LOS ANGELES — Moonshine is having its day in the sun.
Once a backroad country cousin in the South, it is taking on a new life as a city slicker all over the country. And now that it’s out of the barn and into the bar, mixologists at tony drinking dens are experimenting with moonshine, and spirit enthusiasts – always on the prowl for the newest kick – are responding.
Think of it as whiskey light. Made from grains such as corn, wheat, rye or barley, moonshine never rests inside a wooden barrel, which is why it remains clear, rough and ready. Wood is what gives bourbon its rich, dark color and most of its caramel-vanilla flavor.
That’s why moonshine is special, say craft distillers. Unkissed by wood, moonshine retains the purity of its nature and drinkers get the chance to experience whiskey in its raw form – to taste its rough-hewn, chewy-grain edges.
Plus, it’s pretty. “L.A. is very look-driven and people are extremely conscious of what they’re drinking – what they’re holding in their hand,” says Shannon Beattie, the beverage director at Cecconi’s, a ritzy Italian restaurant in West Hollywood that serves a wide variety of moonshine cocktails. “And this really sells because it gets people talking. It looks unique – how the light shines through the glass, and you can see the cherry in a white Manhattan.”
Others appreciate it because it’s a bit of the frontier in a bottle. To drink it is to drink in the history of American whiskey.
“During the Colonial period, aging was circumstantial, it wasn’t purposeful,” says Frank Coleman, senior vice president of the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States. “If you happened to leave a spirit in a barrel, aging occurred.”
If the inside of that barrel was seared or scorched, clear whiskey aged and picked up both dark color and caramel flavor. Eventually it became required by law that bourbon had to age in scorched barrels made of new American oak.
Traditionally, moonshine was called moonshine because it was illegal – made under shadowy circumstances by the light of the moon, and thus untaxed. This new, legal breed of clear whiskey, also called “white dog,” is more like sunshine. It’s also not as harsh as the illegal version of moonshine.
Still, the final product that many of today’s licensed distilleries are producing is made using much the same process that the bootleggers of the Prohibition era employed.
For example, the Original Moonshine – a clear corn whiskey made by Stillhouse distillery in Culpeper, Va. – owes its earthy, corn-laden bite to the skills of a third-generation distiller named Chuck Miller, who uses a similar recipe and vintage copper pot stills that his grandfather used to make illicit moonshine in the 1930s.
“He had 11 kids, and the only job he ever had was making whiskey,” says Miller, adding that there was a trapdoor in the floor of the family farmhouse that led to a basement filled with moonshine. His grandmother kept her rocking chair over it. “Whenever they came to raid she would run to that rocking chair and crochet.”
With its freshly minted designer reputation, this new wave of clear whiskey owes its popularity to the proliferation of small craft distilleries. In February 2010 the Distilled Spirits Council created a craft-distiller affiliate membership, in recognition of the growing number nationwide. They estimate there are more than 200 such distilleries now in operation, up from about 24 in 2001.
“Spirits have been on the rise over the last decade,” explains the council’s Coleman. “More people are drinking spirits – and better spirits.” And thanks in part to the recession, many states have loosened their restrictions on licensing in order to gain revenue quickly. More distilleries mean more tax dollars straight into state coffers.
In addition, the craft distillers themselves – often small business people with hefty loans – also need to make money quickly, which is why they tend to put out a clear whiskey right off the bat. Whereas traditional American whiskeys can take four to eight years to be fully mature, moonshine can be turned around fairly quickly.
“It’s kind of a chicken before the egg thing,” says Gable Erenzo, the distiller for Tuthilltown Spirits, which makes Hudson New York Corn Whiskey, one of the more respected brands on the market. “When you first start making whiskey you put out a white whiskey while you’re aging your other whiskey.”