If you walk into an upscale liquor store in Brooklyn these days, hidden amongst the usual selection of ryes and bourbons and scotches, there is inevitably a gussied up bottle claiming to be moonshine. In cocktail bars, you can sometimes find twists on martinis or sangria that purport to be made with moonshine. People: It’s a lie. What you have on your hands is unaged corn whiskey.
Moonshine, by it’s very definition, is not something that you can find in a liquor store or upscale cocktail bar. Moonshine is illegally produced liquor. It’s called moonshine because it’s made in secret, often at night, by the light of the moon. The default definition of moonshine in the United States is white whiskey, because that’s generally what bootleggers produce. But moonshine can also mean homemade rum, gin, or vodka. It can mean, and often does, grain alcohol flavored slightly by some sort of fruit. It is the sort of stuff that often contains things that are very bad for you: lead, acetone, bleach.
Real moonshine is not a delicacy. It is utilitarian stuff. It is not meant to be savored; it is meant to get you fucked up. I have had moonshine exactly twice. The first time was at a party in Senatobia, Mississippi, where the proprietors had slaughtered and barbecued a goat. It was served from a gallon milk jug, and it had peaches floating in it. It tasted like what I imagine strychnine tastes like. It tasted like I was actively poisoning myself, which, of course, I was. The only acceptable cocktail option was to mix it with Gatorade, pinch your nose, and chug. The other time was from a Ukrainian friend, who made plum-flavored vodka at home in her bathtub. It tasted like sweet bathwater and future headaches.
The trend of selling high-proof unaged corn whiskey as moonshine has something to do with the frisson of danger moonshine acquired. It has something to do with the trappings of rural poverty becoming symbols of a simpler way of life to city dwellers, and something to do with do-it-yourself brewing. It has something to do with looser liquor laws being passed in the last decade in places that traditionally produced a lot of moonshine. But look. There is no such thing as legal moonshine. It is a contradiction in terms. Save yourself $20 and just buy a bottle of Everclear. Drink it in a mason jar, if you must.
Follow Margaret Eby on Twitter @margareteby.