The World's Silliest Liquor: Fake Moonshine

If it's sold in fancy bottles, marketed via website, and made from corn, chances are it doesn't deserve your respect

There's a lot of humor to be found in a trip to the liquor store. You'll find vodka in bottles shaped like AK-47s (as well as vodka in glass skulls, sold by Dan Akroyd). There's an herbal liquor called Fuchen, whose name means exactly, and only, what it is lamely intended to. There's Bacardi Arctic Grape Rum, which manages to make a noble, storied liquor sound like a Gatorade flavor. But the worst, absolutely most ridiculous liquor is Moonshine. Not "moonshine," defined as an illegally produced or smuggled alcoholic beverage. I mean Moonshine® Clear Corn Whiskey, from Stillhouse, a Virginia liquor company.

Moonshine may be a tasty dram; I've never had it. But that's not the point. The problems are all in the name. First: If there is one thing that drives whiskey nerds nutty, it's the often-willful misuse of the word "moonshine." If it's sold on liquor store shelves, it's not moonshine. If it has a fancy website, chances are it's not moonshine. If its owners were ever arrested by the ATF, it might be moonshine. Something tells me that the folks behind this product, "serial entrepreneur" Brad Beckerman and "Internationally renowned barbecue chef" Adam Perry Lang, are not, nor ever have been, wanted by the feds.

(To be fair, Moonshine isn't the only product trying to cadge some underground prestige by mis-appropriating the term: there's Junior Johnson's (shame on him) Midnight Moon Moonshine, Kings County Moonshine, and Catdaddy Carolina Moonshine.)

But wait, there's more. Although moonshine can technically be made out of anything, in practice, it's rarely if ever made from corn. Moonshine almost always comes from apples, peaches, or pears. Why? Because while corn might produce a great-tasting liquor, it's much easier to make lots of alcohol with fruit—the sugars break down more quickly, and since you're probably not going to age the stuff, the residual sweetness helps round out the alcohol burn. In fact, since table sugar is a lot cheaper and more available than it was in, say, the Prohibition era, it's the base ingredient of most moonshine made today, making it rum, not whiskey. "Moonshine whiskey," in other words, isn't a contradiction in terms, but it's hardly representative of the tradition.

Then there's the biggest pet peeve of all: clear whiskey. According to federal law, whiskey doesn't have to be aged, but in practice it always has been, which means it is not supposed to be clear. What goes into the barrel has many names—"white dog," "new make," "high wine," "white lightning"—but these days serious distillers would never call it whiskey. Whiskey is the final product, not another name for un-aged distillate. It's like calling a living cow a hamburger.

Finally, basement booze-makers aside, there is nothing cool about moonshining. While popular culture lauds the Prohibition-era backyard still, these days it is a dirty business, with its practitioners hustling on the cheap to produce low-quality, potentially poisonous alcohol that they sell to the most desperate of impoverished alcoholics. As Chuck Cowdery put it a few years back, "The reality is that moonshiners are more like the people who make methamphetamine, and often they are the same people. Moonshiners are criminals, out for a fast buck, generally by preying on the poor and ignorant." No one would market "Meth-Mouth" chewing gum. Why is this any different?

Moonshine® Clear Corn Whiskey is neither moonshine nor whiskey. But hey, what's in a name? I'm sure it tastes just fine.

Image: Stillhouse

Presented by

Clay Risen is an editor at The New York Times, and is the author of A Nation on Fire: America in the Wake of the King Assassination. He has written for The New Republic, Smithsonian, and The New York Times Sunday Magazine.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus


A Stop-Motion Tour of New York City

A filmmaker animated hundreds of still photographs to create this Big Apple flip book


The Absurd Psychology of Restaurant Menus

Would people eat healthier if celery was called "cool celery?"


This Japanese Inn Has Been Open For 1,300 Years

It's one of the oldest family businesses in the world.


What Happens Inside a Dying Mind?

Science cannot fully explain near-death experiences.

More in Health

From This Author

Just In