It goes by countless names, but no matter what you call it, moonshine is experiencing a golden age—and it tastes pretty good too
As my pickup rolls along a rural East Tennessee two-lane at sunset—the surrounding forests already dark—a friend I’ll call D. explains why, over the past few years, homemade corn liquor, otherwise known as moonshine, has found its renaissance.
“It’s a symbol for us,” he’s saying. “The way the Confederate flag used to be. But the flag today has taken on so many unfortunate associations, nobody feels good about showing it anymore. So we’ve embraced moonshine: making it, moving it, drinking it. Moonshine has become a point in our identity. It’s a way of saying, ‘I’m from here.’”
As D. talks, he lifts a 750-milliliter mason jar from the seat between us. Unscrewing the container’s lid, he lets the unmistakably musky smell of corn liquor engulf the cab. Beneath this scent, however, there’s the warming glow of apple and cinnamon. It’s a new form of moonshine, called apple pie. Which is precisely what it tastes like.
D. lifts the jar to his face. A second later he re-caps the container and exhales. “Yeaaaahhh…” he says. “That’s as good as any apple martini you’ll find in New York.”
He stares out the windshield, watching the landscape hurtle past. “That’s another reason for moonshine’s new popularity,” he says. He opens the jar again, its apple-cinnamon scent filling the truck.
“We’ve finally figured out how to make it taste good.”
A Presidential Past
Clear, bracing—and occasionally a little unsubtle—moonshine is America made drinkable. And in an increasingly fashionable “eat local” world, there may be no more indigenous product. Until recently, you had to know someone through a proud and private social network to obtain it. But with moonshine’s second coming, even that is changing.
The stuff is back. And it’s everywhere.
Legend holds that self-distilling whiskey in the United States began in the fall of 1620, when an Englishman named George Thorpe convinced Powhatan natives in what is now Gloucester County, Virginia, to part with a mound of corn, birthing a distilled-down product that’s been with us ever since.
Moonshine was a factor in the American Revolution when resentment over onerous Colonial taxes (partly on home-distilled whiskey) led to the “No taxation without representation” plank of the founders’ argument. By then, George Washington wasn’t merely the go-to choice for commanding general of the Continental Army, he would become the largest distiller in the Colonies, producing 11,500 gallons of corn whiskey a year at Mount Vernon.
On July 4, 1776, when the members of the Second Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence, every signer was known to drink home-brewed whiskey, with the Declaration’s initial signatory, John Hancock, being a prominent distiller in Boston, as part of his successful mercantile business.
Ironically only eighteen years later, following the American Revolution, then-president Washington was compelled to put down the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794, which arose after he levied taxes against America’s large and small distillers at different levels—with the smaller and more-numerous producers taxed more heavily—to pay down the Revolutionary War debt.
Today, when people think of moonshine, they flash to Prohibition and the later rise of NASCAR, whose originators had evolved only slightly from the bootleg movers they’d been a year—or a day—earlier. In 1941, when Lloyd Seay won the National Stock Car Championship, it is said the Ford coupe he drove had—a dozen hours before—been on a moonshine run. The day after his victory, Seay was shot and killed by his cousin in an argument over one of moonshine’s central components: sugar.
But while Prohibition’s repeal in 1933 slowed home distilling in most parts of the country, the practice remained robust in the American Southeast, where moonshine has continued to live quietly, spreading out and developing in semiretirement. These days, the 120- to 150-proof product comes in three forms: the classic palate-searing “white,” the smoky brownish “char” (which has usually been aged in charred oak barrels), and the newest and overwhelmingly popular “flavored,” in varieties such as apple pie, cherry, peach, and strawberry.
So after a period of dormancy when the stuff virtually disappeared from broad public use, over the past few years moonshine’s low-cost lure has slowly worked its way back into public favor—largely for reasons involving the current economic climate, a fashionable new cultural love of “artisanal” foods, and a certain, uh, displeasure with the federal government. This is particularly true for the American Southeast.
“These days, what moonshine means has changed economically,” says Chris Baker, Ph.D., a professor of sociology at Walters State Community College in Morristown, Tennessee. “At one time, making moonshine was a financial imperative. You had piles of harvested corn and steep mountains to get it over in slow-moving farm wagons. It was much easier—and more cost effective—to transport and sell it in distilled form. And those old distillers needed money. Shoes had to be bought.”