Known mostly for its clandestine origins as an illegally homemade alcoholic spirit, moonshine is surprisingly diverse! In this guide, you will learn everything that you need to know about moonshine from its flavours and how to drink it:
- What Is Moonshine?
- Why Is Moonshine Illegal?
- Moonshine History
- What Does Moonshine Taste Like?
- How To Serve Moonshine
- Similar Drinks & Substitutes
- Benefits Of Moonshine
Simply use the links above to jump ahead or scroll down to read the entire guide.
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What Is Moonshine?
Moonshine is mostly known as a slang term that refers to strong and illegally-made alcoholic spirits. For this reason, it’s typically associated with bootleggers and the Prohibition in the USA.
While moonshine is still used to describe illegal homemade alcohol, legitimate distillers will often sell beverages that are described as moonshine. Officially, the US government regards moonshine as a “fanciful term” and doesn’t regulate its use.
Therefore, “moonshine” is often used as a nostalgic marketing term that leaves a lot of room for interpretation.
Some moonshine producers will seek to offer reproductions of clear high-proof homemade alcohol from the Prohibition era. However, moonshine can technically be anything!
Why Is Moonshine Illegal?
In some parts of the world, distilling alcohol at home is not just legal but is also a cultural practice. In fact, some historians even argue that distillation is a key indicator of a developing civilization.
However, in the USA and most parts of Europe, distilling is against the law. There are many reasons that governments choose to prevent its citizens from making their own alcohol. In fact, even buying or owning any type of still is illegal in many countries.
Firstly, imposing permits on distillers ensures both traceability and quality control. People can easily fall ill, go blind or even die from poorly-made alcoholic spirits. Therefore, it helps regulate the industry and prevent the availability of low-quality moonshine.
Similarly, distilling is a dangerous practice if done improperly. Not only can amateur distillers inadvertently poison people but stills are highly explosive.
Finally, taxation is an important factor that many proponents of home distilling argue is the real reason for its illegality. After the USA passed the 1862 Revenue Act, it allowed authorities to shut down illicit stills while also charging owners for tax evasion if they sold their alcohol.
If you go back far enough, peasants would distil leftover crops in order to earn a little more money for the winter. In some cases, it was even a way of recycling. For instance, there are grape pomace brandies like grappa that use the leftovers from making wine.
Needless to say, selling these goods would often undermine the local tax offices. Therefore, permits ensure that producers will have to pay taxes on their production.
Although moonshine is often associated with the Prohibition era, it is actually far older than that. Indeed, the term is British and was first recorded in 1785 in reference to alcohol. Supposedly, the name was adopted due to potential hallucinogenic side-effects of the alcohol’s impurities.
Nevertheless, moonshine is also known under many other names including hooch, white lightning, and mash liquor. Different cultures produced their own types of moonshine using a variety of ingredients. Historically, it was typically a clear and unaged whiskey in the USA and the UK.
While black market production of alcohol was relatively common, it wasn’t quite as notorious until the aforementioned 1862 Revenue Act.
As converting corn into whiskey was far more lucrative than selling the raw material, many moonshine operations continued their activities regardless. Despite crackdowns, its production became particularly concentrated in the East-Coast Appalachia region as it was easier to evade authorities.
Following the introduction of Prohibition with the Eighteenth Amendment of the Constitution over half a century later, moonshine became considerably more present.
Prior to Prohibition, spirits accounted for less than 40% of the USA’s alcohol consumption. Yet, when it drew to a close, it had skyrocketed to 75%! Bootleggers who transported alcohol found that spirits were far more lucrative than moving wine or beer.
Like the 16th-century Dutch traders who distilled French wine into cognac, they found that higher proof alcohol was easier to transport as the quantities were smaller. Therefore, it caused a shift in what was available on the market.
Moonshine & NASCAR
In the late-19th century, most US-made moonshine was transported by horse and cart. However, the introduction of the automobile greatly changed the dynamic. After the moonshine was produced, it was transported by bootleggers or runners to its various destinations.
Like the production itself, the runs took place at night and the smugglers started using cars in order to quickly outrun the authorities. As officials started modernising their vehicles, bootleggers soon turned to modifying theirs as well.
The interiors were gutted out to reduce weight and increase storage space. The cars also featured powerful engines to outrun officials as well as improved handling. Finally, resistant suspension was added to carry large quantities of alcohol.
Nevertheless, it was important that the cars were entirely inconspicuous on the outside to avoid raising suspicion. For the same reason, bootleggers favoured small cars rather than trucks that would be easily spotted.
