It's young corn whiskey in a jar -- and it's legal


October 15, 2003|By Sara Engram | Sara Engram,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Moonshine is as American as a tax revolt and almost as old as the hills.

Technically, moonshine is homemade whiskey distilled without a permit -- untaxed and unregulated by the government and therefore illegal. It's most often associated with young corn whiskey, a spirit so raw it hits the stomach like a bolt of lightning.

I was intrigued to discover recently that for those who like novelty or perhaps even like the taste of the stuff, it's possible to purchase a jar of young corn whiskey legally. (Yes, a jar -- no self-respecting corn whiskey would come in a real bottle.)

I bought one, for research purposes only of course. I had to place a special order at my liquor store and wait a couple of weeks. It arrived with a label describing the contents as "Shine on Georgia Moon Corn Whiskey -- Less than 30 days old." It's 80 proof and, despite the name, it was distilled in Bardstown, Ky., and distributed in Maryland by Reliable Churchill LLLP.

It's not real moonshine, because it was taxed and sold on the open market. But it tries to look the part. The 750-milliliter jar retails for about $8.

You don't sip moonshine. The point of this drink is to gulp it and deal with the consequences. Here I'll admit I turned to recollections from others rather than to carry my research much further than a tasting teaspoonful.

As an old-timer once told me, all you do with moonshine is raise your glass (usually an old jelly jar), release a sigh and let the whole thing slide down till the lightning hits bottom and you cry "Hah!"

The name moonshine comes from the fact that most such whiskey was distilled in the woods by the light of the moon so as to elude detection by the dreaded "revenuers," the federal agents who would search out illegal stills and attempt to bring down the heavy hand of justice on the operators.

But moonshine can be made anywhere, and with the advent of enforcement by airplane, the woods don't provide much cover. It's a safe bet that more illegal whiskey is made indoors these days than in the moonlight.

Moonshine was big business in the Prohibition years. Later, during the Depression, many a beleaguered household budget got a boost from the operation of a still.

That extra income could be crucially important -- a fact that accounted for the fierce and sometimes fatal resistance to revenuers from families that desperately needed a little more cash than was available from hardscrabble fields or coal-mining wages or other meager staples of the rural economy.

Merle Cable, 79, a Kentucky native now retired in Baltimore, says he's never made moonshine but that he's well-acquainted with the culture. He recalls a course in industrial geography at the University of Kentucky in which the professor presented a case study of moonshine production and distribution.

The professor offered his class a pearl of wisdom Cable has never forgotten. He remembers it this way:

"People have always found a way to take some of their food supply and turn it into alcohol in order to make their lives a little more miserable than they would otherwise be."

In Colonial America, there were practical reasons to distill or ferment or brew whatever crop was at hand. With a rudimentary transportation system, it was difficult to get crops to market. But it was relatively easy to distill them into spirits, whether to enhance or relieve the aches and pains of daily life, and home distilling was a widespread practice.

In 1791, when the young U.S. government decided to tax spirits distilled from domestic crops, it set in motion one of the first tests of the powers of the new federal government. By 1794, after their petitions to repeal the tax failed, farmers in Pennsylvania rebelled, prompting President George Washington to send troops to put down the uprising remembered as the "Whiskey Rebellion."

Many of the Scotch-Irish farmers who participated in that revolt later migrated farther south to Kentucky and other areas, taking their distilling expertise with them. They did, however, make one change. In Pennsylvania, they had primarily distilled whiskey from rye. In Kentucky, they began using a mixture of rye and corn.

Later, "moonshine" became synonymous with un-aged whiskey distilled primarily from corn. It also became a name indelibly associated with one of the wilder streaks in this country's often-rocky relationship with alcoholic drink.

If you'd like to try some corn whiskey, or just want to add a novelty to your liquor collection, ask your local store to order it for you.

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