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Legal Moonshine: A Paradox?
Moonshine goes by many names: white lightning, mountain dew, hooch, shine. It is a spirit strongly associated with the Appalachian Mountains region of the Eastern USA and the illegal stills that produce it there. Essentially moonshine is any distilled spirit made in an unlicensed still. Moonshine is known for having a very high proof– often around 190 (shoot dog!). Because of its illegal nature and the risks moonshiners take on to produce the spirit, moonshine is rarely aged in barrels. But who needs a barrel when you’ve got a mason jar?
Perhaps the whole excitement around moonshine is it’s illegality and the risk a person takes when they kick back a bottle or jar of shine. If the moonshiner neglected to properly remove certain toxins and impurities, well, drinking that poisonous mixture can cause a list of symptoms that range from blindness to death. In the world of moonshine, reputation is everything. Know who you’re dealing with if you’re buying a jug of hooch because not every bootlegger has the knowledge or skills of Popcorn Sutton.
Due to the moonshine craze over the past several years, there are several legal moonshines on the market. Not the black market– the boring, white one. To really understand the differences between illegal moonshine and legal moonshine we’ll explore the history, production, and sale of such spirits.
Critics of legal moonshine brands accuse producers of distilling what is basically vodka or corn whiskey and then slapping a vintage label on the bottle that includes the word “moonshine” only because it’s an eye-catching marketing term that entices consumers to spend money. The bottle makes you feel like an outlaw or a member of some secret society, but it’s not genuine hooch. What it is: confusing as hell. Just the classification “legal moonshine” is a contradiction in terms. Moonshine is not a type of spirit (such as gin, tequila, or whiskey), but is defined as any spirit made at an illegal, unlicensed still. In short, moonshine is liquor made by a person that doesn’t give the government the taxes it so loves to collect on liquor sales. So really, the only thing that separates a distiller from a bootlegger is money paid to Uncle Sam. Sure agents claim that restrictions exist to keep us all safe, but I’ve seen the videos on McDonald’s chicken sandwich meat and pink slime, so I’m not exactly a believer in the government’s standards for what is healthy for me to buy and consume. Legal shines also have to abide by state regulations which control how alcohol can be labeled, all the details of production, and the alcohol content of the final product, which is why legal moonshines have a much lower abv than their illegal counterparts.
Legal moonshine, according to some, makes as much sense as non-alcoholic beer or gin made without juniper. That being said, there are producers who claim to use family recipes that date back to Prohibition, some even claiming that there families have produced famous moonshine in the hills for generations and they’re just now deciding to produce it legitimately in a safe distillery that pays taxes and follows all the rules. For example, Junior Johnson, the famous Nascar driver of the 1950s and 1960s, illegally produced moonshine for years, even receiving a Presidential pardon from Ronald Reagan in 1986 for a 1956 moonshining conviction, before opening a distillery and selling his shine legally.
We can get down with a moonshiner who turns legitimate to avoid serious jail time, but the idea of some random Joe making a corn distillate at a legal distillery and calling the product moonshine because he/she thinks it’s cool is absurd. Maybe I’m just cranky because I had to spend hours researching brands that turned out to artificially flavor their spirits, ahem, I mean “moonshine,” but it all seems so unfair. It’s like so many other things in life: a gimmick, or a cheap imitation of a dying thought. If somehow I was given a ticket to visit the fantastic realm of Harry Potter and really experience the Hogwart’s of JK Rowling’s invention, I’d go without even a second thought; however, visiting the Wizarding World of Harry Potter theme park in Orlando (leave it to Disney) wouldn’t exactly be the same thing. A crappy tourist attraction does not live up to expectations. And neither do most legal moonshine brands. There are a few good ones out there, but I’d rank most of them with Corona or Smirnoff Ice — not beverages worthy of consumption. My search for legal moonshine that I could recommend without guilt or hesitation ended with hours spent reading about how to build a homemade still. Now that I think about it, I’ve probably been flagged for reading articles on how to make hooch at home. Great.
Moonshines we love: Junior Johnson’s Midnight Moon (Classic, Apple Pie, Cherry, Strawberry, Blueberry, Cranberry). No artificial colors or flavors are used to make any of the products, and fruit flavors come in mason jars packed with real fruit. We like him because, as we pointed out earlier, he’s a bootlegger turned distiller. We also really want to try Popcorn Sutton’s 93 Proof legal hooch, but we can’t find it on the West Coast.
No discussion of moonshine would be complete without mentioning Marvin “Popcorn” Sutton. The iconic figure is popular for making the best darn hooch in the Appalachians from the 1970s to early 2000s. The long-time bootlegger did more than just make moonshine: he published a book “Me and My Likker” that details how to make moonshine, and he’s been featured in multiple documentaries such as “The Last Run,” The Last One,” and “Moonshiners.” He was the last of his kind– the genuine moonshiner. The real deal. He’d still be making moonshine if he wasn’t busted by an undercover agent in 2008 with 850 gallons of moonshine and 3 operating stills. Popcorn was sentenced to 18 months in federal prison, but he never served that sentence. No, what happened instead is much more tragic. Popcorn Sutton committed suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning only days before he was to begin his sentence because he’d recently been diagnosed with cancer and he refused to die in prison. Popcorn left behind an unmatched legacy, and he’ll never be replaced.