Moonshine goes mainstream

Artisanal blends sold at Disney World and on a Discovery Channel show are bringing corn whiskey out of the woods.

By Jason Notte Jan 10, 2013 9:50AM

Credit: David Goldman/AP
Caption: Distiller Bob Suchke checks the clarity of a batch of genuine corn whisky before its tempered in the Dawsonville Moonshine Distillery, in Dawsonville, GaIt looks like moonshine has made its certifiable return to American pop culture, but very little of the stuff being passed around in mason jars is actual moonshine.

The problem with moonshine in its current incarnation -- the one that gets its own show on the Discovery Channel (DSCA) and puff pieces in Bon Appetit -- is that it only sort of fits the common definition of the concoction. It's still triple-distilled corn whiskey made from recipes passed down through the generations, it's still brewed in small batches and it's still surprisingly pleasant for a liquor so strong.

It overwhelmingly isn't produced in old radiators anymore, it no longer has alcohol content that can blind a person and it isn't commonly contaminated with low-grade methanol, antifreeze or other potential toxins. In many cases, it's both taxed and legally distilled by professionals using costly copper equipment. Law enforcement in the Virginia counties where the Discovery Channel's "Moonshiners" is filmed told the Associated Press that the alcohol production on the show doesn't even qualify as illegal moonshining. 

That's not to say moonshine has completely separated from its law-skirting past. Back in 2010, the BBC found that still makers like Colonel Vaughn Wilson of Arkansas were selling copper stills for $300 to $1,000 to traditional markets like Kentucky and Georgia, but also to hipsters in Brooklyn looking to try it out for themselves. The Federal Government's Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau notes that while it's tough to catch folks distilling small batches in their own homes, it's still illegal to distill without a license that can cost tens of thousands of dollars. Getting caught means a fine of up to $15,000 and five years in jail. 

It's a big reason much of what's known as moonshine today is produced above board. Junior Johnson, whose moonshine runs through the woods of North Carolina earned him 11 months in federal prison during the 1950s but laid the groundwork for NASCAR, began producing Junior Johnson's Midnight Moon moonshine back in 2007. It's all professionally distilled and supplements the original "white lighting" corn whiskey recipe with flavored varieties like apple pie, blackberry, blueberry and strawberry.

Relative newcomer Troy Ball, founder of Troy & Sons, got into making moonshine after sipping a sample back in 2008. Troy & Sons now produces more than 10,000 bottles of Platinum Moonshine and Oak Reserve Moonshine each year and distributes them across the Southeast, including to Walt Disney World's Wilderness Lodge. Even as Brooklynites set up copper stills within their meager square footage, borough whiskey bar Char No. 4 and owner Sean Josephs stock "white whiskey" moonshine as both an option and educational tasting tool.

"Tasting it with no wood, just with the raw corn flavor," Josephs told Bon Appetit, "lets you really get a sense of how char affects the spirit, as it matures into bourbon."

Moonshine distillers don't have to wait long to see the fruits of their labor either. While bourbon can spend a minimum of half a decade aging in barrels, moonshine is good to go as soon as the mash goes through the still. It's given "artisanal" or "craft" distillers a slight edge on big whiskey producers like Beam (BEAM), Diageo (DEO) and Jack Daniel's owner Brown-Forman (BF.A), but it's carved out a legacy portion of the whiskey market that many Americans have only heard about through old episodes of "The Dukes of Hazzard," if at all.

Moonshine may not be the outlaw liquor it once was, but even its safe and legal version is a potent force in America's drinking culture.

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Jan 16, 2013 11:48AM
It’s kind of amazing how popular the moonshine business has become, but it must be a very profitable one! With the way the business is going, I think the moonshine business is going to rival the craft beer trend. I didn’t realize that Discovery produced Moonshiners until some of my DISH coworkers were talking about it at lunch a few weeks back. I decided to take a peek after seeing it on my DISH Hopper What’s Hot feature. I like to see what’s trending with other people and saw that Moonshiners was one of the top reality shows on the list.
Jan 10, 2013 6:42PM

Ferment some bananas and cook it up, take a slug and pass it around.  Oh man I can't believe it's you Elvis.

Drink responsible??