Although Prohibition ended in 1933, illegal moonshine operations continued to avoid new taxation. With time, the cars improved and it wasn’t uncommon for bootleggers to organise races for money and fun.
Stock car races became popular in the 1940s and as less work was available for bootleggers, it eventually led to the creation of NASCAR. The relationship between NASCAR and moonshine can be still seen today through brands like Sugarlands who often collaborate together during racing events.
How Does Moonshine Taste?
Given the lack of regulation and standardisation, there is a diverse variety of legal moonshine. As a result, they can all deliver very different flavours.
Arguably, a high-quality traditional moonshine should have a strong bouquet of corn both in the nose and on the palate. Occasionally, it may have slightly fruity flavours that are reminiscent of cider or even grappa.
Other varieties of moonshine might taste a lot like vodka, depending on the way it was distilled and the resulting alcohol content. When officially an alcoholic spirit, moonshine needs to be at least 40% ABV but can be as much as 65% ABV or more.
As a result, it’s usually quite potent with a heavy alcohol bloom.
Meanwhile, it has become a popular practice to cut the distillate with fruit juice and other flavours. A popular version is apple pie moonshine, which is made by combining the distillate with cider or apple juice as well as sugar and spices like cinnamon.
Various flavours exist, including blackberry, peaches, root beer, and strawberry. Occasionally, they may feature pieces of fruit that have been preserved in the alcohol.
These are technically liqueurs and much weaker in comparison. Usually, they consist of around 20% ABV or slightly more. As they’re sweeter, they’re often easier to enjoy neat but are also used in cocktails.
How To Properly Drink Moonshine
We’re proponents of saying that there is no wrong way to drink something as long as you enjoy it. This adage is especially the case with moonshine! Indeed, there aren’t really any traditional ways to drink moonshine nor is there any type of specific glassware.
In the 19th century and earlier, moonshine was often consumed neat as there were few alternatives. It was uncommon for it to be stored in large ceramic jars, which kept the alcohol cool and easier to drink.
The late-19th and early-20th centuries saw the birth of cocktail culture. Although more conventional drinks were originally used for cocktails, they became exceedingly popular in speakeasies during the Prohibition.
As much of the alcohol consumed was either very strong or of poor quality, they were added to cocktails to render them more palatable.
Today, you can happily drink moonshine however you want without facing much criticism from purists. Although a minority of people will claim that it must be drunk in its pure form, this is actually quite rare.
If you need any cocktail ideas or inspiration, why don’t you check out our guide to the top 10 best moonshine cocktail recipes?
Similar Drinks & Moonshine Substitutes
As we detailed above, there are plenty of different types of moonshine. Therefore, you’ll likely have a number of different options available for interchanging it with other beverages.
Firstly, clear moonshine occasionally bears a slight resemblance to vodka. Therefore, if a cocktail asks for one, you can swap it for the other. The result may be a little different as moonshine has more character as well as added clout.
Grappa bianca is probably your best option as it has a similar level of personality as moonshine. The way this personality is expressed is a little different
Gin is another potential substitute but it does have a distinctive juniper flavour, which can change the results. Alternatively, you could opt for akvavit or even Absinthe Blanche. However, those both have strongly herbal flavours so bear that in mind when toying with recipes.
Finally, fruit flavoured moonshine is a little different in this respect. You can always use fruit juice with a spirit like vodka. Alternatively, you can consider other fruit liqueurs such as limoncello or schnapps.
What Are The Benefits Of Drinking Moonshine?
There are many claims regarding historical alcoholic spirits that were originally created as herbal benefits, but moonshine is certainly not one of them.
Indeed, moonshine is usually derived from corn and is notoriously unhealthy. However, much of the historical claims made against it were likely to try and end illegal production.
As long as you enjoy it responsibly and in reasonable quantities, it shouldn’t have any overly negative effects.
Gluten, Carbs, & Calories In Moonshine
Corn is naturally gluten-free. Therefore, any clear moonshine distilled from it should be fine for people with any sensitivities to the protein. Meanwhile, moonshine made from barley may not be as safe.
Although distillation does normally remove gluten from grain, there have been reports of it affecting people. Nevertheless, if it has been distilled multiple times, it should theoretically be safe.
Meanwhile, the calories should be quite low and a shot of clear moonshine shouldn’t be more than 90 kCal. Similarly, it won’t contain any carbohydrates.
As for flavoured moonshine, the above is all very uncertain. There may be ingredients that contain gluten and both the carb and calories can vary wildly.
Now that you have read our introductory guide to moonshine, let’s dig deeper and learn more!