Monday, December 2, 2013
Understanding So-Called 'Legal Moonshine'
Many micro-distilleries say they sell 'legal moonshine,' but since 'moonshine' is defined as 'any distilled spirit made illegally,' what is 'legal moonshine'? And is moonshine, even unofficially, a particular 'style' of distilled spirit?
The people who regulate such things, at both the state and federal levels, allow producers to call their products 'moonshine' as long as the product is also identified by its actual, official classification.
Theoretically, a producer can use the term 'moonshine' on anything, but 'legal moonshine' is usually one of three recognized distilled spirit types.
If you read the label closely you will see, for example, that Junior Johnson's Midnight Moon is actually 'grain neutral spirits.' That, friends, is another name for vodka. Vodka, aka grain neutral spirits, aka GNS, is typically made from corn. Although any grain may be used, it's almost always corn because corn is cheapest.
After fermenting in the usual way, the spirit is distilled to neutrality (i.e., above 95 percent alcohol). By law it must be without distinctive color, aroma, or flavor.
If a 'moonshine' product isn't vodka, there's a good chance it is corn whiskey. Again, it will say this somewhere on the label. Corn whiskey must be at least 80% corn and can be 100 percent corn, but unlike GNS it is distilled below 80 percent alcohol, so it retains some of the flavors created in the fermentation. Georgia Moon, a Heaven Hill product, is corn whiskey. So is the original, unflavored version of Ole Smoky, but their many flavored products appear to be flavored GNS.
Corn whiskey is the only type of whiskey that doesn't have to be aged. However, unaged corn whiskey is generally not recognized as whiskey outside the United States.
The third type of legal moonshine, and arguably the most authentic, is made from table sugar. As Max Watman explains in his excellent book, Chasing the White Dog, real moonshiners (the illegal kind) use table sugar almost exclusively because it is cheap, readily available, and ferments easily.
A few legal moonshiners make what they call 'sugar shine,' using table sugar. In some cases they will throw in some corn for flavor. Limestone Branch and Barrelhouse are two Kentucky micro-distilleries that make it that way.
It should be noted that when corn is used in this way it generally is not converted to sugar first, so it does not ferment. It does convey some flavor to the final spirit, assuming it's not distilled to neutrality. Technically, sugar shine products are rum, but most producers don't want to label them that way so they use terminology like 'cane spirits.'
For the most part these products are good clean fun, albeit nothing special as drinks. Their principal danger is that consumers will not exercise suitable caution if they are ever offered real (i.e., illegal) moonshine, which can be very dangerous.