Craft distilling and moonshine do not have shared goals.
~ Max Watman
[Edit 29 August 2011 — I've been wretchedly sick for weeks without the concentration or stamina to write as coherently as I might. What follows should more properly have been two separate essays rather than the mashup I put together. The core idea was that very concept of "legal" moonshine is flawed from inception: If laws permitted the manufacture of moonshine, it would cease to exist. I ought to have stopped there. Instead, I plowed on with — and didn't finish — a second idea: that moonshine carries with it unavoidable connotations of unwholesome corruption. Marketers who seek to tap the mystique of illicit liquor must understand that such spirits don't simply signify positive traits such as independence and cultural identity, but are a red flag of danger and, if they want their brands to be more than novelties, must be willing to invest money and hard work into countering generations of negative connotations. Piedmont Distillers in North Carolina does an admirable job of that with celebrity endorsements, a festival centered on 'shine, aggressive public appearances, and high-profile placement (and, full disclosure; they helped sponsor the session on America's new distilleries at this summer's Tales of the Cocktail).
See my full comments in the comments section below.]
Moonshine has, and will always have, a soiled reputation.
That hasn’t stopped a growing number of American distillers from developing brand identities and marketing plans based on that rattiest of American spirits. Yes, I know. Such distillers may hope to tap into American ideals of freedom and liberty (moonshine is, if nothing else, rebellion in a jar). Some evoke regional pride, others the history of a particular time or place, or a sort of pre-Prohibition Nirvana when the smoke from still fires wafted over countless thousands of American homesteads. I admit, these are appealing images.
Moral objections — and they are strong and widespread — to moonshine notwithstanding, the stuff has posed a very real danger to drinkers for generations. Customers, quite literally, have died from drinking what passes for moonshine and continue to do so around the world.
One may object and say “Well, that’s poison, not real moonshine” or “That’s the fault of bootleggers, not moonshiners,” but the truth is that the general public — presumably one’s customer base — doesn’t readily make such distinctions. Only absinthe comes close to offering the temptation and trepidation held forth by that good old mountain dew, a mistrust that’s been with us for most of the last century.
In his 1971 survey of Southern cookery, bon vivant Eugene Walter devoted an entire chapter, naturally enough, to beverages. A devotee of the charred barrel, Walter was not shy about sharing his opinions on the region’s drinks. “Most of America’s hard liquor — the best and the worst — comes from [the South],” he wrote.
He went on:
The worst, or at least the roughest, is moonshine, that bone-shattering, unaged, illicit variety of corn whiskey also known as com likker, or white lightning. Its familiars drink this powerful brew without batting an eye. You will see one of them turn a jug up to his lips, take a big pull from it and wipe off his mouth with the back of his hand, and you will think there could hardly be anything in that jug stronger than tea. But then you take a swig yourself, and it knocks off the top of your head. Tears come to your eyes; your vocal cords seem to be paralyzed; you gasp for breath and your inside feel as though they are on fire.The humorist Irvin S. Cobb sounded an even more strident warning in the 1939 WPA guide to Kentucky:
It smells like gangrene starting in a mildewed silo, it tastes like the wrath to come, and you absorb a deep swig of it you have all the sensations of having swallowed a lighted kerosene lamp. A sudden, violent jolt, of it has been known to stop the victim’s watch, snap his suspenders, and crack his glass eye right across — all in the same motion.If you’ve read my book and previous writing on the subject, you know that I champion good moonshine and those who make it — in truth, I dote on the stuff — but actual moonshine may not be purchased at liquor stores, through websites, or in other legal venues. Yet here we are: “moonshine” is on offer in stores across the country.
Positioning what otherwise might be perfectly acceptable commercial spirits as “moonshine “ or “legal moonshine” is a willful corruption of the scofflaw folk distilling traditions that inspire them. They are artificialities, oxymora on par with “original copy” or “living dead.”
They are also, if one has a philosophical bent, simulacra. That is, they are copies much as Colonial Williamsburg, parts of Las Vegas, or Disneyland are, things that simulate the real world, but which are, in fact, fakes. Think of Jim Carey in The Truman Show and you’ve got a snapshot of the legal moonshine customer, conned — perhaps willingly — into thinking he’s got the real deal.
Last May, I went on, admittedly, a bit of a rant after reading an execrable moonshine article in Time magazine. I wrote, in part:
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.Other drinks writers and journalists have picked up that baton. Quoting Chasing the White Dog author Max Watman, Craig LaBan writes in The Philadelphia Inquirer about the new crop of “white” whiskeys and their relation to moonshine:
Such sophisticated spirits don't necessarily jibe with the hillbilly marketing that clings to much of the white whiskey genre - a contradiction Watman thinks is potentially troubling for the longevity of the movement.In The Atlantic this week, Clay Risen comes out swinging even harder against “fake” moonshine. He takes particular aim at Moonshine® Clear Corn Whiskey, but that’s just the exemplar:
"Being able to access a little bit of outlaw-dom . . . is a very tempting angle for people," he says. "But associating yourself with a product people don't inherently trust is not a recipe for long-term success. Craft distilling and moonshine do not have shared goals."
Moonshine may be a tasty dram; I've never had it. But that's not the point. The problems are all in the name. First: If there is one thing that drives whiskey nerds nutty, it's the often-willful misuse of the word "moonshine." If it's sold on liquor store shelves, it's not moonshine. If it has a fancy website, chances are it's not moonshine. If its owners were ever arrested by the ATF, it might be moonshine. Something tells me that the folks behind this product, "serial entrepreneur" Brad Beckerman and "Internationally renowned barbecue chef" Adam Perry Lang, are not, nor ever have been, wanted by the feds.Not many people get moonshine right. Watman and Risen nail it every time.
If you have legal moonshine on your hands, you have been conned. But perhaps you already knew that when you plunked down your money at the liquor store. Did you use a debit card? Was it a state store? Well, honey, pack your bags: we're going to Disneyland.
Goes well with:
- It’s a Nice Day for a White Whiskey, a bit about the schizophrenic regard in which Americans hold moonshine.
- As Surely as Thunder Follows Lightning — a talk I gave last year for the American Distilling Institute about the state of American moonshine.
- Even the Ten Dollar Whore Sneered at Me, an anecdote revealing just how very low moonshine is in some peoples' eyes.
- Walter, Eugene et al. (1971) American Cooking: Southern Style. Time-Life Books, New York.
- Federal Writers' Project (1939) Kentucky: A Guide to the Bluegrass State. Harcourt, Brace and Company, New York.