” which stems from a story about some smugglers in Wiltshire who, upon being discovered by the tax man, hid their barrels of French brandy in a pond, only to try to rake them out by the light of the moon. Seems the British had as much of an appreciation of spirits made or transported outside the law as we Americans did.
In the United States, the term appears to have come into use to describe whiskey made secretly — and illegally — by moonlight. Remember that little political snafu called Prohibition? Yep, moonshine kissed Prohibition squarely on the mouth and said, “Sorry, we ain’t listening to your silly law.” So moonshiners plugged away unaware of the romantic notion they were unknowingly creating. Any way you look at it, the moon and booze go together like peaches and cream, which, come to think of it, almost sounds like a flavor of modern moonshine. Perhaps that element of romance coupled with secrecy and daring define the allure of of this powerful white liquid.
Today, this clear spirit — despite its various monikers of white lighting, mountain dew, and white whiskey –is a far cry from the deadly fire water it once was. While the use of the terms “white lightning” and “moonshine” might seem a bit sensationalistic they are also calling the product what it is, i.e., an un-aged, “white” whiskey most frequently made with corn that is often high proof. Today, however, you are as likely to find an easy sipping sweet tea or watermelon-flavored moonshine as any other.
At Preux & Proper in Los Angeles, co-owner Joshua Kopel, who comes from a family of bootleggers, enthusiastically features a cocktail program that focuses on the uniqueness of moonshine. Why? Because he notes,
“It’s a beautiful ingredient to work with. It’s mixes cleanly like vodka but, because of its corn base, adds a little something extra. It also provides a unique kick that other types of alcohol don’t provide. The good stuff is typically 100 proof. It’ll put some hair on your chest.”
While some companies simply hope to cash in on the curiosity aspect of moonshine — hey look, we can make bathtub hooch! — other companies like Ole Smoky have deep-seated roots in distilling. Ole Smoky co-founder Joe Baker makes no bones about the company’s history. Right on the website, he is quoted as saying,
“We’re Appalachian born and bred. The Ole Smoky families are among the first to step foot in the Smoky Mountains. Like other families, we have honed the art of whiskey making in order to survive during tough economic times.”
Ole Smoky isn’t just some fly-by-night operation. They are, in fact, the first federally licensed distillery in the history of East Tennessee. And, while the family behind the company might have a history of bootlegging and lawbreaking during America’s dry decades, that history makes them proud and helps define them as survivors. They are, in a sense, as American as it gets.
Despite its past, moonshine is emerging from the shadows to make a name for itself. Why now? Kopel explains,
“For bartenders, speaking from experience, it’s a new toy…something new to experiment with. The same is largely true of consumers. The patrons of Preux & Proper call for moonshine all the time. It’s a triple threat: it’s reminiscent of the past, it’s delicious, and it provides a direct route between sobriety and intoxication.”
With an explanation like that, it’s easy to see why folks broke the law to make it and drink it. Thankfully, these days, we can consume it unencumbered by the threat of Prohibition looming over our heads. Today, moonshine is cool because it’s fun, it’s irreverent, and it’s downright tasty. Shine on.
Courtesy of Preux & Proper
- 2 1/2 oz. Watermelon Moonshine, Such as Ole Smoky
- 1 oz Lime Juice
- 1 1/2 oz. Simple Syrup
- Lime Wheel for Garnish
Preparation: Place all ingredients except the garnish in a cocktail shaker with ice. Shake until well mixed and strain over an old fashioned glass with ice packed into a dome. Add the lime for garnish and enjoy!
Ole Smoky Front Porch Tea
Courtesy of Ole Smoky Moonshine
- 2 oz. Ole Smoky Peach Moonshine
- 1 oz. Sweet Tea
- 1 oz. Lemonade
- Sliced Peaches, for Garnish
Preparation: Combine all ingredients in a rocks glass or small mason jar. Stir to combine. Garnish with peach slice.
Ole Smoky Pineapple Mojito
Courtesy of Ole Smoky Moonshine
- 1 oz. Ole Smoky Pineapple Moonshine
- 1 oz. Club Soda
- Fresh Mint Leaves, No Stems
- Lime, to Taste
- Sugar, to Taste
- Mint Sprig, for Garnish
Preparation: Muddle the sugar, mint, and lime in the glass. Add pineapple moonshine and club soda. Stir to combine. Top with ice and a mint sprig.