Most often associated with high proof and illegality, moonshine is now available in liquor stores across the country and it looks like it’s here to stay. Legal moonshine, that is, which is to say liquor made above board and in the style of illegal moonshine.
And moonshine has plenty of regional variations. Speaking just for My Old Kentucky Home, the river country of Western Kentucky has a half corn, half sugar version, while in the Southeast, the better known “corn in a jar” 100% corn whiskey style is prevalent. The Low Country of South Carolina and Georgia are known for a rum-like, all sugar moonshine, and up in New England moonshine might mean a spiked, high proof version of apple jack.
Some will tell you that legal moonshine isn’t moonshine at all, because the key distinction is the illicit nature of the spirit. People are entitled to their opinions, but my thinking on that is two-fold. First, between Thomas Jefferson’s repeal of the hated Whiskey Tax and the Civil War, there were no Federal excise taxes on spirituous liquors. In many parts of the country, moonshine was still called moonshine and it was perfectly legal.
My second thought is that if someone wants to tell a distiller face to face that making moonshine using the family recipe is inauthentic (and there are plenty of them out there doing that) just because they have the licenses and pay taxes, they are welcome to do that. I don’t think that’s the case, so I’m won’t.
Since moonshine can mean so many things, knowing what’s what is tricky, and few experts pay serious attention to the category. With that in mind, here are several choices of the clear stuff that won’t let you down.
The Discovery Channel’s program Moonshiners has boosted the profile of a handful of distilleries, both in and out of the United States, and none more so than that of its star, the overalls-wearing Tim Smith. His product isn’t just hype, though, and is a fine example of a cross between a bourbon distiller’s white dog and Southern corn in a jar. It’s candy corn sweet, just a little grainy, but also a little spicy, and satisfies neat, on the rocks or as a mixer.
Made on the doorstep of the Great Smoky Mountains, Ole Smoky’s line of moonshine liquors are the most widely available in the U.S. This 100-proof corn whiskey is pretty strong, but smooth and pretty far from being the rocket fuel of legend. The corn character in this Appalachian offering presents itself as a campfire-roasted corn on the cob, buttery and just a little toasty.
One of Ole Smoky’s local competitors is this item, and it presents a different twist on moonshine style with its corn and sugar recipe. Ole Smoky is a corn whiskey and Tim Smith’s hooch uses a little sugar for flavor, but Sugarlands uses sugar as a major ingredient alongside corn. The result should be looked at as a hybrid of corn whiskey and rum.
As both the name and the classy art deco bottle imply, this stuff was designed for Yankee sophisticates, and therefore has cocktail-making in mind. Getting away from Southern traditions, it uses oats and no corn in the mash bill. If you’re familiar with oatmeal stout, imagine how that flavor will play out in spirituous liquor and you’ve got the idea.
Made from heirloom corn in the very outdoorsy city of Asheville, North Carolina, this is the stuff you use to change the minds of the “moonshine is nasty rotgut” crowd. It’s smooth, light and tasty.
The Casey’s Cut Distillery in Hopkinsville is on the epicenter path of the total eclipse coming on August 21, and the best place in Kentucky to see this astronomical event. To mark the occasion, they’ve made a 100-proof expression of their Western Kentucky style moonshine, which is made of half corn, half sugar and with the wagon bed still that is symbolic of the area. Pick some up and wait for the lights to go out.
Most legal moonshines are bottled at 100 proof or less, so they don’t live up to the image of a liquor you could run your car on. Missouri’s Copper Run Overproof comes closer at 120 proof. It’s made from a wheated bourbon style mash bill, giving it a flavor that is corn and fruity sweet, as well as a (mercifully) clear finish.