THE BOOZE BIN
By: Eliza Winston
Moonshine. We’ve probably all heard about it at one time or another, but just what is it?
Also fondly referred to as hooch, white lightning and “that good ol’ mountain dew”, moonshine can now be found everywhere from the backwoods of the Appalachian mountains to the bars of Brooklyn, NY. Both illegal (untaxed) and legal (taxed) versions exist today. Legal versions are generally 80-100 proof while the illegal drink can be 190 proof, so either way it is definitely something you’ll want to sip, not slug.
Illegal moonshine has been around for as long as, well, America. The expense of the Revolutionary War forced lawmakers to enact federal taxes on liquors and spirits. As a result, struggling farmers made their corn whiskey in secret to help feed their families with the untaxed profits.
This continued into the 19th and 20th century, but bootleggers didn’t have a huge market for their hooch until Prohibition in the 1920s made all alcohol illegal. Suddenly, demand in cities such as Philadelphia surged. Moonshiners in the Blue Ridge Mountains started making a lot of money racing up mountain roads such as Route 81 straight to their city customers.
1959 – Officers stop car loaded with moonshine. Photo: www.danville-va.gov
Those bootleggers had to haul their valuable loads up curvy mountains at breakneck speeds to outrun the revenuers and police. To ensure they had the fastest cars, shiners started souping up their cars by raising the rear ends and putting in two or three carburetors.
In their down time, many people began racing each other for fun, giving birth to what we now call the National Association of Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR). One NASCAR legend, Junior Johnson, got his start racing revenuers. These days his family produces Junior Johnson’s Midnight Moon, a line of popular legal moonshines inspired by the famous bootlegger.
Photo from Southern Living. Junior John’s Midnight Moon on far right.
But those with moonshine in their blood aren’t the only ones fascinated by the mythical drink. In 2011 the Village Voice ran a story on the “underground moonshine scene” that had been developing in New York City. There were those who dabbled in the illegal version (making it at home), but some, like Kings County Distillery, figured out how they too can capitalize on the legal market.
Kings County is located in East Williamsburg and their shine is sold in stores and bars around Brooklyn and Manhattan, and they have even begun to offer tours. Here in Virginia you can also visit legal moonshine distilleries or pick up a bottle in any Virginia ABC store.
But getting it right in this industry means marketing a legal product and that doesn’t have the same elusive and dangerous draw of it’s less than legal cousin. Brands such as Junior Johnson’s Midnight Moon and Virginia Lightning are successful at this balance. Midnight Moon’s name and packaging allude to the dark drives that made the drink both exciting and risky. Virginia Lightning pours their liquor into vintage inspired bottles with the signature XXX that became moonshine’s monogram. The two companies also post recipes and facts on the drink’s colorful history on their websites.
Brands in the legal moonshine market make the drink more accessible when they suggest different drink recipes to customers. Even those who have grown up drinking the “real” thing know it often tastes better mixed than straight from the jar.
One recipe that would be great while the weather is still warm is blueberry moonshine popsicles. You can also flavor any regular moonshine with fruit to make it easier to drink. Just make sure it doesn’t taste so good your guests forget to sip slowly. . .
Photo and recipe from www.foodrepublic.com
Will the novelty of legal moonshine eventually fade out? Only time will tell, but if history is an indicator, the illegal stuff will be around for a long time to come.
If you want to learn more, check out this article with interviews from former shiners and the retired ABC agent who worked to track them down.