Thursday, August 25, 2011

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Legal Moonshine? You've Been Conned

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.

"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."
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:
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.


Charlie Thompson said...

Thanks for your smart words about moonshine. Another point I'd add is: often moonshine was made by farmers unable to feed their families any other way. It was born a craft of rural necessity. I deal with these subjects in my new book, Spirits of Just Men: Mountaineers, Liquor Bosses, and Lawmen in the Moonshine Capital of the World (Illinois 2011) and would very much appreciate having you read the book.

stephen said...

oh come on matt.

you guys are hung up on the symbolism of the whole thing. a lot of people out there are concerned about the sensory side of the story and it barely gets any attention. these people attach the term "moonshine" (a symbol) to a set of sensory attributes.

i would love to hear a sensory review to anything out there called moonshine.

Sarah LeRoy said...

Hi Matt. Shocker - I have a different point of view on the topic. While the dictionary definition of moonshine is non-tax paid liquor, surely we can agree that the word "moonshine" means much more than that - it also has a historical and cultural meaning beyond non-tax paid liquor.

To me, "moonshine" describes a particular distilling process, mash ingredients, and region from which a spirit originates. When Junior Johnson scribbled down his family recipe for Joe and we made it on our still, did we reliquish the right to refer to it as Junior's moonshine because we paid the excise tax? When our Master Distiller (who stopped making moonshine the old fashioned way only when he started working for us), made the Apple Pie, Cherry, Strawberry and all the other fruits exactly the same way as he has for decades cease to be a moonshiner? What should we call fruit inclusions sold in mason jars with fruit floating in it - flavored vodka? That doesn't seem right.

How about the boys up in Brooklyn. Making their moonshine 8 gallons at a time. From what I've heard about their process, it seems that they are pretty true to the tradition of moonshine - except they pay taxes.

I completely agree that "distillers" purely motivated by what they see as a "marketing opportunity" are popping up all over the place - Moonshine Clear Corn Whiskey is the perfect example of this. However, there are those of us who are preserving local distilling traditions, recipes and heritage - we're just paying the taxes. I'm not sure it's fair to lump us all in the same boat.

Your friend. Sarah

sam k said...

I'm with Matthew on this.

Illegal = moonshine. Legal = "white whiskey"

There's tradition to deal with. Go legal and the product may be the same, but the concept is totally different.

Matthew Rowley said...

Sarah, I would love to spend an afternoon at the distillery kicking around notions of authenticity. I agree 100% that Piedmont’s products fall squarely in the tradition of western NC moonshining (for the rest of you, Sarah is one of our friends at Piedmont Distillers, the makers of Junior Johnson’s Midnight Moon, Catdaddy Carolina Moonshine, and a line of fruit-in-the-jar spirits that would fit right in at holiday gatherings of plenty of moonshining families I know). Of modern producers selling moonshine-inspired spirits, Piedmont does one of the most admirable jobs rooting products in regional identity and cleaving to authenticity—as closely as one may, perhaps, within the confines of the law.

Dictionary definitions are revealing (e.g., Francis Grose’s 1785 Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue proscribes moonshine only as brandy or gin) but for a topic so steeped in misdirection, deception, and repetition of half-understood hearsay, dictionaries cannot hold the final word; I agree with you that historical and cultural meanings carry a lot of weight here.

Moonshine IS the result of a particular process, true. But that process—identical from Maine to California and Florida to Alaska—is illicit distillation. Other than in particular areas and within certain families, it is not a recipe or a mash bill, though. It is not corn whiskey, rye whiskey, sugar spirits, molasses skimmin’s, rum, gin, applejack, raisinjack, peach brandy, slivovitz, absinthe, Kahlua knock-offs, cordials, or vodka. But any of them might be moonshine.

Moonshine, in fact, is so protean that the ONLY historical and cultural constant is its illegality. If laws permitted the manufacture of moonshine, it would cease to exist. Distilling and paying excise on spirits made in the style of historically illicit liquor—whatever that style may be—no more produces moonshine than cooking pork in the style of chicken makes it kosher.

Who uses the word moonshine? Thousands, tens and hundreds of thousands. Millions know it. The US population was 309 million in 2010; I’d be shocked if less half of them didn’t have some grip, even a slippery one, on what the word means.

And what do these ersatz moonshines taste like, Stephen? Organoleptic analysis of commonalities has to wait for another day; I’ve been so sick for almost all of August that I’ve lost half a stone, can’t smell much, and have—I hope temporarily—lost most of my sense of taste except for strong acids and sugar.

My thinking has been a bit muddled as well. Otherwise, I might have been more clear. This is not a matter of what I, personally, think moonshine ought to be. It is not a matter of preference, nor is it my opinion in that way that, say, I might prefer pistachio gelato over vanilla ice cream or biscuits over baguettes. It is a matter of historical record with centuries of legal understanding and common usage.

