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White Whiskey

Jul 06, 2012 07:43PM ● By Anonymous

Approximately three years ago, a curious craze emerged. Consumers became infatuated with a harsh, unaged spirit, white whiskey, commonly known as moonshine. Currently at the peak of its craze, some brands are selling for upward of $80 a bottle—and whiskey experts just can’t quite figure out why.

It’s quite the puzzler, all right—but the distillers, you can be sure, are thrilled about it. That’s because they’re creating a product, whiskey, that typically takes years before there’s any financial return on it, and bottling it to sell right away. They don’t even have to invest in any new production materials to create it. Additionally, because the liquor is typically labeled as “moonshine,” it capitalizes on the romanticized notion of bootleggers during prohibition. It’s new (kind of), it’s edgy, it could even be called the latest “hipster booze” — and that, apparently, makes it expensive.

But let’s get one thing straight: If you’re buying moonshine legally, you’re not really buying moonshine. It might taste like moonshine, it might embody the spirit of moonshine, but if it’s been produced and taxed legally, that mason jar of clear alcohol is not actually moonshine. Not in the traditional prohibition-era sense of the word, anyway. Legit moonshine has to be produced illegally—meaning, untaxed—to earn its moniker. However, the hooch made legally is much better to sip on than real moonshine, says Kevin R. Kosar, author of “Whiskey: A Global History.”

“The quality of the stuff made legally tends to be more even and better,” he says. “Which isn’t surprising because in many instances when it comes to illicitly sold booze, it’s a one-time purchase. So, if it’s dreadful, it’s dreadful,” and distillers have no reason to improve the process.

The main objective of white whiskey distillers is to create a product that’s neutral, like vodka, that won’t burn while going down your throat. In some cases, you might get some flavorful nuances from the grain or distilling process, but it’s not very common. Whiskey can be made from a variety of grains, such as corn, malted barley, rye, or wheat.

He likens white whiskey to another potent potable, Everclear, a pure distilled alcohol that rings in at over 190 proof. In other words, it’s the kind of stuff that will make you cringe just at the smell of it. While white whiskey is a bit more sophisticated, Kosar says, it’s not that much different. “So it is a little odd to see this craze going on,” he says.

So if this white whiskey is made in the same copper stills that bootleggers used during Prohibition, why can’t we just call it moonshine and be done with it? Well, it’s because while the term is most often used to refer to illegal whiskey, moonshine is actually any distilled spirited made in an unlicensed still. Bathtub gin? That’s moonshine. If you set up a little personal vodka distillery in your basement, that would be moonshine, too. In fact, the original moonshine-makers didn’t even dabble in whiskey—they smuggled white brandy and gin in the United Kingdom.

But with American history so ingrained in our minds, we think of men in the Appalachian region during the 1920s and 1930s as the notorious moonshiners. However, there are still legitimate moonshiners out there, Kosar says, but buying hooch from them is as dangerous as it ever was. As recently as December 2011, more than 130 people died from illicit alcohol in India. Here in America, moonshiners are generally hobbyists who are often really good at distilling. They most often live in rural areas and only sell to friends and family, Kosar says— “It’s certainly not like the images from the days of prohibition when you had gangsters racing vehicles loaded up with illegal liquor all over the county,” he adds.