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.

15 comments:

Anonymous said...

Does anyone actually buy a bottle of this stuff more than once?

Wade said...

So buy some cheap Vodka, add some corn syrup or other cheap sweetener and then some chunks of fruit or fruit flavors, put in a mason jar and save yourself $15? You too can be a 'moonshiner'.

merd said...

I've enjoyed watching the moonshiners show on tv (when its dvr'd and I don't have to suffer through 7 minutes of footage stretched out into 47)... and no doubt the american spirit (no pun intended) of commercialization is capitalizing on the general population's romantic connection with the show's ideology. Watching the Limestone Branch story there is kinda fun even if it is likely staged and scripted with 6 takes per scene much like the American Guns show was here in Colorado. Suga-shine and likker aren't categories either but that's what they are it seems. Do those terms sound any more appealing? Would they sell more moonshine style spirit with a name like that? Georgia Moon is packaged like stereotypical moonshine is thought to be - in a mason jar. Its labeled Corn Whiskey... as is Platte Valley which has the ceramic jug. I've purchased both in the past. My personal perception of those products are to be kitchy, niche, camping companion/firestarting devices... with some degree of drinkability/personal punishment qualities typically enhanced by jackassery. I've not felt the sway of these new "moonshine" type spirits as I've been focused on draining my spendable income in search of another category which is "lawyer whiskey" meaning limited release, extra aged, rare find, and too friggin expensive.

By the way, Wade. I dun did that fruit thing with some blackberries and its just infusion that leaches all color out and makes crappy vodka worse. 'Taint no 'shine.
Sorry. I've been drinking. Again.

sku said...

Given the popularity of this stuff, I think the TTB should consider adding a White Whiskey and/or Moonshine classification. At least that would clarify what it means when you see it on a label.

Anonymous said...

So GNS is above 95% and corn whiskey is below 80%. What is the stuff between 80% and 95% called?

Chuck Cowdery said...

A spirit made from grain, aged in oak, and distilled below 95% is considered whiskey, but without a modifier.

EllenJ said...

Anonymous said...
"So GNS is above 95% and corn whiskey is below 80%. What is the stuff between 80% and 95% called?"

Chuck Cowdery said...
"A spirit made from grain, aged in oak, and distilled below 95% is considered whiskey, but without a modifier."

CFR27 also designates a class called "light whiskey", which is "...whisky produced in the United States at more than 160 deg.
proof, on or after January 26, 1968, and stored in used or uncharred new oak containers;
and also includes mixtures of such whiskies".

That would answer Anon's question. I don't think anyone markets such a product anymore (both Brown Foreman and Schenley did briefly back in the '70s) but I suspect it's still being made for use in producing "whiskey" that does not contain GNS (and therefore need not be labeled as "blended whiskey").

Chuck Cowdery said...

Many things are in the regs that are not in the marketplace.

HTarm said...

High West Silver Whiskey Western Oat is a light whiskey

sam k said...

HTarm: and a good one, at that!

The Rookie said...

People would be a lot better off with Heaven Hill's "Mellow Corn" I think.

Anonymous said...

But if a product is made at, say, 85% and never touches wood before being bottled, it can't be labeled a whiskey or GNS. So there is no name available for this product?

Chuck Cowdery said...

"Spirits Distilled from Grain"

oknazevad said...

Interestingly enough, the sort of product labelled as "light whiskey" in US regulations almost perfectly matches the "base whiskey" used in making Canadian blends, or the bulk "grain whiskey" used in Scotch and Irish blends as well. It seems that whiskey made from bulk grain (usually corn or wheat), column stilled to high proof (but still below neutral levels) and aged in used barrels is the most common form if whiskey in the world, but is rarely sold on its own, instead being made more flavorful by the addition of lower-proof, longer-aged forms.

I remember reading in an old Time Magazine article (found on microfilm, something itself lost to history) that when some big distillers lobbied to get the category added to the regs so they could put out "light whiskey" in an effort to fend off Canadians and white spirits, that they didn't consider it too much of a financial risk as if the category didn't catch on (which it of course didn't) that they'd just use the stuff in blends. So there's probably quite a few dusties of Seagrams 7 out there in people's liquor cabinets that have some of that light whiskey in it.

Phil said...

Next, they'll just repackage Zima and sell it as moonshine