Monday, August 4, 2008

The Truth About Moonshine.

Hate sits alone on the hood of his car.
Without much regard to the moon or the stars.
Lazily killing the last of a jar
of the strongest stuff you can drink.


From The Ballad Of Love And Hate by the Avett Brothers

Okay, class, what is Hate drinking?

Why moonshine, of course. The jar reference gives it away. So does the last line, although that's one of the many myths about moonshine.

So, what is moonshine? Moonshine is any distilled spirit, regardless of type, that is made by an unregistered distillery. Unregistered means illegal, underground, off-the-grid. It is illegal to distill alcohol without registering and obtaining a license, even at home just for fun. The license is federal but the state gets involved too.

Distilleries have to register so they can be taxed. Taxes are half of the price of any distilled alcoholic beverage, a lot more than you think. I don't want to get into it now, but if you want to learn more go here.

Moonshine just means the spirit was illegally made. Moonshine is not a type of spirit. Many people think it is un-aged corn whiskey and the people who make un-aged corn whiskey don't exactly discourage that misconception. They go along because of moonshine's romantic associations.

Moonshining is still practiced today. The essence of moonshining is to make it fast, make it cheap, don't get caught, and don't kill anybody, generally in that order of priority. People think moonshine is strong because it tastes so bad and they equate that flavor with alcohol strength, but a lot of moonshine isn't even at the minimum of 80° proof (40% alcohol by volume) at which most straight spirits are sold. It just tastes bad. The "strongest stuff you can drink," for the record, is Everclear, an undiluted neutral spirit. It is "the strongest" because it is pure alcohol. There is no 11 on the alcohol volume dial.

Most moonshine is not made from corn or any other grain. It is made from table sugar, the same stuff you stir into your morning coffee. Technically, that makes it rum, not that any moonshiner is concerned about truth in advertising.

The romantic image of moonshiners is of a rustic craftsman, the true artisan making The Real Thing, uncompromised by Big Business. The reality is that moonshiners are more like the people who make methamphetamine, and often they are the same people. Moonshiners are criminals, out for a fast buck, generally by preying on the poor and ignorant.

Not that a moonshiner can't also be a good distiller gone bad. Back in the 1940s, after he left Heaven Hill in a huff, Harry Beam fell on hard times and did a little 'shining to make ends meet. Yes, those Beams. Harry's dad and Jim Beam were first cousins.

But 99 percent of moonshine is nothing special and some of it is dangerous, as in poisonous, so if you are ever offered some have a tiny sip, just to be polite.

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