More than ever, there’s been a lot of talk about ‘Moonshine’ in the spirits industry and in culture-at-large. There are books about it, magazines about it, and even a (semi-reality, at best) tv show about it. You can walk into any decent liquor store these days and see some mass-made products with ‘moonshine’ proudly featured on the label. It might even be packaged in an old-timey mason jar or jug.
But what exactly is moonshine?
In the American South, making, finding and drinking moonshine has become an indelible part of the culture. Whether its a rebellious history, or its decidedly DIY ethos, people gravitate to its mysterious origins.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, moonshine is defined as “whisky or other strong alcoholic drinks made and sold illegally.” Well clearly that can’t be the case if you can walk into a liquor store and buy it, federal taxes fully paid. This is because unlike whiskey, which must be made from grain, distilled and bottled at a certain alcohol content, moonshine has no equivalent. Like vodka, it can be made from anything you can ferment: fruit, sugar, grain, honey, anything any everything that has enough sugar to be turned into sweet, sweet alcohol. Like vodka, there’s no upper limit on its alcohol content. This means that entrepreneurial distillers can harvest that kind of back-woods mystery behind the name moonshine even if ultimately the product is made in a state-of-the-art facility along with other major brands.
And though it may be most closely associated with the South, the term moonshine has been around since 15th Century Europe. Much like so many European traditions, they found their way stateside with the colonies and took on a life of their own. At the time, farms with grain mills would distill their excess harvest so that it wouldn’t spoil. In a country that was barely formed, it was sometimes even used as a replacement for fiat currency.
Shortly after the Rebellion, the newly independent U.S. government found itself with a problem: it had just fought a costly war to get out from under the British – specifically their heavy taxation – and now they needed money. Basically, they realized they needed to collect taxes on something fast, and alcohol was as good a place as any to start.
Thus began the ‘whiskey wars’, a bitter series of clashes where various colonies fought agents sent by the government to collect taxes on their homemade liquor. Ultimately the tax was repealed, but the notion that liquor made by individuals should not be taxed was cemented in the minds of many. Moonshine as we know it was born.
It wasn’t until prohibition that this homemade liquor came back into focus, since it turned many ‘moonshiners’ who used to make liquor for themselves and for friends (often with little to no money exchanging hands) into an extremely profitable home business. Suddenly all kinds of people were hoping on the ‘shine wagon to cement their fortunes. Individual production grew so great that the bootlegger was born out of the necessity of needing to run this precious product to market before ‘johnny law’ could seize it.
With the end of Prohibition and the rise of huge liquor conglomerates, the need for moonshine has largely ebbed. Today, it’s more of a cultural phenomenon that a significant illegal industry, hence the fact that major distillers are more than willing to advertise their products as ‘shine. It hearkens back to an era of copper stills tucked into hollers and bootleggers carrying Tommy guns as they spirited (no pun intended) barrels under cover of darkness.