Finding its way out of the secrecy of nighttime production, moonshine enjoys a renaissance that goes far beyond the hills of the South.
By Jessica Leigh Brown
High-speed chases in modified vehicles and harrowing run-ins with the law are just a couple of the dangers that those who were active in moonshine production and imbibing faced. Few commodities carry such a storied and stigmatized past. While the tales that have survived connote the hazards of producing the contraband substance, they also impart the role the spirit has played in the economy and soul of the South throughout history. Now, moonshine distilleries are sprouting across the country to continue the tradition of producing the celebrated white lightning that dates back to the American Revolution. But today, the corn-based spirit is no longer a black-market commodity—it’s at the center of a fast-growing industry.
Roots That Run Deep
“We’re the grassroots of moonshine; it’s what our families have done here for more than a century in the Great Smoky Mountains, and we still use a 100-year-old recipe from our founder, Joe Baker,” says Justin King, master distiller for Ole Smoky Tennessee Moonshine in Gatlinburg, Tenn.
“Our original goal was to make moonshine for the people of Gatlinburg,” he explains, but in just five years since its founding, the distillery’s scope has quickly broadened. By 2012, Ole Smoky Moonshine was distributed in nine states. Today, the product sells in all 50 states, as well as Canada, Mexico, Sweden and Denmark.
Doc Collier Moonshine, also in Gatlinburg, has a lot in common with Ole Smoky. Named after William “Doc” Collier, the distillery follows the tradition of the Appalachian man who made this coveted drink in the late 1800s. His great-grandchildren own the business today and use the same recipe Collier used long ago.
Unlike Ole Smoky, however, Doc Collier Moonshine follows a micro-distillery model. General Manager Buddy Keyes explains that the business keeps a small-scale focus at the forefront: “We only sell our products at our Gatlinburg store. Customers can come in, try it and see what they like. Our staff is very knowledgeable on the process and our moonshine, so people can sit down and chat with us, making it a personalized experience.”
Whether distilleries are shipping moonshine thousands of miles to be enjoyed abroad or keeping the tradition alive at home, it’s undeniable that the spirit has found its footing in the world of modern libations. All the while, distilleries and enthusiasts stay true to the methods that have survived many generations.
Not only do many distillers rely on recipes from Prohibition days and before, their equipment, ingredients and processes also often mirror those of their forefathers. “We have a 550-gallon traditional moonshine still,” says Keyes, who also begins the process with local spring water from English Mountain and pure corn mash, the most common grain that’s used in moonshine.
Relying on locally grown corn as much as possible, Ole Smoky Tennessee Moonshine begins by combining the mash with water over heat. “Bringing it to a boil converts the starch in the grain to sugars,” King says. “Once it’s all converted to sugar, we cool it to room temperature, add yeast and pump it into a fermenter. We can go from putting the corn mash into the vat to bottling the moonshine in about five days.”
Hudson Corn Whiskey, produced by Tuthilltown Spirits in Gardiner, N.Y., is made using a similar process. “We make ours with corn grown here in the Hudson Valley,” says co-founder Ralph Erenzo.
The distillery began in 2003, producing one of the first legally-made New York whiskeys since before Prohibition. “My business partner, Brian Lee, and I founded Tuthilltown Spirits as a craft distillery,” Erenzo recalls. “Neither of us had any previous experience with making whiskey. We physically built the distillery and figured out the process.” Lee and Erenzo developed a clear talent for brewing: After a few years of production, the business was purchased by William Grant & Sons, a leader in the Scotch whisky industry, which distributes the distillery’s corn whiskey throughout the world.
Erenzo and Lee began with a well-defined vision that reaches back to the spirit’s roots. “We were attempting to make a whiskey that actually tastes like the corn it’s made from,” Erenzo says. “As a result, the nose on this whiskey has a distinct popcorn taste. It’s 100 percent corn, and it has a distinct quality of flavor.”
