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 10, 2013 11:43AM
I brewing my own now.  Thanks Discovery for giving me another way to screw the U.S. Government.
Jan 10, 2013 12:06PM
"If you love America, you gotta love moonshine!"  ... Tickle
Jan 10, 2013 11:29AM
  I believe it is idiotic to outlaw personal stills.  In the 1980's I made a still out of a 4 quart stainless tea kettle, a rubber stopper, 10' of 1/4" copper tubing and a coffee can full of ice.  I made corn and rye whiskey, but the family favorite was my molasses rum.  My contraption made less than a quart at a "run"  but was better than the top shelf rum at liquor stores.  I still brew my own beer, legal and very tasty!
Jan 10, 2013 11:59AM
Down in the deep south if you know the right people there's still no problem keeping a good personal stash. F--K the tax man!
Jan 10, 2013 10:26AM

I'll bet this "shine" is nothing like my wife's family (deep in the hills) used to make ??

They didn't "need no stinkin' berries or fruit", that ain't shine...

And if it isn't over 160 proof, it ain't shine...180 or better.

This is nothing that kids should mess with.....Period.


Only seasoned booze drinkers, all others stay away... 

Jan 10, 2013 11:27AM

Why over pay for your alcohol.. when you can make it yourself

Get Errrr dooooone.

Jan 10, 2013 11:10AM
I was taught by a purist.  You chased moonshine with creak water and got dunker than $hit.
Jan 10, 2013 11:37AM
Years ago, I was at a party - the kind where everybody brought all their kids and something to add to the barbecue and a musical instrument.  (Might have been at Mudcrutch Farm.)  I got thirsty and went to the fridge looking for some cold water.  I found a big jar that fit the bill but when I up-ended it and took a big gulp I got a huge surprise!  You guessed it.  It was moonshine.  I didn't stop sputtering for 5 minutes.  The word that comes to mind is, "WHOOOOOO-WEEEE!"  Ha ha!
Jan 10, 2013 12:29PM
Rye Whiskey, Rye Whiskey please don't let me down....   lol
Jan 10, 2013 12:00PM
We get the best moonshine here in the deep woods of Va.  Once people get a taste of good moonshine the other spirits, no matter how much they cost, just cannot compare.  I agree that you have to be a seasoned drinker to handle it. 
Jan 10, 2013 11:23AM
Goverment permits do no cost thousands of dollars. Tell them you are making ethanol to put in your tractor.  180 proof thinned with grape juice, yumm!!
Jan 10, 2013 11:57AM
Although my grandfather and father made shine from time to time and it was commonplace in the hills of Kentucky for generations I don't see the appeal. The whiskey that is put in charred oak barrels and aged is more drinkable. This stuff was just the cheaper rot gut for people that could not afford the good stuff. I have had some fairly decent moonshine years ago from copper stills and when the old timers took pride in their blend and product. Hint, there is some dangerous product out there made by people that don't know what they are doing and not using copper stills. When sampling local wares make sure it is coming from a reputable shinner!
Jan 10, 2013 11:34AM

moonshining is the BEST Start up biz. its going to be all

on the open, legalized, tax free and no high school degress

needed. just pyle of woods...

Jan 10, 2013 11:30AM
Moonshine is still available throughout East Texas.  The Hopkins County Historical Society has a display of moonshine donated by one of the upstanding members of their community.  She even displays more in her own home.  Law enforcement in East Texas is corrupt so there is no fear in engaging in illegal activity if you are an upstanding citizen.
Jan 10, 2013 11:11AM
Jan 10, 2013 11:40AM
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 11:47AM
If we could get that 10+ per cent out of our gasoline we wouldn't have make it at all.
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.
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