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Moonshine Buyer’s Guide

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From the archives: RECOIL Magazine Issue 24, May/June 2016


Legal moonshine sounds like an oxymoron, but there's more to the authentic version than just a label. Moonshine is a misunderstood, and oftentimes, misrepresented distilled spirit that helped mold America.

As consumers, we want to believe the products we buy are exactly how companies represent them. Marketing gurus employed by firms whose products we desire do such a remarkable job that we want them to just shut up and take our money. Every industry has smoke and mirrors, and the alcohol industry is not immune to creating a good-looking façade. Read on to learn about important points of moonshine and why you should give the legal stuff a try.


Who you ask will determine the answer you'll receive. The purest definition of moonshine is that it's illegally distilled alcohol. The reason for the illegal operation is usually to avoid paying taxes. People familiar with traditional moonshine will explain it's an un-aged corn whiskey made from corn, sugar, and water. The federal government will tell you it is not a recognized distilled spirit. But recognized by whom?

While moonshine can be any illegal brew, we're discussing the historic distilled spirits version — the real Hatfield and McCoy, if you will. The corn, sugar, and water recipes produce a unique flavor that reflects the location of distillation. That being said, legal ‘shine should be labeled as, “un-aged corn whiskey, corn whiskey, spirits distilled from mash grain and corn,” or something similar. This type of moonshine will smell like corn, with a subtle sweetness.

Thanks to the feds not recognizing moonshine as a category, any Tom, Dick, or Harry can slap a “moonshine” label on an alcohol bottle and get away with it. Several smart capitalists were wise to that fact and began putting a moonshine label on alcohol that was essentially vodka. Distilled spirits that are equivalent to vodka will be labeled with wording such as, “grain neutral spirits.” This type of booze will have a powerful, ethanol scent. It smells exactly how it feels, like something you'd put in your gas tank. And funnily enough, it comes from the same industrial plants that supply the automotive fuel industry and suck from same subsidized teat.



Moonshine in America has its geographical root in Jamestown, where Virginia colonists distilled corn on the James River. Moonshiners were a far cry from how they're depicted in movies. They weren't out in the woods making city boys squeal like pigs. Moonshiners were and are people just trying to get by during times of hardship in the United States. Illegal distilling grew out of necessity and many farmers would supplement their family's income by operating small stills. Excess or spoiling grains were used for moonshine — the alcohol produced was easier to transport and sell than crops that had a short shelf life.

After the Revolutionary War, the new U.S. government set its first excise tax on alcohol to pay debts from the war. The farming industry interpreted the tax as a personal attack from the government on farmers and the “whiskey tax” created a resistance movement, which led to the Whiskey Rebellion in 1794. The Whiskey Rebellion proved that the newly formed U.S. government could and would send an armed militia to lay down the law. Following the Whiskey Rebellion, many moonshiners relocated to the Appalachian frontier in order to continue production of illegal ‘shine, without oversight or hindrance from Uncle Sam. The whiskey tax was repealed in 1802, but was reinstated from 1814-1817 to fund the War of 1812. This time, it didn't go away and has continued to be a large part of the federal budget ever since.

After the Civil War ended, southern soldiers returned home to find towns burned down and communities destroyed. Northern agents oversaw the reconstruction of southern towns, and they also enforced how excess crops could be utilized. Moonshiners fled to the mountains to get out of Big Brother's constant supervision.

The prior history of moonshining and its long tradition of anti-establishment capitalism laid the groundwork for a booming market as soon as prohibition was ratified. During prohibition, fast cars were used as a tactic to stay ahead of the law. These high-speed cars gave way to the organization of NASCAR. The car that was driven to win the first official NASCAR race reportedly delivered a full load of moonshine the week prior. Interestingly enough, NASCAR's website fails to mention its moonshining roots.

The moonshine in this buyer's guide is a small sampling within a growing category of the alcohol industry. We tried the most prominent brands, as well as a few that came recommended by our moonshine connections. Our testing methods were simple, but deserving of some type of gold star for not dying after binge drinking so many different distilled spirits. It's a rough life, we know; all for the sake of telling our readers about badass products.



Smell Test: The moonshine should smell like corn with subtle hints of sweetness. An ethanol odor is undesirable for moonshine.


Bubble Test: If you shake a jar of moonshine, you'll see bubbles. Larger bubbles that disappear quickly indicate a high-proof alcohol; small bubbles that fade slowly prove a lower alcohol content.


Burn Test: In a shot glass, light a small amount of moonshine on fire. If it burns blue, the alcohol content is high and it is free from impurities. If the flame is red, it may have impurities. Lower proof moonshine will not light on fire. You want a blue flame when testing moonshine.


Keyword Indicator: If it says “Grain Neutral Spirits,” it's not an authentic corn mash moonshine recipe.



LABELED AS: Un-aged corn whiskey and cane spirits
PROOF: 103
NOSE: Corn with a sweet, almost vanilla aroma
TASTING NOTES: This moonshine is smoother than expected, with a quickly subsiding burn factor.
PRICE: $26
LOCATION: Nashville, Tennessee
411: In 2013, American Born Moonshine (ABM) hit the ground running. Cofounder Patrick Dillingham points out, “The category of moonshine is growing in a very healthy way.” A testament to that is ABM being recognized as one of the Top 100 Spirits of 2015 by Wine Enthusiast. ABM offers three products in their line, the southern concoction going by the name of Dixie, is perfect for a sweet tea junkie who enjoys a spiked drink. That 83-proof sweet tea will sneak up on you, though. Cofounders Dillingham and Sean Koffel take pride in “creating an authentic moonshine whiskey that pays homage to the proud tradition of mountain moonshiners and bootleggers of our country's past.”



