Published September 03, 2010
Moonshine conjures images of backwoods stills, the Duke boys, clandestine deliveries of hooch in jelly jars that's just as likely to cause blindness as get you drunk. But that'll soon change if modern distillers have anything to say about it. They're now distilling spirits "in the tradition of America's moonshiners" — white whiskeys. And with white whiskey becoming more common on shelves and whiskey fans eager for something new snapping it up by the jug, this so-called moonshine is poised for a revival the likes of which haven't been seen since Prohibition.
Whether it's actually moonshine or not, white whiskey is whiskey that has never seen the inside of a barrel. While that means it hasn't had a chance to take on any of the nuance or complexity that aged whiskeys gain inside an oak barrel, it's also an opportunity to get a taste of the raw spirit. These young whiskeys are similar to many of the better moonshines, often called "white dogs," still being made in illegal stills across the country and provide an opportunity for whiskey fans to taste the elements the spirits are made of. It offers a feel for the true differences between the different spirit bases — from rye to corn or even wheat in some cases.
Whiskey drinkers, being a rabidly loyal group, are glad to have a new way to enjoy their favorite spirit. It's still a relatively small segment of the market, but growing fast as more and more companies bring out their own 'shine. It's no surprise, since from a distiller's perspective it's a thrill to sell unaged spirits at a premium. It means no sitting on inventory for months on end waiting for the proper time to sell — especially at the prices these bottles are commanding.
Below are a few of the moonshines available right now on retail shelves, but a real moonshine experience still may require a moonlit walk down an overgrown path and Mason jars filled with potent potables, or at least a trip to Brooklyn "to see a guy."
Hudson New York Corn Whiskey — Bottled by Tuthilltown Spirits and clear as any vodka, this is a surprisingly sophisticated whiskey despite its lack of age. It's made from 100 percent corn and tastes like it, with heavily bready sweet corn flavors coming through loud and clear. Some toasty popcorn notes are present, too, but they're countered with the fairly heavy burn of a young whiskey. At only $28 per bottle, it's a very quaffable spirit, and all the more intriguing for how proudly it wears its corn origins. It's a compelling argument for reserving more of the nation's corn supply for booze.
King's County Moonshine — Another 100 percent corn 'shine, this one is even more like traditional white dog. It's light, nearly as sweet as the corn it's made from and almost sake-like in how clean it finishes. The similarities end there though, as at 80-proof it's far more potent than any sake has ever been. With that alcohol content comes some hefty kick and serious warmth, but there's almost a minty coolness after each sip — sort of like biting into a peppermint patty, only better. Because, you know, it's whiskey.
Death's Door White Whiskey — Made in small batches in Wisconsin from winter wheat and malted barley, this white whiskey breaks from 'shine tradition by adding 72 hours of aging in oak barrels. It's not enough time to gain any color, but it does provide some of the caramel and vanilla essence that tends to be left behind by oak aging. The malt flavors come through clearly and the quick oak bath mutes the spirit's heat, leaving a fairly subtle warmth and ultra clean finish that'd is well-suited for a slow Fall night spent slowly tipping the evening away. It'd also make for a rich take on a Manhattan.
Junior Johnson's Midnight Moon — Junior Johnson, a racing legend and supposedly the inheritor of a long family tradition of moonshine running, is the namesake of this white whiskey. Surprisingly complex for the sub $20 price, there's a whole lot of flavor in this sauce. It has a nutty quality to it, with some oddball chocolate and coffee flavors making appearances. Information about the grains that go into the spirit isn't comprehensive, so it's hard to say exactly where those notes are coming from, but sometimes it's better to just let the whiskey take over. Even if the 'shine does make you go blind in the process.