(Image via Moonshine University)
We have all heard the commonly used names before such as, "Moonshine," "White Lightning," "Corn Liquor," and so forth. These are names that we associate with a rebellious spirit and a secretive backwoods distiller. But, the question being posed here is, does the clear spirits being made in modern, state of the art distilleries fall into these categories? Is it actually Moonshine? If not, why? If you happened to read last week's article you are already aware that my grandfather, who I called "Poppy," was a moonshiner for a period of his life. So, it is with that background, that I wanted to share a few things. Some of these things are fact while others are of my own personal opinion. Regardless, at the end, you'll be able to decide for yourself whether it is Shine or Shinola.
Our modern culture has romanticized the moonshiner in a way that the term immediately conjures up images in our mind. Likely an older gentleman with a long, white beard. Generally wears overalls and speaks with a heavy Appalachian accent. Well, Poppy never wore a beard at any point, but, I suppose he did adequately check the rest of these boxes. We now also have TV shows that reinforce the character as well. Although personally, I have never known a moonshiner willing to allow cameras at his still site - that seems a little counterintuitive to avoiding the authorities. Accompanying this cinematic element, we also have distilleries located in tourist destinations, selling 'moonshine' in every flavor imaginable. Their appealing jars are the perfect marketing creation to simultaneously separate the consumer from their currency while fulfilling the guest's desire to connect themselves to this taboo spirit. They can feel as if they are living dangerously and can wear the branded merchandise to prove it.
However, reality tells a different story. The Appalachian moonshiner was born out of pure necessity. Many of these people had large families and few, if any, employment opportunities. So in turn, the tradition of making moonshine was passed down from generation to generation. It was simply a way to provide for your family. My mother once shared a story with me of Poppy doing that very thing. Christmas was quickly approaching and there was no money to buy gifts for her and her siblings. So, doing what he felt needed to be done, Poppy mounted his horse which was carrying some of his popular homemade elixir and rode over the mountain to sell it. He then used his financial gain to purchase gifts that would be waiting for his children on Christmas morning. Did he do something illegal? Absolutely! Did he do something immoral? That feels like a much tougher question. In the mountains of Eastern Kentucky, where I grew up, practically none of these distillers set out to portray themselves as outlaws. They were trying desperately to make the best of a very tough situation.
Now, for the clear spirits part of our discussion, regarding moonshine: This is where the opinion part comes in *wink*. My grandfather taught me that shine was made from fermented sugar. But, this is where it gets tricky. All distilled spirits are made from fermented sugars. The difference lies in the origin of that sugar. For Poppy, that was his local grocer. Yep, table sugar was affordable and available. The corn that he used was simply for flavor. That's because a pure sugar wash carries very little flavor into the final product. Remember! Expediency and secrecy were key to the moonshiners success. That's where the term comes from. They distilled by the light of the moon to avoid detection. Cooking grains could be time consuming as well as giving off an appealing, yet revealing aroma.
A friend of mine once offered his thoughts that moonshine was illegal. Therefore, there was no legal definition of what was required to make it. Technically, he was right. Alternatively, there ARE legal requirements for other distillates. If you Google the legal definition of Whiskey, the Miriam Webster Dictionary says it is "a liquor distilled from fermented wort (such as that obtained from rye, corn, or barley mash)." There are specific requirements for other alcohols as well. Rum must be made from the fermented sugars in sugarcane molasses, or sugarcane juice. Tequila must be made from sugars derived from fermenting the blue agave plant. All of these come off the still as a clear alcohol, yet, the source of the sugar makes each of these it's own unique product. Can you see where I'm going here? If all clear spirits can be called moonshine, then no clear spirit is actually moonshine.
I suppose I could have taken his argument and used it in the reverse logic. All of these other spirits are legal. Since moonshine is not, can they simply use the name because they are a clear spirit? If all other clear spirits can be so clearly designated based on the sugar origin, why should moonshine be different? In fairness, one's opinion on this topic could be directly related to their own emotional/personal connection to the the tradition and background behind moonshining.
I could discuss the process and history of moonshine for hours if one let me. I also understand this piece may possibly reveal some bias on the subject on my part. That is simply because of how that tradition is so much a part of my family's narrative. Often, Jimmy Russell will ask me to clarify what moonshine is made from for guests visiting the distillery when they refer to our distillate as moonshine. Generally, he will laugh out loud before going on to tell them that he agrees with me. I know it doesn't matter to most people what my definition of this storied alcohol is, and I am in no way saying that it should, this is just my way of offering some clarity to folks as to why old hillbillies like myself have such a precise idea about what this legendary spirit is. For me, moonshine isn't just any clear spirit in a cool jar carrying its name, it's what's in my bloodline. It's how my grandfather provided for his family that he loved. There is a more personal association for me. So, there we have it. I hope you possibly enjoyed getting an Appalachian perspective on this subject. Shine on, my friends!
Until next time... Cheers! Bo.