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.

More on Money Now

Jan 10, 2013 2:39PM
This story is full of inaccuracies. Platte Valley has been selling its product, in small jugs, for some while, and there are other brands. It is not the potency of the booze; Everclear is pretty strong. It is the type of alcohol, or the additives put in to keep people from drinking it. There was a NASCAR before Junior Johnson. But you get the drift.

As a newspaper photographer back in the 60s, I would go with ATF to bust the moonshiners. The agent in charge - who shall remain nameless - would stick his finger in the clear liquid and tell the agents to get a gallon jug full for evidence.

Occasionally when he would sample it, he would tell the agents, "Get 8 or 10 jugs out my trunk. We need it for evidence." LOL

Wonder why he needed one gal of some and 10 gallons for others? ROFLMAO

Jan 10, 2013 2:17PM
Jan 10, 2013 2:15PM
Jan 10, 2013 1:41PM
I have only seen promos for this show. If they are selling this booze and not paying taxes, where is the Dept of the Treasury?
Jan 10, 2013 1:24PM

Clever article!  Completely OMITS the fact that high quality moonshine is, also, an excellent fuel, for engines to run on.  Not to mention that this product is, also, excellent, for draining sickness out of the weak.    It is also excellent for freezing cold, winter nights, when it serves as an anti-freeze, for the human body.


Why does the Alcohol, Tobacco, and Fire-arms agency continue to FIGHT the legalized production, of this product?    SIMPLE.


The ARABS, and the Texas Oil; TRILLIONAIRRES want to KEEP their income, from $5.00 per gallon crude oil based gas.    If Moonshine became a legal alternative, the super-rich would lose billions of dollars, per month, in price-fixing, and profiteering, as gas prices would be forced to go back down to $0.75 per gallon, to compete with the moonshine.


The Republicans would NEVER allow this to happen.  NEVER!!!!

Jan 10, 2013 1:11PM
You can brew beer and make your own wine, but once it reaches a certain alcohol content, it suddenly becomes illegal?

Freedom is an illusion.
Jan 10, 2013 1:07PM
My grandfather used to have a still behind the barn when I was growing up.  He shared it with only the closest of friends because of the legalities involved.  It's actually a shame that a private citizen can't make his own spirits, especially when they can do it better than the store bought stuff.  And I feel certain if the government could figure out a way to tax the homemade stuff, it would be legal.  It's all about the taxes.  The Federal Government has taken so many rights away from private citizens, and it continues to take even more..........and people just don't seem to care.
Jan 10, 2013 12:52PM
Lol, they said Virgina instead of Virginia.  do /z and then type virgina to find it!
Jan 10, 2013 12:49PM
Jan 10, 2013 12:46PM
Family members make it here in the North Georgia Mountains. About 200 proof. Comes in a mason jar. Put some peppermint candy or some rock candy in a couple of ounces and you have cough syrup. Take a couple of doses and you will forget all about your cough.
Jan 10, 2013 12:44PM
Now that is all we need.  With all these Tea Billies and Republicans storing guns, extended clips and ammo, now give them "moonshine", gees, talk about total "Calamedy Jane"..  America will never learn. 
Jan 10, 2013 12:31PM
180 proof (90% alcohol) is almost impossible to attain outside of a very controlled environment.  Most white lightning made in the woods or in a barn somewhere is 135-160 proof.  As for the taste -  they call it "sippin' whiskey" for a reason, it's not meant to be guzzled.  If you want to mellow it out, steep some fruit in it for a few days - peaches, cherries and blackberries all work really well.
Jan 10, 2013 12:29PM
Rye Whiskey, Rye Whiskey please don't let me down....   lol
Jan 10, 2013 12:27PM
When I lived in North Carolina,I took a few drives up into hills and was able to see these operations,very impressive.
Jan 10, 2013 12:24PM
eeeww weeee...bring me some apple pie. stuff iz mighty tastey and goes down smooooooooth.
Jan 10, 2013 12:20PM
I have never drank real backwoods moon shine but I did drink a shot of Evercear once and I couldn't breath for what seemed like an eternity.
Jan 10, 2013 12:13PM
"Moonshiners" isn't real...another blow to the gut of people who think "reality" shows are real.
Jan 10, 2013 12:06PM
"If you love America, you gotta love moonshine!"  ... Tickle
Jan 10, 2013 12:04PM
Other than the mystique of moonshine i cannot imagine how anyone can drink this stuff. Taste like denatured alcohol to me, which is really all it is to begin with. Yuuk
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