Back in the day, it was known as hooch or corn squeezin’s or mountain dew. Regardless of what it was called, moonshine—as most people know it—has come a long way. Today, thanks to a loosening of distillery restrictions across the country, the unaged, corn-based whiskey is making a comeback. (Reports show that corn-whiskey production has increased more than 1,000 percent since 2010.) Artisanal distilleries have designed in-depth tours that aim to enlighten curious visitors on the spirit’s production. Similarly, at countless cocktail bars throughout the United States, patrons can ask for a moonshine cocktail and most barkeeps will gladly oblige. In fact, the libation that they deliver is likely to be sophisticated, elegant, and complex—three descriptors that, back in the day, never saw their way into a sentence that also included “hooch” or “corn squeezin’s.”
Of course, all of this leads to the question: If moonshine is now legit, is it even moonshine anymore? Jaime Joyce, the author of Moonshine: A Cultural History of America’s Infamous Liquor, believes that it is. The spirit, she says, is a unique form of Americana, and although it’s now produced in accordance with the law, it still carries an illicit appeal, not to mention a unique flavor profile. It’s also the perfect spirit to jump-start a distillery. “If you have a whiskey, you have to wait for it to age,” Joyce explains. “But this is a way for distilleries to get a product on the market pretty quickly.”
That’s just how Kings County Distillery, New York City’s oldest distillery, got started. Kings County combines the owner’s Southern roots with Manhattan’s sophistication. The distillery offers tours and tastings on Saturdays. But if you want more than a taste, the moonshine flight at Beast of Bourbon in Brooklyn pours samples from many small distilleries, not to mention new sprits from the old guard, like Jim Beam’s Jacob’s Ghost. Technically, the spirit isn’t moonshine, since it’s briefly aged, but the company describes it as a response to the moonshine craze. Maker’s Mark and Jack Daniel’s have also released their own moonshine equivalents—Maker’s White and Unaged Tennessee Rye, respectively—though Maker’s White can only be found at the distillery in Bardstown, Ky.
While there are plenty of newbies in the moonshine business—many of which produce quality spirits—Joyce loves Piedmont, one of the oldest distillers of legal moonshine. The brand revived the recipe from the legendary NASCAR racer and rebel moonshiner Junior Johnson, who once used a customized 1940 Ford to bootleg his father’s moonshine through the state of North Carolina. In 2007, Johnson became part owner of the distillery and began working on Junior’s Midnight Moon, which, fittingly is bottled in mason jars.
If you’re craving something a bit more sophisticated, head out to Seattle (moonshine isn’t just a Southern thing, after all) and pick up a bottle of See 7 Stars Moonshine from Batch 206. At 100 proof, the clear spirit offers a fiery kick, though the mixologists at Tavern Law can elevate it to new heights in a concoction that includes soda water, lime juice, strawberry syrup, and a basil-leaf garnish.