By Ray Pearson
Whatever you call it – moonshine, white lightnin’, mountain dew, corn likker, or any of a number of other gritty names, unaged, or nearly so, white spirits are becoming more popular than ever in mainstream liquor stores. I discovered well over a dozen brands, distilled in nine states on a recent trip down the whiskey aisle at a large wine & liquor store in Southern California.
The lore surrounding this most American of spirits is certainly as diverse as the aromas and tastes of the stuff itself. Stereotypical of stories about this once heavily bootlegged spirit is ’shine’s brightest star – Junior Johnson. Junior honed his driving skills running illicit booze to customers, always outwitting and outrunning local sheriffs and the Feds. He’s credited with inventing the “bootleg turn”, reversing direction by zipping his fast-moving car 180-degrees, leaving his pursuers to their time consuming U-turns. Junior gave up his successful “delivery” business in 1955 and began a new career as a driver on the fledgling NASCAR circuit, winning races from the start and bringing much attention to the new sport.
According to a recent Time Magazine report, moonshining denied the US Treasury of over seven billion dollars in liquor taxes over the past decade. Ironically, today it’s not the loss of revenue, but the health threat of the liquid that has taken center stage. The impurities and toxins, especially lead, usually found in home-made moonshine can be fatal. The word “moonshine” is commonly believed to have been derived from Appalachian home distillers who often engaged in the illegal distillation and distribution of whiskey, clandestinely made by the light of the moon.
Today’s white spirits are described and promoted using many of the same words as their much older kin from across the pond, including “artisan”, “hand-crafted”, and being a product of the “distiller’s art”. White spirits are grain distillates made from combinations of two or three grains, or one single grain. The most popular of these are corn, rye, barley, wheat, and oats.
In no particular order, here are some of the white spirits I came across:
High West Silver Whiskey, made with western oats in Park City, Utah (imagine a whiskey distillery in Utah!)
Wasmund’s Single Malt Spirit and Wasmund’s Rye Spirit, by Copper Fox Distillery, Sperryville, VA. The Single Malt Spirit is from 100% malted barley, locally grown in Virginia. It’s bottled at barrel strength, about 62% ABV, or 134 proof. The Rye Spirit is a marriage of 2/3 Virginia rye and 1/3 Thoroughbred barley, developed exclusively for Copper Fox Distillery.
Death’s Door Whisky, Death’s Door Distillery, Door County, WI, and bottled at 40% ABV, or 80 proof. The elegantly simple double D logo on the clear bottle containing a clear spirit is a preview of what the liquid’s aroma and taste has in store – simple and unadorned. The aroma is fresh, and what one would expect from a new spirit. The taste is sweet and dry and the finish is short-lived. Several people have told me that adding a drop or two of simple syrup and a mint sprig compliment the spirit.
Junior Johnson’s Midnight Moon – Carolina Moonshine, produced by Piedmont Distillers, Inc., Madison, NC is the eponymous expression of our bootlegging, U-turn inventing, NASCAR champion. Tasting notes, beyond “small batch” and “triple distilled” are hard to come by. Apparently Piedmont Distillers thinks we will be content with a label showing Junior and his 1940 Ford! Bottled at 50% ABV, or 100 proof.
Georgia Moon Corn Whiskey, Heaven Hill Distillery, Bardstown, KY. Heaven Hill produces some very fine whiskies, and this is not one of them. Admittedly (by Heaven Hill) this is a novelty product, to fulfill some of the public’s image of what rot-gut moonshine is like. It’s claim to fame (notoriety?) is the packaging – a Mason jar with screw cap!
And, so it goes, with even more whiskies on the shelf – BuffaloTrace White Dog-Mash #1 and Corsair Wry Moon, from Kentucky, Monterey Rye Spirits from California, and others from Georgia and South Carolina.