What do patriots, hillbillies, speakeasies and NASCAR all have in common? Moonshine, white lightning, mountain dew, hooch; whatever you call it, the mason jar spirit has been woven into the American fabric since the country’s founding, with a past just as storied. Our very own Food and Wine Editor, author Mark Spivak’s latest book, Moonshine Nation: The Art of Creating Cornbread in a Bottle [Lyons Press], documents the origin, and the evolution, of this downhome booze, starting with those first distillers, descendants of Scots-Irish immigrants, onto the modern moonshiners, who are still embracing that bandit brewer heritage.
So why moonshine? The corn whiskey minus oak barrel aging—hence the clear appearance—has long been an American tradition. First brought to the U.S. by Scots-Irish immigrants hailing from the Northern Ireland region of Ulster, they began distilling recipe for uisce beatha—water of life in Gaelic—in the late 17th century. From there on, for many subsistence farmers of the Appalachian south—the frontier of Colonial America, distilling corn whiskey from excess corn was a way of life, not to mention a way to earn a little extra scratch to support their families. But in 1791, in response to the Revolutionary War debt, the newly formed federal government imposed its first tax on a domestic product—distilled spirits. Angry from the “whiskey tax”—the most popular spirit of the time—farmers protested, citing that “taxation without local representation” was the very reason they fought the war in the first place. As tensions mounted, things came to a head in what is now known as the Whiskey Rebellion, with militia being called into western Pennsylvania in 1794.
Since these first forays into regulating alcohol in the U.S., distillers of moonshine have maintained a fierce independence streak, bootlegging during Prohibition, with illegal stills in operation today. The name itself, moonshine, speaks to “off the books” nature of the business. Moonshine production and distribution was, historically, a hush-hush kind of business, often done under the light of the moon throughout Appalachia. A lot has changed since these early days, with many states easing restrictions on distilling with commercially made moonshines matriculating into the market. But on the other hand, there is still a very active underground of distillers creating moonshine—who hasn’t sipped on a jar of “a friend’s uncle’s” white whiskey around a campfire—and the borders have grown much broader then a mere southern thing.
In the first half of Moonshine Nation, Spivak traces the history of moonshine, bringing it from Whiskey Rebellion of 1791-94 to today, while the second half profiles of modern moonshiners making a go of it today, along with a few recipes for the home mixologist to try. Among the modern moonshiners, Spivak speaks with NASCAR legend Junior Johnson, whose career that started as a bootlegger has come full circle with Midnight Moon, his line of legal moonshine crafted by Piedmont Distillers. The book is a great read, even for teetotalers, distilling historical anecdotes, a colorful cast of characters and that American entrepreneurial spirit that still burns bright today.
Try some moonshine sips at home with these recipes, courtesy of Midnight Moon—available at Total Wine.
Old Fashioned Apple Pie
- 1½ oz. Midnight Moon Apple Pie
- 1½ oz. rye whiskey
- Orange slice
- 5 dashes Boker’s Bitters
Muddle orange slice in glass. Fill glass with ice and add all other ingredients. Stir gently.
- 1½ oz. Midnight Moon
- 1 oz. ginger beer
- ¾ oz. fresh lemon juice
- 1 oz. simple syrup
Pour all ingredients in a glass, over ice. Stir gently.
Recipes and cocktail photos courtesy of Midnight Moon.