What the heck is “moonshine”? A look at Melbourne Moonshine, Crazy Uncle Moonshine and Bearded Lady Charred Moonshine

“Moonshine” is now a fashionable word. You may know it as hooch, bootleg, firewater, rotgut or white lightning, or as just plain old moonshine. Some dictionaries will tell you that “moonshine” is illegally made alcohol while others will explain that it is smuggled liquor that got its name because it used to be transported at night.    

The story of the “moonshiner” seems to start in the 1800s in southern Appalachia, which stretches along Virginia, North and South Carolina, Georgia and Alabama. During that time, people would illicitly distill spirit because they saw it as the best way to make money from corn crops. Interestingly, according to the Dictionary of American History, the liquor they made was commonly known by locals as “brush whiskey” and “blockade”, and not many people called it “moonshine”. By the time Prohibition came around in the 1920s, “moonshine” was used to describe any illegal liquor.

Moonshine may conjure thoughts of bathtub hooch and smuggler bootleggers but, these days, the stuff is going legit. While perusing bottle shop shelves or online liquor stores you may notice a product labeled “moonshine” which certainly is legal.

What gives? What the heck is this legal breed of “moonshine”?

To understand where “moonshine” fits in the spirits world as compared with whisk(e)y, one needs a little refresher on how whisk(e)y is made. To make whisk(e)y, a distillery will tend to follow several steps. First, they’ll add yeast to a mixture of grain and water to ferment that mixture into a wash (which is like a beer). Second, they will distill that “beer” into a clear alcoholic spirit which is often called “new make”.  Third, they will then put that clear “new make” in oak barrels so the spirit can soak up some colour and flavours from the wood. The spirit will need to age in those oak barrels for a few years before it can be called “whisk(e)y” (For example, Scotch whisky needs to age for at least 3 years). Other things happen during a spirit’s distillation and maturation too, but this is whisk(e)y making in a nutshell.  

A look at three “moonshines”

A couple of “moonshines” which are available on the market are Crazy Uncle Moonshine (which is distilled in Western Australia by the Whipper Snapper Distillery) and Melbourne Moonshine (which is distilled in South Melbourne, Australia). 

Whipper Snapper use Australian corn, wheat and malted barley to make their spirit. Crazy Uncle Moonshine’s flavour profile had a foundation of lively grain, with crusty bread, caramel/honey, jammy fruit, berry confectionery, and a mint toothpaste and anise finish; the “moonshine” was a real crisp easy drinking spirit with a bit of a vodka martini kick! It was an excellent example of an Australian new make which seems to follow the American distilling tradition. Crazy Uncle Moonshine sells for about $59.

One Melbourne Moonshine product, Sour Mash Shine, is made from corn and tasted like a palatable, but disappointingly lacklustre, new make to me.  The Sour Mash Shine sells for about AUD$70.

Another “moonshine” is Bearded Lady Charred Moonshine from Indiana in the United States. It is made from 99% corn and 1% barley,  and “rested” in used bourbon barrels. The fact that it is rested in used barrels may mean that it can’t be called “bourbon”, because bourbon must age in new charred oak barrels. Over the years, this “moonshine” has grown on me.  It is a very drinkable sweet spirit – initially sweet with lively raw grain-led flavour, it tastes of corn fritters, fruit bread, buttery vanilla and honey, while toasted wood and wisps of smoke progressively intensify with burnt toffee and anise seed toward the finish. Bearded Lady Charred Moonshine currently sells for AUD$39 per 500ml bottle. 

So, what the heck is “moonshine”?

Crazy Uncle Moonshine, Melbourne Moonshine’s Sour Mash Shine and Bearded Lady Charred Moonshine are just a few examples of today’s legal breed of “moonshine”. Like the early American moonshiners, they make use of corn as a base ingredient. But, corn doesn’t have to be the base ingredient of “moonshine”. 

Spirit, or “moonshine”, can be made from any number of things. I’ve had my head blown off by backyard Bulgarian hooch made from whatever happened to fall off the trees that time of year; though I’m told plum was the preferred fruit to ferment and then distill.

So while some people may choose to call unaged spirit which is made from grain “moonshine”, the trusty dictionaries the world keep telling us that “moonshine” refers to any liquor.

That kind of brings us back to square one, so far as trying to define legal “moonshine” is concerned. 

Perhaps the lesson in all this is that “moonshine” can potentially refer to any distilled spirit. So, if a product is labeled “moonshine” then that label doesn’t really tell us much about what the product is. It might be sensible to look beyond (or ignore) the label “moonshine” and take a product for what it is. Is it new make? Is it made from corn, grapes, barley, a mix of grains, or anything else? Has it spent time in oak barrels? If so, what kind of barrels?

The elephant in the room    

Okay, so let’s address the proverbial elephant in the room: why would people want to buy “moonshine” when they can buy aged whisk(e)y for the same or a similar price? I suppose the answer to that question depends on what type of moonshine we are talking about and personal taste.  

In the case of the more “new make” tasting type of moonshines, like Sour Mash Shine or Crazy Uncle Moonshine, they may play a role in certain moonshine based cocktails. But $70 or thereabouts seems like a hefty price to pay for this type of “moonshine”, considering you can buy an aged whisk(e)y for around that price – Aberlour 12 year old, Glen Moray 16 year old, Auchentoshan 12 year old and Russell’s Reserve 10 year old are a few examples of what you can get for around $70.

The more reasonably priced Crazy Uncle Moonshine would be my pick if you want to try an Australian “moonshine” or if white dog (unaged distillate) is your thing. It has more grain-led character than most mass produced vodka, and that personality shines through in cocktails and mixed drinks.  

In the case of a “moonshine” which has spent time in oak, like Bearded Lady Charred Moonshine, it may provide a drinker with a style of liquor that is a little bit different to the ocean of bourbon on the market. For one thing, the underlying corn spirit doesn’t seem to compete with heavy flavours of American oak or rye; the corn is just there in all its golden glory, and it tastes finger lickin’ good.  

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