Moonshine is on the upswing across the area, and whether you know it as “shine,” “white lightning” or “hooch,” there are myriad ways to fill up your mason jar and take a swig. But wait a minute, isn’t moonshine illegal? Doesn’t it make you go blind? Let’s get down to the hard truth before exploring all the ways you can get your shine fix across the DMV.
What In The World Is Moonshine?
Defining moonshine is tricky business. That’s because moonshine equates to illegality. There’s no getting around that basic point. Yet, legal distilleries producing legal spirits are selling products they call moonshine, which means that they’re legally selling what they’re calling an illegal product. Confused yet? If you aren’t, you probably should be.
There’s no help to be had from the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), either. They don’t define “moonshine” because it’s technically illegal, so there’s nothing to regulate. As such, what we’re dealing with is a group of legal products made in the spirit of an original illegal spirit. What?
The best way to make sense of this is to understand that when produced legally today, moonshine serves as an ungoverned nickname. This nickname most commonly refers to un-aged pot-distilled whiskey, typically made from corn.
However, other grains are also used in conjunction with corn, or in place of corn, plus sugar and flavorings are both commonly added. Illegal moonshine can also be made with 100% sugar recipes, and has been distilled in everything from legit pot stills to bathtubs, and anything else in between.
Belmont Farm has their own line of moonshines, and also produces Tim Smith’s Climax Moonshine, the legal product now made for one of the formerly illegal operations represented on Discovery Channel’s Moonshiners television show.
For the distillery’s Charles Miller, moonshine is un-aged or “fresh” whiskey made from corn.
“There’s no federal regulation that defines moonshine,” he reminds us. “So we kind of go with what the old timers did. Basically corn was abundant, corn was cheap. So they made it out of corn. The sugar got added later when they tried to get more volume out of it. It’s either all corn, some added rye, some added barley.”
Another key point is how the traditional corn whiskey is made–it must be distilled in a pot still. “To me, if it’s not made in a pot still, how could it be moonshine?” Miller wonders.
“Some guys are using column stills and that’s not going to give you the flavor and the taste of what was originally the illegal product made in the United States,” Miller continues.
“Moonshine goes way back, it has a heck of a history. The first, if you want to call it ‘moonshine’, batch of corn whiskey made in the United States was made at the Jamestown colony 400 years ago.”
Swiggin’ Some White Lightning
Even though it’s legal, un-aged corn whiskey made in this fashion and harkening back to those traditions, is what moonshine is all about. “We’re just doing old time recipes, using old time ways, like they’ve been doing in Virginia for 400 years,” he says.
Now that we have our facts straight, what’s the best way to do some firsthand exploration? On November 22, the first Virginia Moonshine Festival is being held in Richmond. Expect plenty of moonshine on hand, along with craft beer, wine, food and music. You’ll be able to sample through a range of flavors from different producers and hopefully provide yourself with some clarification on this whole messy subject.
Aside from the festival, hitting the roads to visit some of the region’s local distilleries is your best bet. Staying in Richmond, there’s Belle Isle Craft Spirits, and they produce a number of moonshines, including flavors such as cold brew coffee, ruby red grapefruit and honey habanero.
Miller’s Belmont Farm is closer to DC, located in Culpeper, Virginia. In addition to his core Virginia Lightening recipe, he also makes flavors including apple pie, butterscotch, cherry and peach. For a trek, head to southeastern Virginia’s Appalachian Mountain Spirits and their Virginia Sweetwater Distillery. Here, they produce Virginia Sweetwater Moonshine, as well as a high-proof version and an apple pie rendition.
Staying local, head to St. Michaels, Maryland and visit Lyon Distilling. They don’t market “moonshine,” but their New Make Corn Whiskey is basically the same thing, as outlined in our definitions above.
And don’t worry. It won’t make you blind.
Belle Isle Distillery: 615 Maury St., Richmond, VA; www.belleislecraftspirits.com; Products available at – Batch 13: 1724 14th St. NW, DC; S&R Wine and Liquor: 1015 18th St. NW, DC; and various other DC stores, as well as numerous Virginia ABC locations.
Lyon Distilling: 605 S. Talbot St., St. Michaels, MD; www.lyondistilling.com; Products available at – 1 West Dupont Wines & Spirits: 2012 P St. NW, DC; D’Vines: 3103 14th St. NW, DC; and at other DC stores, as well as numerous Maryland locations. Also available online at www.pstreetwines.com.