While the basics of moonshine production remain the same as they were a century ago, several innovations in technology have enhanced the standards of quality and safety. “What separates the modern distiller is the ability to get a permit, which allows us to tap into the science and advancement available in the field,” Erenzo says. Achieving legitimacy under the law has allowed distillers to operate in a way that was not previously possible. The moonshine community has grown to attract members who bring new perspectives to the craft. “A lot of the new distillers are coming from engineering and science backgrounds, bringing with them a deep understanding of the chemical processes involved.”
At Ole Smoky, today’s technology lends an unprecedented measure of precision. “It’s honestly just a lot more accurate,” King admits. “We can control temperature better and make more consistent batches.”
Modern distillers also have found safer heating methods. “We heat with steam rather than an open flame,” Keyes says. “That’s probably the biggest difference between Doc Collier’s 19th-century process and ours today.”
With a Twist
In much the same way that distillers are bringing new perspectives to production, bartenders are introducing novel ways of enjoying the centuries-old shine. Ryanne Carrier, wine and spirits manager at Sea Island, has been using moonshine in cocktails for the past three years. She loves the spirit for its fresh flavor, and because it carries a mountain of Southern lore.
“My goal for the beverage program is to create a bigger sense of self—of the South—in our present relationships and history,” Carrier says. “Moonshine is part of our heritage.” Sea Island bartenders primarily use Ole Smoky Tennessee Moonshine, and with it, Carrier has developed a popular cocktail called the Tennessee Tractor. “It’s basically a Moscow Mule made with Ole Smoky Peach Moonshine, creating a nice blend of peach, ginger and lime flavors.”
Several zesty variations have emerged in the world of corn whiskey. In addition to the peach version used by Carrier, Ole Smoky offers an array of year-round and seasonal types, and Doc Collier, a smaller venture, even bottles up five flavors of its spirits including apple pie and blackberry.
Jessica Zigman, Sea Island’s head bartender at the Forbes Five-Star Georgian Room, likes to introduce flavored moonshines as replacements for
cordials. “Moonshine has a rustic corn essence, which adds another layer of flavor,” Zigman describes. “We like to combine its sweetness with a hearty spirit and incorporate some acid to make a well-rounded, balanced cocktail.” Capitalizing on the Southern-grown flavor of the spirit, Zigman also substitutes traditional moonshine for vodka in cocktails.
Los Angeles-based mixologist Chris Hewes also uses moonshine to enhance his cocktail creations, which include all-natural ingredients. His interest in fresh flavors and ingredients eventually led him to incorporate moonshine into his repertoire about five years ago.
“I started out making basic cocktails,” Hewes explains. “Then I began to experiment with natural ingredients, imagining how they’d mesh with the corn-mash flavor of moonshine.”
Since then, Hewes has fashioned some unique variations of drinks using moonshine. “I recently created a cocktail with honey, red bell peppers and popcorn moonshine. It has a completely different edge.”
And that mix of unexpected edge and a generations-old culture translates into a winning combination of old and new that’s sparked the recent resurgence of the libation. While longtime fans continue to celebrate moonshine’s rich heritage, the spirit’s newfound fame has widened the spectrum of how moonshine can be created and enjoyed among recent converts. Whether dressed up in a sophisticated cocktail or casually sipped from a Mason jar, every taste of the spirit shares the story of the South. “Moonshine is essentially an American tradition,” Hewes says. “It’s something we can hold onto and call our own.”
Moonshine’s Clear Facts
The once-nefarious liquid’s past is infused with fascinating stories and curious facts. Here are just some interesting tidbits from the history of moonshine.
- The nickname “moonshine” was allegedly coined by British smugglers and distillers because illegally produced corn whiskey had to be made under the cover of darkness.
- During the days of Prohibition, monikers for moonshine developed including stump, mountain dew, white lightning and cool water.
- Jugs of moonshine historically bore the mark “XXX,” a label meant to indicate that the brew had been distilled three times to eliminate impurities and increase alcoholic strength.
- The roots of stock car racing are steeped in the illicit moonshine trade. Bootleggers thundered down back roads of the South, running from the law and racing each other in their souped-up cars—and eventually developing NASCAR.