Thursday, May 20, 2010

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A Writer’s Guide to Moonshine, Part 1

The single, universal, and defining characteristic of moonshine is that it is made outside the law…That’s your litmus test. If you can you buy it in liquor stores, it’s not moonshine.

Matthew Rowley

Time magazine has a load of information on the resurgence of moonshine this week. Some of the writing is good, some bewilderingly bad. I’ll have more to say on this in the coming days, but for now, I want to tackle just one aspect of a flawed article.

It’s testament to the underground nature of illicit liquor that factually incorrect reporting passed muster at Time. One can only assume that Time’s editors — like journalists in general — are so unfamiliar with the lore of moonshine that they just didn’t smell bullshit when it was dumped on their desks.

Actually, you don’t have to be steeped in moonshine lore to get the story right; you just have to talk to knowledgeable people or pick up a book. Or go online for basic research. Here’s what I mean.

Dan Fletcher (whom I don’t know) wrote a solid piece called Moonshine: Not Just a Hillbilly Drink. Nothing groundbreaking, but it’s engaging and accurate. In it, he interviews Max Watman, author of Chasing the White Dog. Max is a friend and, I can testify, knows his stuff. The piece is mostly Max talking, but Fletcher asks good questions and leads us to a sense of moonshine as substance both dangerous and full of potential.

Then there’s Josh Ozersky’s White Dog Rising: Moonshine's Moment. Reading it, I was angry — actually angry — at Ozersky’s sloppy, willful misinformation. It was writing such as this that inspired me to write Moonshine! in the first place. I worked for years to overturn decades of bad information about illicit liquor, to provide a guide and reference source that, while it didn’t contain everything, did refute an accretion of hearsay, fakelore, and flat-out benighted misunderstanding.

I’m not just picking fly shit out of pepper. As writers, it’s incumbent upon us to get stories right or we lose credibility, individually and as a class. The truth about moonshine is out there…and it’s not hard to find. Yet Josh “Mr. Cutlets” Ozersky fumbles badly in the pages of a respected national magazine and others will take his confused writing as reality. Take, for instance, this:
Moonshine, both then and now, is whiskey as it comes out of the still: no oak barrels, no caramel color, no aging. It's just straight liquor from fermented corn or wheat mash.
The writing is not just scratching the surface, it’s wrong. Let’s start with moonshine “then.” Francis Grose’s 1785 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tonguethe go-to definition for first baby steps research into moonshine history — describes moonshine as “white brandy smuggled on the coasts of Kent and Sussex, and the gin in the north of Yorkshire” at night to avoid detection. Brandy, gin. No mention of whiskey. Also, in 1785, such smuggled spirits would have arrived in wooden barrels, thus unavoidably imparting taste and possibly color to the spirits. Not “barrel aged” as we use the term today, but it was certainly in barrels.

Ok, so maybe 18th century England isn’t what Ozersky had in mind. Fair enough. There was a time between the late 18th and early 20th centuries when Scots-Irish settlers did, in fact, make genuine whiskey from actual grain here in North America. But not merely corn and wheat, as Mr. Cutlets proclaims; rye whiskey is older than the United States itself. It was largely the spirit at the heart of the 1790’s Whiskey Rebellion, the skirmish that helped set the tenor for hundreds of years of moonshiner/government relations — and which he actually mentions in the article. His definition also ignores other American spirits such as peach brandy and applejack, sorgum skimmin’s, rum, and other untaxed local spirits.

Or perhaps the 20th century is where we should cast our eyes for this “straight liquor from fermented corn or wheat mash.” In the mythological mountain South, that pure old mountain dew was corn whiskey. But even in 1974, actual journalist Joe Dabney realized that style of moonshine was on the wane, replaced by modern sugar washes that distillers took up in widespread corner-cutting in the 1920’s. In Mountain Spirits, he wrote “The truth is that compared to equivalent figures from five, ten, and twenty years ago, the ‘corn likker’ craft is dying fast.” No, what was around for most of the last 90 years was not corn whiskey at all, but spirits made from table sugar, made fast to be sold fast. The old corn whiskey of our parents’ and grandparents’ eras was rarely corn and rarely whiskey. But it sure was moonshine.

In the American idiom, moonshine refers to illicitly distilled spirits – illicit because the distilleries are unregistered and the liquor untaxed. After twenty years of researching moonshine and those who make it, I’ve come to this conclusion: The single, universal, and defining characteristic of moonshine is that it is made outside the law.