We come from the hills of west virginia and been suckin corks for many a year. That crapo show on the discovery channel is bull dodo doo. We got a recipe for marion county moon that is the same since 1935. (well our water got a little dirtier after the mines shut down) but it still gets you going in the morning and can start that tractor after setting in the field all winter. None of my family ever did any time for boot. You can still get good shine in Morgantown, westover and anywhere in Baxter. One year we had a brush pile that was full of snakes and mice, daddy put a rag in a glass jug lit it on fire and chucked it into the brush, it was almost 3 weeks before his eye brows grew back in. We don't remember the smell of the hair but we do remember the fire ball and all of us opened fire on the escaping mice and copperheads while we finished off a jug as my kin laughed at my dad.
Jan 10, 2013 4:43PM
"...goes mainstream..."  ????  ...quality would have to be compromised even more than the article describes for that to happen
Jan 10, 2013 4:24PM

I left a note on my original comment...

No I don't know everything about shine, but there are a lot of differences....And Everclear is not what I consider shine...People use EC for a lot of spiking. not the same...

I'm a Winemaker and can rework wine to 15-20% or 40 proof.

And I think they can with shine too...?

You can buy 150 proof anything in a lot of places.

Jan 10, 2013 4:22PM
Wheres Tickel ??? all drunk and Stupid Falling off Roofs.  Living Proof Of a Stupid Drunk.
Jan 10, 2013 4:10PM
I roll my own smokes, make my own wine and beer. I am tired of giving my tax money to Obama so he can just give it away.
Jan 10, 2013 4:03PM

Well if Shine becomes what they want to call mainstream and Brought out INTO THE OPEN ?


Since it is proven that WEED IS A SAFER CHOICE OVER ALCOHOL ! So hey WTF ! I will be waiting !

Jan 10, 2013 3:57PM
rumor has it... you can hear your brain cells explode after the first sip. kinda like rice crispies.
Jan 10, 2013 3:48PM
Thats OK, I'm CooCoo for CoCo Puffs,on my BONG!
Jan 10, 2013 3:42PM
I no a fellow who just turned out a batch of 190,man it is good, no hang over!
Jan 10, 2013 3:39PM
Problem with the TV show is that it is not real.  Those guys are faking the whole thing.  Sort of like the Kardashians and all the rest.  FAKE in all ways.  These "Reality" shows are all fake and set up scenes.
Jan 10, 2013 3:35PM
Best line in a movie about moonshine was in Days of Thunder when the hauler got pulled over and they were accused of transporting moonshine and Robert Duvall says this aint transporting its consumption.
Jan 10, 2013 3:21PM
You can buy it here at the liquor stores but it's not the real stuff,,,,hehe
Jan 10, 2013 3:21PM

If you can make it yourself and avoid taxes....more power to ya! I garden for the same reason, not to mention, its better tasting, and i am not eating chemicals!

If I could make my own "superior" liquor, bet you know I would!


Extortion is to the Mafia,  as what Taxes are to the US Govt!

Jan 10, 2013 3:18PM

Talk about MSN being behind the times!  We could buy legal Moonshine in WV back in the early 1970s.  It even had a WV liquor tax stamp across the plastic gallon top. 


When I was a kid I lived in a relatively urban area and there were several stills operating on and off in the mountains within walking distance.  You'd see old cars and trucks that never moved except when it was time to come to town to buy sugar - otherwise their radiators were part of the still!  You were really taking a chance drinking that stuff... my neighbor had a race car and used 'shine for fuel.  He said it really made the thing go, but it would burn the engine up by the end of the season. 

Jan 10, 2013 3:10PM

If the US cant get "their cut" its illegal! The ONLY reason!!!! They kind of remind me of the mafia. Well, they exactly remind me of the Mafia!

Jan 10, 2013 2:42PM
Moonshine and Hawaiin Punch.  Popular drink in rural Kentucky years ago.  Got wasted on that stuff more than once.
Jan 10, 2013 2:41PM
Unless you sell or distribute it, it is, or was legal to distill up to 200 gallons(!) a year for your personal consumption.
Jan 10, 2013 2:41PM
When vodka drinkers taste shine they like it as much as vodka, as that is the hard liquor most similar to shine. Good market there but artisanal shine cannot compete on cost with the big vodka boys. $100 a gallon for shine is common due to all the TV publicity, but you can buy great vodka for much less than that. But, vodka is lower proof so when you water shine down to 80 proof it gets closer to the same price.
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