It is known by many names, none of which sound particularly appealing.
Whatever your preferred term for moonshine, the mere mention of it tends to provoke a response. It might be “ooooh” or maybe “ewwww,” but whether it’s an exclamation of delight or a groan of disgust, the sentiment is nearly always accompanied by curiosity.
Moonshine is, by its nature, mysterious – it’s an illegally produced spirit that conjures images of backwoods distillers with long, scraggly beards, or maybe gun-toting bootleggers in fedoras trying to elude government agents. Even today, the word carries with it a sense of risk, owing to its reputation for harshness and even toxicity.
First, a word about what moonshine is. Broadly speaking, it can refer to any illicitly distilled, high-proof spirit. But more traditionally, and for the purpose of this story, moonshine is a potent, unaged corn whiskey.
Its illegality dates back to the 1790s, when the U.S. government imposed an excise tax on whiskey and other spirits to help pay for the Revolutionary War. The tax was crippling for rural farmers, many of whom relied on the income derived from converting their surplus corn and grains into whiskey.
Flouting the law, they simply moved their operations into the woods, working their stills by the light of the moon.
As for moonshine’s nasty reputation – it is richly deserved. Never seeing the inside of an oak barrel, in which it could spend years aging, mellowing, and absorbing natural flavors, even the best moonshine can be harsh of flavor. One can only wonder about the spirit’s quality in the late 18th century, when distillation technology (even for legal spirits) was far less advanced than it is today.
And in the early 20th century, particularly during Prohibition, moonshine wasn’t just disgusting but dangerous as well. Makeshift stills often employed automobile radiators as condensers, which introduced the possibility of antifreeze or lead seeping into the spirit.
That’s to say nothing about the appalling additives – ranging from embalming fluid to paint thinner to manure – that unscrupulous distillers would mix into their product in an effort to boost its potency.
Demand for moonshine plummeted after the repeal of Prohibition, but illegal distillation continues to this day. In 2010, Time published an article on the renewed interest in home distillation, tying it to the growing popularity of small-batch craft spirits and artisanal cocktail ingredients.
But for the most part, making moonshine remains illegal. A few states have relaxed their regulations on home distillation, but under federal law, distilling liquor for consumption without a government-issued permit remains a crime.
Which brings us to the subject of this week’s post.
A Great Gift Idea
The picture above is a 1.5-liter mason jar of authentic southern moonshine, sweetened liberally with sugar and infused with fresh pineapples. I got it about a year ago as a Christmas gift (if memory serves, there was even a bow on it).
For legal reasons, I won’t identify my benefactor; I’ll just call him a Very Bad Man. The Very Bad Man didn’t make the moonshine himself but got it from an Even Worse Man, who distills it in either southern Virginia or North Carolina (even the Very Bad Man doesn’t know for sure).
The First Sip
Having received assurances that the moonshine producer had been distilling for many years and “definitely probably knows what he’s doing,” I cautiously took my first ever sip of this legendary, outlawed spirit, expecting it to be completely vile.
But wouldn’t you know – it was pretty good! After a few sips, in fact, it was really good. The sugar softened the spirit’s sharp edge, and the pineapple made it fresh, fruity, and surprisingly drinkable.
Yes, it was incredibly potent, and the resulting buzz was unusual – light and airy as opposed to heavy. I later tried it in cocktails but found it was best enjoyed on the rocks. And in small amounts.
Six months later, the Very Bad Man bestowed upon me an even greater gift.
There are two important things to know about this 1-gallon jug of moonshine. First, the reason it says “Not H2O” is because a very good friend of the Very Bad Man made the mistake of pouring some of the moonshine into a glass or two of whiskey, thinking it was water. The results, as you can imagine, were hysterical...uh, I mean disastrous.
Second, unlike the first batch, this one was unadulterated – no fruit, no sugar – giving me the freedom to experiment. The Very Bad Man offered a few suggestions for fruit infusion, noting that peaches, blackberries, and pears made for excellent flavored moonshine.
