In Great Britain, people who work at night are called “moonshiners.” In keeping with the theme of two nations separated by a common language, the American definition of that term is something quite different but along the same lines.
America has always been in a bit of a sticky wicket when it comes to alcohol. We just can’t seem to come to grips with whether to embrace the liquid of fermented or distilled fruits or grains, or to completely turn our heads away from the topic and reject all contained therein.
At various times in our history we have done both. During Revolutionary times, one of the causes of our rebellion was the taxation England imposed on our rum and other spirits. You really did not think the Boston Tea Party was all about tea, did you?
And then at the peak of the Jazz Age, we decided to ban alcohol entirely, except for a few gallons made in better bath tubs all over this land, or the sacred wines used for religious purposes. I am told that never has Mass been celebrated so often, or enthusiastically, as it was back in the late 1920s. For the benefit of saving souls from eternal damnation, don’t you know?
Throughout our agrarian history, making high-alcohol corn or grain-based spirits in remote locations was perfectly acceptable behavior, except to certain governmental agents intent on collecting the proper taxes. They cared not for the quality of the end product, only that taxes be paid to governing bodies. The grand experiment of American governance was actually still grappling with the same questions as three generations earlier.
These “noble” distillers who set up their apparatus deep in the hills and woods of Appalachia would turn out batches of powerful and highly alcoholic clear liquids, capable of soothing savage emotions or causing immediate bodily harm. No one was ever quite certain which would take place.
The distillers were described as “moonshiners,” mostly because their work was always under cover of darkness, or at best, the light of a dim moon, the better to avoid detection by “revenooers,” government agents intent on collecting taxes, or better yet, shutting down the entire operation and sending some poor country boys off to jail.
Not only were these budding entrepreneurs/chemists performing important social work (?), but they, unknowingly, were giving birth to a truly American sport which became NASCAR. Yes, the entire racing circuit held in such high esteem today was birthed with fast cars, guys without all of their dental work, sheriffs’ deputies in pursuit and a trunkful of brand-new “hooch.”
The New Jersey-born son of a Scottish farmer, John Landis Mason, never benefitted from his 1858 invention of an inexpensive, clear-glass canning jar, and never fought competitors who understood better than he the applications of his screw-top storage container. The Ball brothers saw opportunity and so the Ball Mason Jar became the receptacle of choice for the burgeoning home canning industry and moonshiners. Blueberry jams from Grandma’s kitchen and strong clear spirits from Larry way back up in the woods, all in the same style jar. What a country!
Today, moonshine is making quite a comeback, albeit fully legal and respectable. This “new” line of products follow the same manufacturing techniques as their distant cousins, but, of course, this time around it’s all made in hygienic conditions and using only top-grade raw ingredients. The result is a bit lower proof than the woodsy product, which often kicked in around 95, and there are flavors available in the modern stuff, but it still packs a punch, even at 80 proof.
Catdaddy Moonshine, made in North Carolina, is one of those brands that plays on history while still being cool enough not to raise eyebrows at the U.S. Treasury Department, the Federal governmental agency charged with alcohol regulation in America.
Catdaddy Spiced Moonshine is made with a closely-held secret recipe and is widely available in New Orleans. Promotional materials note that it contains hints of vanilla, nutmeg, and cinnamon. And that it is made in the traditional sense, except that it is triple distilled. Still it never sees oak so the spirit is quite clear.
Ole Smoky Moonshine brags that it is Tennessee’s first legal moonshine. Quite an interesting market positioning statement. Ole Smoky makes a traditional moonshine, and then there’s the brand called White Lightnin’, which is distilled six times.
Ole Smoky goes out on a limb with some fruit-style moonshine, like cherries, apples, peaches and grapes. At the distillery in Gatlinburg, they also have blueberry, strawberry, lemon, and pink lemonade.
Moonshine today is presented as a substitute for vodka, gin or tequila in cocktails. In some cases, moonshine is suggested straight from the Mason jar, which still seems to be the package of choice for this category. No doubt, there is a lot of room for experimentation and individual expression when it comes to enjoying moonshine.
Maybe after a few glasses, you will imagine yourself as Burt Reynolds in "Smoky and the Bandit," or Robert Mitchum in "Thunder Road." By that time, the best advice is to put the moonshine down and call for a taxi.