White lightning, mountain dew, firewater — you know it as the illicit substance made in secret by tax-dodging mountain men and drunk by people looking to alter their reality in a serious way.
But hooch is being infused with a whole new spirit thanks to a new generation of home and professional distillers.
“Moonshine is multifaceted these days,” says Max Watman, who researched the underground liquor industry for his book, Chasing the White Dog.
The idea of bootleg liquor conjures up a vision of lazy creekside afternoons. And there is a small population of moonshiners still carrying out the mountain tradition. But modern moonshine mostly falls into two different categories, according to Watman. Sure there are criminal organizations that essentially prey on the poor. But there also is a burgeoning hobbyist scene made up of the same type of people that drove the microbrewed beer movement.
“The hobbyists are much more adventurous and a lot of fun,” he says. “It’s very much a product of our time. We are obsessed with authenticity and we are obsessed with craft, or at least a certain segment of our population is. It’s part of the farmers market world. We all want to make our own cheese. We all want to cure our own bacon. It’s the same group that wants to make their own booze.”
Unlike curing your own bacon, or even brewing your own beer, however, distilling spirits is illegal without a government licence, and they aren’t easy to get.
Still, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives says illicit distilling isn’t a significant problem. Though the economy in particular has prompted more people to explore making moonshine, a bureau spokeswoman said there hasn’t been a big bust since the ’90s and overall it’s a much smaller problem than in the past.
To meet the burgeoning interest, a number of companies have started selling stills, ingredients and directions online, though most note that it’s advisable to check local laws before producing alcohol. There also are online forums where enthusiasts can pose questions and trade tips.
Making moonshine is as easy as mixing a grain such as corn meal (though you can make moonshine with just about anything) with sugar, water and yeast. Once it ferments, heat is used to draw the vapours into coiled tubing that drips the distilled liquid into a container.
While it may be easy, it is not without risks. Made from improper ingredients (such as wood) or in a still made from dangerous plumbing (such as a car radiator, which contains lead), moonshine can be riddled with toxic chemicals, causing blindness, kidney failure, even death, said Dr. Robert Geller, director of the Georgia Poison Center.
“And in the U.S. we’ve had outbreaks of both during the last 10 years,” he said.
The traditional definition of moonshine is an illegal distillate from an unregistered still on which taxes have not been paid. But modern practitioners, such as Colin Spoelman of King’s County Distillery in Brooklyn, N.Y., use the term to cover legal but unaged (as in no time in the barrel) whiskey, also known as “white whiskey.”
King’s, which is licensed, is selling white whiskey in medicine style bottles labelled simply “moonshine.”
“What we’re doing is a very smooth and very refined and very high quality moonshine,” says Spoelman, who became interested in the spirit after trying a jug of it in his native Kentucky.
What he isn’t selling is high-powered hooch. The alcohol content of King’s Moonshine is 80 proof, comparable to mainstream liquors. “We want people to enjoy the taste and taste the grain and not be quite so overwhelmed by the alcohol,” he says.
King’s County whiskey is 80 per cent corn, organically grown, and 20 per cent malted barley imported from Scotland. They’re a small operation, making about 9.5 litres a day. For a while they were working without a car until someone moving to Chicago heard of their plight and donated a ’92 Geo Metro.
Frank Coleman, spokesman for the U.S. Distilled Spirits Council, thinks illicit liquor is best avoided.
But the unaged whiskies being made by legal craft distillers are a different matter.
Though their sales are just a fraction of the market, there are scores of legal microdistillers springing up around the country.