I was not, obviously, upset when Mountain Dew launched in Tennessee in the 1940’s. Wasn’t even alive. And I’m not upset now. Mountain dew was, and sometimes still is, a code term for moonshine, a circumlocution with a wink; the soft drink was a broad, humorous reference to illicitly distilled spirits, not a legal commercial product masquerading as sub rosa liquor. Anyone who's tasted it knows that.

This isn’t about protecting anyone or anything, except, perhaps spirituous connoisseurship and intellectual integrity. So why is this important? In one sense, it’s not. After all, I don’t lose any sleep over it.

But if advertisers, marketers, and distillers hopping on this moonshine bandwagon have their way, we’ll end up with a generation of drinkers who come to know milquetoast versions of almost-moonshine as the real thing. I accept that words change over time, but as someone who values education and loves languages, I take a dim view of companies, politicians, religious leaders, spin doctors, and anyone else willing to prey on our ignorance for their own gain by inventing, obfuscating, or overturning meanings.

Matthew Rowley said...

Sam, thanks for the backup.

Charlie ~ Congrats on the book. Shoot me an email at moonshinearchives(at)gmail(dot)com and let's talk about this on the side.

Scott Spolverino said...


Hate to say it, but I disagree.

By your definition, we can also say that a huge portion, if not ALL scotch whisky is moonshine. Hell, the Glenlivet that was served to King George the IV was illicit and he demanded it by name. Many of the distilleries that are currently in existence today are actually distilleries started by moonshiners in Scotland that decided to enter the licit market early. With the passing of the 1823 Excise Act in Scotland, a legal distilling license could be had for 10 pounds. Many moonshiners saw the value of buying one of these licenses and entering the market early, providing the same product they were producing in a small, budding market. In essence, they paid 10 pounds to corner a market. And most of them didn't change a thing.

As someone heavily infused (bad pun?) in the distilling industry, there's not a whole lot of methods unknown to distillers. Nor are there many fermentable / mash bills that haven't even tried. I think, in essence,that moonshine is as Rowley says, tied to history. And a maligned one at that. While I've never had ACTUAL moonshine (much to my chagrin), I'm happy to see the release of white dog whiskies. I like them, I find them easy to mix and gentle enough for most people to enjoy them in lieu of vodka and, best of all, their profitability means that small/craft distillers can use it to float their operating costs until aged product comes around. But hey, that's just me.

Sarah LeRoy said...

Hi Matt and Scott. Thanks for your comments. I'm glad we can have this debate. I propose that the answer is for distillers to be specific. I would not dare to claim that Midnight Moon is the one and only "moonshine" and that once you've had it, there's no reason to try anything else (legal or otherwise). Midnight Moon is simply Junior Johnson's moonshine. The grain bill is his family recipe and the double thumper is his still configuration (the triple distilling to a high proof was our contribution). We work very hard to define Midnight Moon as Junior Johnson's. For the first 3 years, the label actually read "Junior Johnson's Midnight Moon Carolina Moonshine." With the new label, we've removed "Carolina" because the name was just too darn long. But, the point is we want to reinforce the source of our recipe/spirit.

If Junior had been aging his 'shine in barrels and making a traditional whiskey. We would have called it Junior Johnson Whiskey (or hopefully something more clever than that, but you get the point). Or if he had grown up in a different region, his family might have made moonshine with wheat vs. corn, so we would have done that too. It seems that the trouble is with brands like Original Moonshine, which makes no connection to a region, family tradition, or anything else. They appear to just want to capitalize on people's idea of moonshine even though the the public doesn't really know what it means. You'll be happy to know that the general public are not "suckers." I'm frequently asked at tastings "What is moonshine?" or "How can it be moonshine if it's sold legally?" I go on to explain, that this is Junior's recipe. We make it from corn, because that's what he did, but you could make it from something else, yada, yada, yada. I'm trying to educate people one taste at a time.

I agree with both of you that any spirit type could be a moonshine. If I were making gin in my basement - I would technically be a moonshiner. But if I decided to pay taxes and sell it legally, the product category would be gin. This is driven largely, if not entirely, by the TTB. Ultimately, it is the TTB that dictates product category. When we developed spirits, we constantly struggle with finding which bucket we fit into. I would be shocked if we're the only smaller distiller who faces these issues. Not surprisingly, the TTB is not keeping pace with the creativity of craft distillers.

There will always be a bad apple in every bunch, but I hope that we'll resist the tempation to throw out the whole harvest, 'cause of that one bad apple. As educated members of this community I hope that we will be able to differentiate between gimmick and those distillers who are bringing us something new and authentic. Today it's moonshine, tomorrow it will be something else that makes us reexamine our traditional definitions. We are all part of a burgeoning craft distilling era. I hope that we don't let dictionaries or TTB regs stifle the creativity and innovation of our little movement.