LABELED AS: Spirits distilled from a mash of 30-percent grain and 70-percent cane
PROOF: 105
NOSE: Unmistakable corn notes, with a slight sweetness
TASTING NOTES: The burn factor is apparent, but not debilitating. This is surely a gentleman's drink that can be leisurely enjoyed over the rocks.
PRICE: $35
LOCATION: Woodbury, Tennessee
411: Soon after Cannon County was no longer considered dry, Short Mountain Distiller opened up in 2010. Through farming, the Kaufman brothers got their start in moonshine similar to generations past. Their 300-acre farm is capable of providing a self-sustaining moonshine operation where nothing goes to waste. Even their cattle are fed the used mash from distilling. Short Mountain offers tours and moonshine tastings to visitors. The Kaufman brother captured the spirit's authenticity by partnering with three local moonshiners. With over 100 years of combined experience, those three moonshiners have succeeded in creating a product that outshines many competitors.



LABELED AS: White whiskey
NOSE: Predominately corn, but very enticing with a touch of agave
TASTING NOTES: This distilled spirit goes down smooth, and at 93 proof doesn't hit your stomach like a flaming bomb, or your brain like a 2×4.
PRICE: $30
LOCATION: Newport, Tennessee
411: Marvin “Popcorn” Sutton is a moonshine legend. He spent most of his life moonshining illegally. In 2009, at the age of 62, Popcorn committed suicide to avoid federal prison after being sentenced to 18 months for illegally distilling spirits. In 2010, Hank Williams Jr. partnered with Popcorn's wife to create a brand that would carry on the Popcorn Sutton Legacy. The recipe used is the same one Popcorn had used for his infamous moonshine.



LABELED AS: Grain neutral spirits
PROOF: 100
NOSE: Ethanol, no getting away from it
TASTING NOTES: Midnight Moon doesn't smell like moonshine, though college girls probably don't know the difference and likely don't care. The strong rubbing alcohol odor is undeniable. This beverage makes for a great mixer, or to harden off your feet — it's just not an authentic moonshine.
PRICE: $22
LOCATION: Madison, North Carolina
411: Generations of Johnsons made and ran moonshine. Junior Johnson started running ‘shine for his family when he was merely 14. His driving skills ended up winning him 50 NASCAR races before he retired in 1966. In 2007, Junior got back to his heritage by introducing Midnight Moonshine for legal consumption. Midnight Moon offers 10 different flavors of moonshine.



LABELED AS: Grain neutral spirits with natural flavors
PROOF: 100.7
NOSE: Sweet corn
TASTING NOTES: When sipping this moonshine, the burn lasts a little longer, but serves as a warm reminder that you just drank 100-plus-proof alcohol.
PRICE: $19
LOCATION: Wadmalaw Island, South Carolina
411: The founders of Firefly moonshine first started producing sweet tea vodka. The doctor and scientist co-founding team offer eight varieties of moonshine. Firefly moonshine is found in many liquor stores nationwide, so if you want to try it for yourself you shouldn't have to look too hard.



LABELED AS: Mountain-made un-aged corn whiskey
PROOF: 100
NOSE: Corn and subtle sweetness, hints of bread
TASTING NOTES: Once sipped, the peppery burn is intense and leaves an extended tingle in your stomach.
PRICE: $19
LOCATION: Gatlinburg, Tennessee
411: Ole Smoky Moonshine is one of the most widely distributed moonshines in the United States, feeding the demand from two distilleries, one in Gatlinburg and the other in Pigeon Forge. The Gatlinburg location is touted as the “most visited distillery in America.” Ole Smokey currently offers a whopping 23 different flavors, with some of the products labeled as un-aged corn whiskey, while others are from grain-neutral spirits. On their website, Ole Smoky does not list a founder or stake any claims to a tradition of moonshining.



LABELED AS: Spirits distilled from corn, malted barley, rye, and sugar cane
NOSE: Modest corn scent
TASTING NOTES: Once tasted there was no doubt the overpowering, but not rough, flavor was corn. It burns on the way down, but eases up shortly after drinking.
PRICE: $30
LOCATION: Asheville, North Carolina
411: Many people associate climax moonshine with the TV show Moonshiners, thanks to Tim Smith being cast on the show. Smith says he's a legal moonshiner now. Climax Moonshine utilizes distilleries in Asheville, North Carolina, and Culpepper, Virginia, in order to keep up with the growing demand.


LABELED AS: Georgia corn whiskey
NOSE: Strong corn smell, mild sweetness
TASTING NOTES: The taste is an unexpected subtle delight after the first impression of the strong corn flavor. This is a shine that can be sipped, taken as shots with friends, or used in a mixed drink.
PRICE: $30
LOCATION: Dawsonville, Georgia
411: Outside of Georgia, you'd be hard pressed to find this moonshine. But, if you make it to Georgia, it's definitely worth your attention. The distillery offers tours and taste testing; there aren't many places where you'll find a flavor that takes you back 150 years. Staying true to authentic moonshine recipes, Dawsonville Moonshine clearly states “NO Neutral Grain Spirits” on the label.

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