Monday, September 19, 2022

The Truth About Moonshine.

The romanticized image of 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 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 your still and obtaining a license for it, 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 about half the price of any distilled alcoholic beverage, more than virtually any other product and a lot more than you may think. 

Because 'moonshine' is just a spirit that was illegally made, it is not a type of spirit. Therefore, 'legal moonshine' is an oxymoron. 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 call anything 'moonshine,' but legal moonshine is usually one of three recognized distilled spirit types. (1) neutral spirit, i.e., vodka. (2) cane spirit, i.e., 'sugar shine.' (3) un-aged corn whiskey.  

Of the three, (2) is the most authentic. 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.

Moonshining is still practiced today. The goal is to make it fast and cheap, don't get caught, and don't kill anybody, generally in that order of priority. People think moonshine is strong because it tastes 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 romantic image of moonshine is of a rustic craftsman, an 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 maybe have a tiny sip, just to be polite.

It may seem a clever way to gain attention as a first step to making sales, but associating legal spirits with the industry's criminal side, whether moonshining (illegal manufacturing and sale) or bootlegging (illegal transportation and sale), is a bad look.


Bill said...

I get that the Avetts are from the American South so the answer is moonshine, but when I hear or read "jar" in a context of alcoholic spirits, I automatically think "poteen," which I guess would be the Irish whiskey equivalent of moonshine? Or is it maybe just another name for (Irish) whiskey? The stuff sold in the states plays on its "illegality" but I assume that's just marketing and have no idea if poteen and Irish whiskey are interchangeable terms, or if poteen is the equivalent of white whiskey, or if there's the same tradition of avoiding the tax authorities in Ireland, so poteen is truly moonshine (in its not-legally-bottled-and-shipped-to-America form).

Chuck Cowdery said...

I don't know much about poteen but I think 'poteen' and 'moonshine' are synonyms, more or less. Both terms are also (mis-)used for legal beverages.