Cheers! Sarah

Christian said...

Matt, you have way more detail than I, but glad to see the serious look at all this. I'm looking through it again to see what I can't link back to from my own post about it.

Doc said...


I would first like to say, to all the commentors here, this may be the best comment thread with descenting opinions I have ever come across. All parties have been courteous and understanding, with a lot of good opinions all around.

For myself, I have to agree with Mr. Rowley and company. They all have very good points about needing to restrict the definition of moonshine and preserve its unique heritage across multiple styles and countless variations.

I would like to address Sarah's point, specifically, that her company's product (which I sadly have yet to sample) follows quite closely the recipe, procedure, and equipment used by a genuine distilling family and is therefore in keeping with the true spirit of moonshining. I'll agree, this is certainly in keeping with the craft aspect, the desire to produce a superior product for personal satifisfaction, benefit of consumers, and (just as with most traditional moonshiners, and nothing wrong with it) monetary gain. She is correct, of course, in all these regards. However I believe this neglects still the illicit component in two ways, beyond merely the question of strict terminology defined by the various governing bodies and popular opinion.

The first is the mindset. Moonshiner's don't just want to make money, they want to not be interferred with. While normally law-abiding in most ways, in one specific way they have chosen to thumb their noses at the government for various reasons. To me, this changes the equation. A chance is being taken, by all parties, to get moonshine. There are no guarantees. There is no proof on the bottle, no surety that he product will not harm you (though that is realistically very rare). To the consumer, that sense of danger makes quite a difference. Not in taste, no, but certainly in spirit (I will not apologize for puns).

Beyond that, there is the change is process forced upon the scofflaw distiller. Midnight Mood makes small batches, yes, with no doubt some variation. Variety is the spice of life. However, you triple distill and end up with an 80 proof product. That suggests there is some fairly precise watering down of the finished product. This is no doubt done carefully with an eye to a consistent product. That makes a good whiskey. However, its very, very uncommon with moonshine to get such a consistent process. Even with a similiar set up, your moonshiner is going to be under pressures beyond those experienced by a legal distillery. Getting supplies from various sources, mashing in an uncontrolled evironment, working with constantly improvised equipment, and proofing quickly and often inconsistently makes a difference. This process, even if not considered a game changer itself, does change the end results. And that increased variety means you are dealing with a different (though not necessarily better) product.


Anonymous said...

Yeah...okay anyone who either keeps a thesuarus handy when they write or sounds like they did, raises my suspicions when they start talking about MY local beverage. I think honestly if they were able to exactly duplicate one of the better moonshiners best batches and make it in mass somehow (agreed doubtful) You'd poo poo on it, with the same sort of elitism, and how it wasn't the real dealio, and how they could never ever make that beverage that your so hip too. You'd do it for the same reason people love a musician until they get a hit record, then talk about them being a sellout....pffff... I was born and raised in East Tn, I have sampled and tried a variety of moonshines, and still blame the messed up vision of my right eye, on a bad batch. i know which mountains you can find good people, and which mountains you can find the bodies...(sometimes their the same mountains) But if you make Moonshine the same's just Corn Liquor...and there's no reason someone can't make it legally and make a tasty product that many will enjoy. As for the above discriptions you used man that's that's just crap liquor made by someone who was no good, and often makes a dangerous concoction that can hurt you in a permenant fashion...(as in my right eye) I can make a batch of crap and use the wrong equipment and thus add a metalic content that may split your head for days, and or kill you but that doesn't make it true moonshine...that makes me a poor distiller. If someone can make it true to the recipe as possible in mass and safegaurd against such mishaps....more power to them. The Popcorn Sutton branded variety actually isn't that bad....what his was actually like I have no idea, nor can I say if he was actually as good as he marketed himself. But I like him all the same, and like many in our area have sort have come to see him as a symbol of a dying culture... I do have quite a history sampling and still sample the true shine, and I think some of these "White" Whiskies sold in liquor stores are getting pretty decent. I'm sorry if that is an attack on your sense of elistist hipness from having a "authentic" batch somewhere.....but as they meet hillbilly aproval...i could care less.....I know if I have a choice between say the Gatlinberg distillry or the Popcorn distillary or some illicit shiner whom i don't know or trust, I'll choose these legal ones just for safety reasons......of course those that I DO know who make good mtn dew....well I'll stick by them through thick and thin, as the best I have had, but their stuff is not always "available"......don't overly think and limp wrist corn liquor.....just pour it drink it, put on some rockabilly....and enjoy it. Elitism, and TRUE hillbilly/moonshiner culture is like water and can't claim both's one or the don't blasphemy by being a wannabe hillbilly elitist... You wanna respect it, man put on some bluegraas or rockabilly drink the best corn liquor available aged or not, and hold your woman...don't rant like some hipster....whose life is so soft he has to make up crap to be pissed about.