White lightning! Moonshine makes a comeback

Dec. 5, 2011 at 1:47 PM ET

Original Moonshine /

On December 5, bars across the country are even more appreciative of Americans’ right to imbibe. It’s Repeal Day, honoring the end of Prohibition. But as the beer taps and bottles of vodka flow, there’s one spirit from that era making a comeback of sorts: moonshine.

White lightning, hooch, bathtub gin – moonshine has held these monikers since gaining popularity during Prohibition, which ended 78 years ago, on Dec. 5, 1933. The clear-as-water whiskey is straight liquor, made from fermented corn or wheat mash, and requires no oak barrels or aging – easy enough for illicit production. The mixology fad and obsession with artisanal products in recent years, however, has removed some of moonshine’s bad rap.

In the past two years, Jonathan Goldstein, a third-generation co-owner of Park Avenue Liquor Shop in midtown Manhattan, said he’s seen more obscure spirits like moonshine become trendier among distillers. Now, customers are curious.

“People are looking for wild flavors, obscure labels, things available in Europe – old-school brands that your grandparents had in their liquor cabinet that you probably haven’t seen,” said Goldstein. 

Wasn’t moonshine supposed to be some illegally distilled spirit comparable to drinking car fuel? It sure seemed liked it the first time I took a sip years ago.

A friend of mine was cleaning and rehabbing his family farm just an hour outside of Minneapolis one year when he found two jugs of moonshine. I inherited one. This moonshine burned my throat and I could feel it in my nostrils. I don’t know where it is today because after one taste, I never wanted to try it again.

Since the moonshine that’s sold today is legal, it goes through a process that's more regulated so it's not contaminated with impurities. The liquor has a following in both rural and urban areas. At many of the speakeasy-style bars dotting New York’s downtown neighborhoods and hip outer boroughs, Kings County Distillery’s spirits are common. Their hand-crafted bourbon and moonshine is produced in a 325-square-foot room.

It was with some reservations that I recently gave moonshine another chance. I was reintroduced to it with Original Moonshine, a clear corn whiskey that’s hand-crafted in Virginia. Even at 80-proof, the taste was smooth and balanced — with just a hint of sweetness. As a mixer in a Bloody Mary at Hill Country Barbecue, a popular spot in New York, it was one of the best ones I’ve sampled in recent memory.

Perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise because chef Adam Perry Lang, who opened Daisy May’s BBQ in New York City, had a hand in creating the current Original Moonshine formula with Chuck Miller, whose family has been master moonshine distillers for several generations.

“I think there’s a desire to go back to the old time ways,” said Miller, who’s also Original Moonshine’s master distiller. “A lot of people have heard about [moonshine] but never tasted it.”

While our Prohibition days are behind us, spirits like moonshine are coming back in style. There’s nothing stopping you from finding your own dose of clear corn whiskey, but if you want to mix a drink of your own at home, here’s a recipe:

Shine Gimlet

  • 2 oz moonshine
  • 1 oz fresh lime juice
  • 3/4 oz simple syrup
  • 2 cucumber slices, muddled
  • 6 mint leaves, muddled
  • 2 dashes celery bitters

Muddle together cucumber slices and mint leaves.  Add in your celery bitters, lime juice, simple syrup & moonshine with a heavy helping of ice.  Shake vigorously and strain into a coupe. Garnish with a cucumber slice and/or a fresh mint leaf. 

Bao Ong is a freelance journalist based in New York. He plays tennis when not thinking about food so he can freely eat and drink. Follow him on Twitter: @baohaus.