White Dog Rising: Moonshine's Moment

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Moonshine is examined by agents after a raid in Birmingham, Ala., on Oct. 17, 1954

"They call it that old mountain dew, and them that refuse it are few."

So goes the old song, and it gets truer every month. Yes, the distilled spirit known as moonshine, white lightning, white dog or simply white whiskey is the liquor of the moment, bringing together whiskey geeks, home distillers and high-end mixologists, all of whom find in the formerly clandestine rotgut a new means of expression, both for their palates and their politics.

Why is moonshine making a comeback? For the same reason absinthe did a few years ago. Because it's delicious. Because it's illegal. And because it's cool. Moonshine, both then and now, is whiskey as it comes out of the still: no oak barrels, no caramel color, no aging. It's just straight liquor from fermented corn or wheat mash. None of the luxury-tinged language that surrounds its grown-up siblings, like bourbon or scotch, applies to the dog. There are no 12 years of "mellowing," no "complex vanilla notes." If you get one flavor out of a white whiskey, you're doing well. Historically, you're doing well if you don't die or go blind after drinking it; the standards of moonshine manufacture, from George Washington's time forward, have not been especially high.

The Washington reference, by the way, isn't a random one: in his second term as President, a major rebellion based on untaxed moonshine tested the new nation's mettle. Washington fought the bootleggers back into their hills and holes, where they have remained ever since, but whiskey has been a political statement throughout the history of the Republic. In rural areas, it was the one cash commodity that could be made of crops; in urban ones, it was a way to thwart the will of puritanical elites.

Today it's making a comeback as an artisanal product that individuals can make for themselves, unmediated by industry, law or the marketplace. Although illegal in all 50 states, there's a burgeoning culture of home distillers who revel in taking a bowl of corn mush and turning it, through a Rube Goldberg contraption of their making, into something they can get rocked on later. Jonathan Forester, a distiller and spirits consultant in upstate New York, reckons that there are up to 200,000 home distillers brewing away in the U.S., with no Sheriff Rosco P. Coltrane to cause them any trouble.

Some of what the moonshine geeks make at home is very fine indeed, even when compared to cask-aged bourbon and other aged brown spirits. "We judged 65 different small-batch liquors in multiple categories, with few getting a score of over 70 [out of 100]," says Forester. "Across the board, the artisanal moonshines were getting 80s and 90s." Because the flavor of the liquor is not obstructed by that of charred oak barrels, tasters can get a sense of such elemental whiskeymaking processes as the quality and mix of the grains and the basic technique (ranging from murderous to masterful) of the distiller.

Commercial distilleries, for their part, aren't asking any questions. It's a hell of a lot cheaper to sell unaged whiskey than it is to painstakingly cask-age it for years at a time. As a result, there's been a gold rush of brands: Kentucky's Buffalo Trace (one of the oldest and most admired distillers in the U.S.) makes White Dog, Wisconsin's Death's Door Spirits has White Whisky and even New York's tiny Finger Lakes Distilling sells Glen Thunder, named after the Watkins Glen racetrack. I had a flight of all three at Tipsy Parson, in New York City, and expected them to be uniformly vile. I'm no enthusiast of this sort of thing, and even the most acclaimed and expensive grappa tends to make me cough and gag. But there was no question that the three products all tasted different, and not unpleasing: they're neither blankly insipid, like vodka, nor gasoline-y, the way so many clear spirits are. Obviously, a lot of care went into them.

The critical raves white whiskey gets seem bizarre to traditionalists. How can the raw material for their beloved bourbon get higher scores than the bourbon itself? It's like a tub of cookie dough winning the Pillsbury Bake-Off. "I'm not convinced it's a long-term positive trend," says cocktail guru Dave Wondrich, author of the mixological history Imbibe! "Basically, it's a way of cheapening spirits by skipping the aging of whiskey. The best way to drink whiskey is not unaged like that."

It's a similar experience to what classically trained chefs are facing these days, as they watch noodle bars and taco trucks make the pages of Food & Wine. And it's the same refrain you hear from journalists who decry the way many bloggers bypass the rigorous fact-checking and editing that they always believed was necessary. For that matter, it's the same plaint made by politicians and legislators and civic professionals who wish they could be allowed to run complex systems the way they were trained to, without being hectored by yahoos in the crowd.

The moonshine revolution, in other words, is utterly of a piece with the libertarian mood of the times; and if its illegality adds a frisson of rebellion to the pleasure of making something good all by yourself, then so much the better. It's not as if traditional American brown spirits are being neglected; bourbon, the most famous controlled-appellation U.S. product in the world, accounts for nearly $1 billion in global exports, and appreciation for the stuff is growing all the time, as bars and restaurants strive to outdo one another in the number and obscurity of their bourbon brands. But like so much else in American culture these days, Elijah Craig, Pappy Van Winkle, George T. Stagg and their brethren have a new generation of rivals, and they aren't going to give up their stills anytime soon.

Josh Ozersky is a James Beard Award—winning food writer and the author of The Hamburger: A History. His food video site, Ozersky.TV, is updated daily. He is currently at work on a biography of Colonel Sanders.