When Lightning Strikes

Moonshine: What Is It? How’s It Made? What’s On The Market?

A look at one of the South’s most iconic spirits, the tradition surrounding it, and how it’s made – moonshine boasts a richly Southern, salaciously exciting history with a future full of potential.

 

By Katie Faulkner

 

Nestled at the foothills of the Appalachian mountain range, Chattanooga shares in the rich history and evolution of white whiskey production across America. Few beverages carry a more Southern connotation than moonshine, and its fascinating history ranges from high-proof and highly illegal to a booming and made-over market that keeps the spirited tradition alive.

Chattanooga law enforcement raids an illegal moonshine still hidden in a metal shed, February 1965.
Chattanooga law enforcement raids an illegal moonshine still hidden in a metal shed, February 1965.
Chattanooga police officer stands next to a confiscated moonshine still in the police department office, March 1951.

A Brief History

The term “moonshine” technically refers to any illegally produced alcohol in general. In fact, the first American incantations of moonshine originated in Pennsylvania and other grain-producing states. Farmers took to distilling their leftover grain products, and various forms of illicit alcohol were produced in homemade “stills” or distillation apparatuses.

As moonshine rose in popularity throughout many grain-producing regions, Scotch-Irish settlers in the Appalachian area were producing a very similar elixir. Known in Gaelic as “the water of life,” their recipe produced corn mash-based white whiskey, which they drank without aging. This became the recipe of choice in the Appalachian region and down into the South, creating what we know today as “white lightning,” “mountain dew,” “shine,” and the like.

Moonshiners began springing up across the foothills, even down into the transitional mountains of the Sequatchie Valley, Chattanooga, and through the Cumberland Plateau. Locally, there are numerous tributes to the history of moonshining in the area. The Dunlap Coke Ovens Coal Mining Museum in Dunlap, the old moonshine still site found on the Savage Gulf Day Loop Trail in South Cumberland State Park, the McMinn County Living Heritage Museum in Athens, and a smokehouse in Monteagle are just a few nearby places with monuments erected to the Southern tradition of moonshining.

Tax impositions put on whiskey production in the late 1700s led to a raucous citizen uprising known as the Whiskey Rebellion. And well into the 20th century, home distilling continued to be on the outside of the law. The need to keep whiskey production secret inspired evasive moonshiners to hide their stills throughout the mountains, where the varied terrain lent itself to keeping the copper cooking stills well-hidden. Those who made moonshine often partnered with someone who was willing to transport their product to buyers. The brave few who dared to sneak the illegal drink to paying patrons became known as “bootleggers,” since they often hid bottles in the tops of their boots. Eventually, as cars came onto the scene, bootleggers began juicing up their engines and creating crafty hiding compartments to make evading law enforcement easier. The talented and fast-paced driving skills of these bootleggers are credited with beginning the tradition of NASCAR racing.

While there is no longer a need to distill moonshine in the caves and hills of the mountains or run from the law with a bottle tucked away, moonshine only became legal in the United States in 2010, when the production of clear, unaged whiskey became legal.

illustration of moonshine still parts and steps chattanoogaHow It’s Made

While moonshine is legal and regulated today, the long history of home cooking moonshine is a Southern tradition, which while tawdry, is very unique. Moonshiners often put their own special spin on their “likker” recipe, as moonshining was a competitive business before, during, and after prohibition. However, the basic process has always been the same.

1. Make a mash

Corn is the traditional base ingredient for moonshine mash. Its grainy flavor and natural sweetness set the stage for a variety of alcohols and congeners (flavoring chemicals, some good and some bad) to develop.

2. Ferment the mash

Adding yeast to the mash’s natural and added sugars causes the chemical reaction of fermentation, turning the mash into what is now called the wash – essentially a beer-like compound full of various types of alcohols, congeners, and water.

3. Distill the wash

The wash is heated in the still to various temperatures in order to pull off different alcohols and congeners. Because different chemical compounds (alcohols and congeners) boil at different temperatures, by heating the wash to various temperatures, those chemicals will boil and their vapor will be trapped in a higher chamber, condensate, and drip down into a separate container.

Moonshiners are trying to capture grain alcohol, or ethanol, which boils at approximately 172° F, while water doesn’t boil until 212°. So the wash is usually heated over 172° but below 212° for this purpose. Over the course of this relatively slow process, called “the run,” different “cuts” of moonshine are pulled. The goal is to collect safe and flavorful amounts of moonshine without keeping any of the dangerous, bitter, or bad-tasting portions.

What’s in the Market Today?

Now that moonshine is legal and regulated, distilling companies are honing their moonshining methods, honoring the rich Southern heritage, and producing some creative varieties. The sensational history of moonshine affords playful marketing opportunities, while the versatility of a white whiskey foundation opens the market for some truly tasty recipes.

Appalachian Sippin’ Cream

With another traditional spin on the classic spirit of Appalachia, Sugarlands Distilling Co. is producing a truly unique reinvention of the mythical “apple-jack” varieties of moonshine. In addition to their full line of moonshines, Sugarlands’ line of “Appalachian Sippin’ Creams” hearkens to the heritage of moonshine that produced popular pie-flavored favorites and takes it a step further.

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Butter Pecan Sippin’ Cream

Could it get any more Southern than Butter Pecan? More than a favorite ice cream flavor, this shine is perfect for sipping at only 40 proof and features buttery, toasted praline and vanilla flavors.

Electric Orange Sippin’ Cream

The adult equivalent of cream pops in the summer sun, this dangerously drinkable moonshine offers bright, happy notes of orange paired with creamy vanilla.

Dark Chocolate Coffee Sippin’ Cream

Brown sugar and toffee on the nose combine with creamy milk and medium roast coffee to carry the strong notes of dark chocolate across the palate. Decadent and rich, this shine is sure to satisfy.

End of the Line

Distilled and bottled at the old Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary in Petros, Tennessee, End of the Line pays special homage to the outlaws. Its sleek and sophisticated packaging lends to more elevated imaginings of how to use this risqué spirit, while retaining all the salt-of-the-earth vibes that real moonshine should evoke.

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Scared Straight

Potent and smooth-bodied, Scared Straight is a 110-proof potion that promises to promote any cocktail to the next level with its mixability.

Cinnarum

Spicy to start, the warming cinnamon flavor wakes up the taste buds. Followed by a creamy center and smooth, rich finish, this moonshine is great for simply sipping or to jazz up a spicy mixed drink.

Blackberry

A subtle, sweet blend of berries rounds out into a full-bodied and smooth mouthfeel for this classically Southern flavor profile. The tart finish will leave you dreaming of blackberry picking in the mountains.

Ole Smoky Tennessee Moonshine

Ole Smoky Tennessee Moonshine is a brand that honors the tradition of moonshining in the South. Simple, straightforward, and packaged in the quintessential glass jar, this moonshine is a classic. The amount of variety that Ole Smoky produces is truly astounding, with nearly 20 flavors available. Some of their most popular products include the fruit-infused flavors.

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Ole Smoky Moonshine Cherries

This product perfectly captures the moonshine tradition of the South. The time-honored trick of soaking cherries in moonshine is reimagined here, with a jar full of maraschinos that pack a warming and wicked punch of sweet spirits.

Ole Smoky Peach Moonshine

As delicate as a North Georgia spring evening, this version of shine will leave the subtly sweet hint of days gone by playing across your memory. This is a more drinkable treat at only 40 proof that would make a wonderful sipping cocktail for the front porch.

Ole Smoky Blue Flame

They say the stronger the shine, the bluer the flame will burn. This variety promises to turn up the heat; at 128 proof, it’s not for the faint of heart. SG

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