KELSEY PARRIS (this article was published on September 11, 2012)
Moonshine is one of America’s oldest and purest native spirits. Just saying the word conjures up images of back country stills, bell jars, nooks in mountains, and men dressed in overalls with long grey beards. I once brought a jar of apple pie flavored Moonshine to a party, and as I offered it around, everyone involuntarily took a step back, as if being too close to the fumes was toxic. Then they all had to have a sip, just to see what it was really like.
Moonshining in America became much more popular in 1764, due to Britain’s Sugar Act that raised taxes on the importation of sugar, wine, and other luxury items. The increased price of sugar essentially shut down the production of rum in New England (a really fascinating story that can be further explored in Wayne Curtis’s And a Bottle of Rum), made the colonists angry, and jump-started the production of other alcohols that didn’t require sugar or molasses from the Caribbean. What grew well in America? Corn! So corn was the base of the pure grain spirit that Americans began making. With the Revolutionary War and better taste, Americans quickly moved onto better spirits and moonshine crept back into the hills to become a vibrant part of the Appalachian area economy and culture.
The necessity of defying the tax collectors is the basis of most of moonshine’s identifying qualities. It was made using the most convenient source of grain: corn, and it had to be distilled and distributed quickly to avoid detection. Moonshine didn’t have the luxury to age in oak barrels or be triple distilled through various charcoal systems—it had to be out of the still and into the market as soon as possible. Revenue agents were constantly on the look out for illegal whiskey making, combing the forests for stills, and seeking out the small streams that would allow the stills to operate.
Even with these stressful conditions, there were some moonshiners who distinguished themselves with an excellent product. In the book Illegal Odyssey: 200 Years of Kentucky Moonshine by Betty Boles Ellison, we get to see inside the lives of the people that made their living producing illegal alcohol. One Kentucky master, Wheeler Stinson, developed a reputation for making excellent whiskey in the backwoods of Wayne County. He used only copper barrels and connections for the still, created a true sour mash with sugar and meal, and used good quality corn right off the cob to get the best flavor out of the grain. His whiskey was popular enough that he was able to sell it wholesale to other moonshiners and leave the risky retail selling to them.
Ellison explores the various strategies of hiding the stills, the moonshiners’ relationships with the revenue agents, and how the production of illegal liquor allowed many people to make a living through the hard times. Jason Sumich points out in his anthropological study, It’s All Legal Until You Get Caught: Moonshining in the Southern Appalachians, “It was one of the few ways to earn cash in the subsistence-dominated mountain economy.” From Prohibition to the Depression and with the designation of many counties in the area as “dry,” moonshine was always in demand somewhere. As more jobs moved into the Appalachian area and booze became cheaper and more readily available throughout the rest of the country, making moonshine was no longer a viable option for many people, so private stills slowly began to disappear.
In the past decade, several companies have begun to produce moonshine legally in Appalachia. Piedmont Distillers began production of Midnight Moon in 2007 with the help of a long time moonshiner, Junior Johnson. The recipe is supposedly handed down through generations of Johnson’s family in North Carolina, and Johnson himself was once arrested for lighting his dad’s still. Moonshine has come a long way in flavor from the depictions of eye-poppingly strong stuff of the past. During Tales of the Cocktail this summer, I had the pleasure of sampling a barbeque dinner paired with Midnight Moon cocktails at Boucherie.
Mildly apprehensive, I sat down to a full sampling plate of the seven different flavors of moonshine that Midnight Moon has to offer. Moonshine might not “take the top off your head” like it did in the descriptions Betty Boles Ellison caught, but it’s definitely still incredibly strong stuff. The flavors are quite intriguing, because they’re all literally just fresh fruit put into mason jars with pure moonshine. There’s Apple Pie, Strawberry, Blueberry, Cranberry, and Cherry – out of which I think the Cranberry was my favorite. The flavor was tart enough to cut through the alcohol without being overly sweet.
The rest of the dinner following the sampling of all the moonshines was definitely a bit of a blur. According to my camera, there was some amazing food, and I definitely know I was impressed at how well the mixologists and the chefs worked together to produce pairings that actually made sense on the palate. I know now that moonshine is a liquor that is not pure alcohol, and with the legality comes the luxury of triple distilling and a cleaner, safer flavor. While I’m not running out to buy a case right now, I can see that moonshine will probably be a big hit in the public. Not only is it a truly native product, but it embodies a sense of risk and excitement, race cars and deep woods stills, that vodka and similar drinks cannot compete with.
My favorite cocktail of the night was the first, not only because it was the first in a long night and it was incredibly refreshing on a hot July night, but because it showed just how much can be done with moonshine if we give it a chance.
created by James Denio of Boucherie
- 2 oz Midnight Moon Strawberry Moonshine
- 1 oz Amestoi, Getariako Txakolina (semi effervescent white wine)
- 0.2 oz fresh squeezed lemon and lime juice (equal parts, cut with equal amount of water)
- watermelon (small and ripe)
Remove the seeds from the watermelon and puree until liquid. If necessary, add a small amount of fresh lemon and lime to get the watermelon to a near water-like consistency (a small amount of foam is normal). Freeze watermelon juice into an ice try.
Add ice, Midnight Moon Strawberry, lemon and lime juice to a mixing glass. Shake vigorously. Strain into rocks glass. Add white wine. Crush 1-2 watermelon ice cubes with the concave side of a heavy spoon. Add crushed watermelon granita to the drink and serve.
Night Shift Gone Legit By Tim McNally: http://www.myneworleans.com/Blogs/Happy-Hour/August-2012/Night-Shift-Gone-Legit/
Illegal Odyssey: 200 Years of Kentucky Moonshine By Betty Boles Ellison
It’s All Legal Until You Get Caught: Moonshining in the Southern Appalachians by Jason Sumich: http://anthro.appstate.edu/field-schools/papers/2007/sumich