There. That’s it. Spirits are moonshine when their manufacturers illegally avoid paying taxes. That’s your litmus test. If you can you buy it in liquor stores, it’s not moonshine. What it’s made from, what color it is, and how old it is are irrelevant. I’ve had moonshine made from apples, dates, rye, corn (and corn flakes for that matter), sugar, agave nectar, and countless other starches and sugars. I’ve had stunning hausgemacht absinthes and mediocre garage grappa. I’ve had it right off the still and aged for upwards of 20 years. I’ve had it aged in new and charred barrels and aged in stainless so that it mellows and becomes more polished without oak notes.

Don’t let anyone ever tell you “Moonshine, both then and now, is whiskey as it comes out of the still: no oak barrels, no caramel color, no aging. It's just straight liquor from fermented corn or wheat mash.”

That’s fine for 6th grade book reports, but when you’re writing your articles, blogs, and books, take the time to find out what the real story is instead of repeating the same old tired romanticized myths of American history.

Obscure information that only those steeped in two decades of moonshine study would know? Could be. Could very well be. Or you could go to the library and read my book.

You want to write about moonshine? Talk to me. Talk to Max Watman. Talk to people for whom it’s important to get the story right. Try Paul Clarke at The Cocktail Chronicles, Jim Myers at the Nashville Tennessean, or distiller Jonathan Forester who helps run the discussion forums for the American Distilling Institute (but be sure to quote him correctly). Even go online and talk to Harry and Wal on yahoo’s distilling groups (link on the righthand panel here). Though we may not agree on every point, these are observers who understand what one means by “moonshine” and I’d stand by most of what they have to say about it.

In fact, if you’re writing articles, speeches, scripts, books, even research papers, email me or post comments here with questions about moonshine — what it is, what it isn't, where it came from, where it’s going. I’m traveling this weekend, but if I know the answers, I’ll tell you when I get back to the office. If I don’t, I'll try to find out the facts. One thing I won't do, I promise, is regurgitate tall tales for the gullible.



Max Watman said...

Preach it, Rowley!

Matthew Rowley said...

Bitch, bitch, bitch. I know it's a tempest in a mason jar, but it's my jar and I worked really hard making it polished and pretty, damn it.

Trid said...

Hallelujah, mah bruvvah!!!

melpriestley said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mel said...

Great piece of writing: very well done! I'll be picking up your book for sure after this; you've piqued my curiosity.

forrest said...

Excellent-- now i can send the dumb-asses here for your definition and not worry about being 'politically correct'.

By the way Matt-- excellent writing. Sure it is something i am interested in, but real-deal high quality writing-- i know you are a pro but still it is perfectly paced, elegantly articulated and wonderfully readable...

Good on you.

stephen said...

matt, what do you think about moonshine aesthetically.

i accept the word to have a couple definitions. there of course, is illicitly made stuff like sugar jack, but then i always use the word to describe a narrow range of the flavor spectrum mainly where unaged spirits lie. for instance;

wray & nephews 126
cesar pisco
bagaceira unaged marc brandy from portugal
white whiskey
certain cachacas like salinas
and my favorite of course, unaged cape verdean rum

scratch the wray & nephews and maybe the marc brandy, and you ironically find massive flavor sophistication under a bumpkin's guise.

what could endearingly be called moonshine, i find often too sophisticated for the average person (dry sherries of the spirits world) and they get written off with the sugar jack. this other side of moonshine either takes some sort of symbolic value to choke down or an expanded sense of harmony to savor. the market is seeing an increase in both.

i see the moonshine word as broad and maybe the top of some sort of weird umbrella. there has got to be another side to it than just a certain side of the law.

Nancy Baggett said...

Thanks for the link to this. I'm interested in moonshine, too, though only mildly (and in small quantity!). I know I'm also one who sometimes picks nits, but, good grief,isn't it important to get at least the basics, right?

Matthew Rowley said...

Nancy ~

Thanks for checking in. There was a time when moonshine, moonshiners, home distillers, garage still-builders, and their colleagues were my life. I'm still very much interested in what distillers are doing, but it's not the 80-90 hour a week obsession it was.

The thing that irked me so much about his article is that it was a field I'd spent so much time in myself — and had written about in a very accessible book, cheaply priced and easy to find. When the truth is out there and it's not hard to find, there's no excuse for getting even the basics wrong.