The Modern Moonshine Movement

Public Radio’s MarketPlace discover’s a new movement afoot – Moonshine, or Micro-distilled whiskey for those of you concerned with the stigma of the word. From the radio piece:

ANNA SALE: Colin Spoelman got interested in moonshine a few years ago, during a trip home to Eastern Kentucky. He was throwing a party, and he asked a friend to get some local hooch.

COLIN SPOELMAN: It came in a plastic milk jug, and I brought it back to New York, and I would share it with people and say this was like real Kentucky moonshine. And in sharing it with people, people would really get excited about it, and I thought it would be fun to, I don’t know, to learn how to make it, it can’t be that hard, right?

Spoelman did learn how. But how he learned how — that’s where he gets cagey.

SPOELMAN: Well, I don’t know how much I can say about this…

That’s because since the Whiskey Act of 1791, making liquor without a license is illegal. States and the federal government want to make sure distillers pay tax on the whiskey they make. Getting a federal license is pretty straight forward. But state licenses can be harder to come by.

Spoelman and his college buddy David Haskell were lucky. They started experimenting just as distilling laws in New York were relaxing, as a way to help farmers attract more tourists upstate.

Oh lord, there’s so much to discuss here.

First tho’, the use of the term ‘moonshine’ is interesting in of itself, in that the word used to be specific to illegal distilling and selling that occurred under the light of the moon. The term comes from the British Isles in the late 1700′s when such activities were massively popular in Ireland and Scotland. The idea of ‘Legal Moonshine’ is as foreign to me as ‘Non-Alcoholic Beer’. Seriously – what’s the point?

Second, it’s really not all that surprising that people are reconnecting with the distilling process on a ‘hobby’ or micro-distilling basis. Anyone with even a basic knowledge of chemistry and engineering can make a workable still. A home brewer with access to a hardware store could probably set up a still within a day and have moonshine in 3 days or or so, depending upon how long the wort ferments. It is that easy.

As a side note – my favorite aroma in the world at the moment comes from still. The smell of distillation is unlike any I’ve come across before, and warms my heart every time I get to partake of it. The aroma differs depending upon the grain composition (scotch distilling smells different than bourbon distilling) but the feeling they elicit is the same. My cure for depression is a visit to a distillery.

It should also be mentioned that the moonshine “industry”, never really went away. Illegal whiskey has always been made in some degree or another. Some of it was made for illicit profit, to be sure. Some of it, especially those found in the south, was made for personal pleasure. There’s an entire culture surrounding the drink in the South, and one particularly famous country singer is rumored to drink nothing but the “white lightnin’”.

Finally, if you ever get a chance to have good non-aged whiskey, by all means take it. There’s not as strong as a finish as your wood-aged whiskeys, but the flavors of the grain absolutely shine through.

(I did put the caveat of ‘good’ up there, because there are a few brands of ‘moonshine’ out there who sell it purely as a novelty rather than a labor of love. These are to be avoided at all costs, as they tend to come across as very chemical in their flavor. There’s a famous one sold at liquor stores and packaged in a Mason jar. It is pretty horrible, and not indicative of well-made non-aged whiskey at all.)