But he implored me, above all else, to make something called apple pie moonshine. He assured me I’d have no trouble finding a recipe online, and that “it tastes just like apple pie.”
Apple Pie Moonshine
Sure enough, recipes for apple pie moonshine abound on the web, and they’re all remarkably similar. Aside from simple fruit infusions, it seems to be the most popular way of drinking this stuff.
And so I figured, what better time of year to try it than Thanksgiving? Moonshine embodies so much of the American spirit – rebelling against authority, avoiding taxes, running a small business, getting back to nature.
Plus, the most traditional of American holidays calls for apple pie, cider, and quality time with the family; and since the last of those may call for a little stress relief, this isn’t a bad way to unwind.
So here’s what you’ll need (makes about 4½ quarts):
½ gallon of apple juice.
½ gallon of apple cider.
¾ cup of white sugar.
1¼ cups of brown sugar.
4 cinnamon sticks.
½ liter of moonshine.
Combine the apple juice, apple cider, white and brown sugar, and cinnamon sticks in a large pot. Bring to a boil, stirring occasionally. Remove from heat and let it cool.
When it gets down to room temperature, add the moonshine and stir. Pour it into containers – a mason jar is the time-honored vessel, but anything with a secure cap will do.
Place a cinnamon stick in each jar or container. Store your creation in a cool, dark place, and let it sit for about two weeks. You can drink it immediately, but it tastes much better after the flavors have had a chance to combine.
Chill it, or pour it over ice, and the result is a sweet, potent concoction that, just as the Very Bad Man said, tastes remarkably like apple pie. It’s not your grandma’s apple pie, but it’s got all the apple flavor and spices she would use, and it even has what I’d call a “crunchy” mouthfeel that reminds me of pie crust.
As I mentioned, apple pie moonshine recipes can be found all over the web, and the one I used combines elements of a few similar versions. There’s plenty of room to experiment, too. In addition to the cinnamon sticks, you can add cloves, nutmeg, and other spices. If your high-proof spirit just isn’t getting you where you need to be, try making it “a la mode” by topping it off with vanilla vodka.
So how strong is this stuff, anyway? I suppose that’s part of the allure – you never really know. I read somewhere that you could shake a bottle of clear moonshine, and if the bubbles are large and dissipate quickly, the alcohol content is really high; whereas smaller bubbles that disappear more slowly indicated lower ABV.
Aside from that being highly subjective and vague, I’ll say that I shook my bottle and got small bubbles that dissipated quickly…so I don’t know what that means. But typical moonshine ranges from 100 to 190 proof, so let’s just assume it’s pretty damn strong. (You can buy a hydrometer if you really must know.)
The thing about the Apple Pie Moonshine is this – most recipes don’t call for a ton of spirit to be added. So it’s not quite as strong as you might expect of a moonshine drink. Of course, even that small amount packs a punch, and since there’s almost no alcohol taste beneath all those rich apple and spice flavors, people tend to throw back a few glasses before knowing what hit them.
Ain't Nothin' Like the Real Thing
Needless to say, all of this hinges on whether you can get your hands on some authentic moonshine. That commercially produced “moonshine” you see on store shelves and bar menus may have some merits as a spirit, but it’s not the real thing.
For starters, it’s taxed – something any true moonshiner would scoff at. It’s also heavily regulated; for better or worse, you probably won’t find it at a higher proof than 100. You can slap a vintage-looking label on anything you want, but “legal moonshine” is an oxymoron.
As for the real stuff, I certainly wouldn’t advocate making it yourself; and if you do acquire some from a home distiller, keep in mind there are legitimate risks associated with drinking homemade liquor. If you see something that looks like a car radiator as part of their setup, you should politely decline.
A Day of Thanks
Whether you’re drinking apple pie moonshine or eating traditional apple pie tomorrow, I hope you get a day or two to relax before the holiday madness kicks into full gear. Please accept my warmest wishes for a safe and happy Thanksgiving.
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