Moonshine Rising: The once-illegal drink goes legit, but what does that mean exactly?

Writer Peter Gilstrap noticed more and more bottles of "Moonshine liquor" popping up on store shelves. But Prohibition ended over 85 years ago. So, what's in the bottle?

Before I went to Nashville in 2006, I’d never had moonshine. Prohibition ended in 1933, right? You can buy liquor in stores. Outside of cartoon hillbillies swilling from jugs labeled XXX, I was unaware that anyone drank the stuff.

I was wrong.

On a sultry southern night I found myself at a small upscale party, in the laundry room, being initiated into the delights of moonshine.

The hostess reached into a high cupboard and carefully pulled out a Mason jar filled with clear liquid. She poured some into a dainty glass and instructed me to take a sip. Swallow slowly and let it grow.

I did. Evidently it was all part of the ritual. The stuff tasted like peaches mixed with a distant cousin of kerosene. In a good way. Outside I could hear the cicadas singing in the moonlight as this white lightning seared a path down to my gut and back up into my skull.

I held out my glass and asked for more.

I moved back to L.A. and forgot about backwoods hooch, but recently I began to notice moonshine—or something called moonshine—popping up on liquor store shelves and in trendy bars. Vintage-style jars with labels in old timey fonts offered high proof promises in flavors like butterscotch gold, black smoke and Dixie. Whatever Dixie tastes like.

There are hundreds of small batch, licensed distilleries that make unaged white whiskey–shine by another name—these days. And some, like Ole Smoky Moonshine Distillery are not so small, moving hundreds of thousands of cases annually, selling at Wal-Mart and Sam’s Club. And thanks to the Discovery Channel, shine entered reality programming a few years ago with a show called, yes, “Moonshiners.”

If walls could talk: An older home near longtime Tennessee moonshine hotbed Short Mountain.

But where was the proud backwoods tradition in all of this? What happened to the crucial ingredient of law breaking that made drinking this stuff so special?

Can you call it moonshine when it’s legal? I returned to Tennessee to find out.

“Moonshine was always that illicit drink that you knew someone who knew someone who knew someone who made it,” said Jim Myers, a veteran Nashville food and drink writer. We met as the sun was sinking on the back porch of his shotgun house in East Nashville, a prime spot for moonshine consumption. Myers is a confirmed ‘shine enthusiast, and usually knows someone who knows someone.

“It’s been a part of southern culture for a long time, but it was always very secretive about who made it or how you got it,” he said. “You didn’t talk about it because people would be put in prison for making it.”

After Prohibition, the 800-pound gorillas in the Tennessee whiskey distilling business were George Dickel and Jack Daniels. But when the Tennessee legislature—driven by potential tax revenue—changed laws in 2009 to allow distilleries in many counties throughout the state, independents began popping up. Modern moonshine was born.

Though there’s no legal definition of the stuff, Myers said he feels it’s disingenuous to call something moonshine that’s made in a licensed distillery. “It played off of the worst stereotypes of the South, not an appreciation for what good moonshine was and how hard it was to make in a still in the woods,” Myers said. “Being able to ferment and distill something that was smooth and drinkable, that’s an art.”

This art has been practiced since the 1800s in the shaded hollers of a place called Short Mountain, about 60 miles southeast of Nashville. Cooper Melton, Al Capone’s personal moonshiner, plied his trade here.

So do Ricky Estes, 69, and Ronald Lawson, 65. They’re locals, born and raised, and for both men moonshining is a family tradition going back generations.

“My grand daddy and my uncles and all my whole family were moonshiners,” said Estes. “I’m a true moonshiner and I’m proud of it. I been doing it since I was eight years old, an I ain’t planning on quitting.”

“It’s like anything else,” Lawson said. “If you ain’t got a little pride about yourself and what you’re doing, it ain’t going to count. And that’s the way moonshine was. If you done it the right way, you’d always have a place to go sell it.”

(Left to right) Ricky Estes, Ronald Lawson and Billy Kaufman of Short Mountain Distillery stand with a still that Estes and Lawson used to make moonshine 25 years ago.

Over the decades they’ve dealt with government officials, rival shiners, local cops, bullets, bad weather and wild forest creatures while they cooked corn mash and sugar into 105 proof liquor. But those hard days are gone.

Now the pair are legit, thanks to a former Angeleno, Billy Kaufman, who moved to Short Mountain 17 years ago to become an organic farmer.

“Before I came here I thought moonshine was some poisonous clear spirit that was like 190 proof and hillbillies drank it like crackheads smoke crack,” said Kaufman. He soon learned differently. He became friendly with the locals, and began to appreciate what went into making moonshine.

“I’m a community man,” he said, “so I’m all about my neighbors and preserving the culture here without changing the culture. I’m only doing what everyone around here is doing, which is farming and moonshining and celebrating that.”

When acquiring a distilling permit became possible in 2009, Kaufman opened Short Mountain Distillery on his 400-acre spread, specializing in locally produced, organic Tennessee whiskey.

He wanted to add moonshine to his distilling menu, and sought out the men for the job.

“Billy called me one day said, ‘Come up here I want to talk to you,’” Lawson said. “So I came up here and we sat yonder where that tool shed is now, and he said, ‘What you think about making legal moonshine? I said, ‘I think you’ve lost your damn mind. You can’t make legal moonshine.’”

Lawson’s information was a bit behind the times. At that point you could, and they did.

Estes and Lawson brought their traditional techniques, recipe and incorporated the crucial ingredient of local mountain spring water to create his Shiner’s Select imprint.

“Everything we bottle we distill here,” said Kaufman. “We never flavor neutral grain spirits or anything like that. I won’t do that. If I’m not going to make any money I might as well be able to sleep at night thinking I’m actually a reputable person.”

Short Mountain Distillery co-owner and former Angeleno Billy Kaufman displays his goods.

Which brings us back to the question that brought me here in the first place: what exactly is moonshine these days? It all comes down to semantics.

“You’re still using the same recipe,” said Lawson. “You’re still making it just like you always made it, so it’s still legal moonshine.”

“Moonshine is a fanciful word that means illegally made spirit, and legal moonshine is actually an oxymoron in a way, because you can’t have legal moonshine,” Kaufman added. “Now when you go into a liquor store and go into the moonshine section I guarantee you 90 percent of the things in there have recipes that were never made illegally.”

Moonshine is a malleable concept. But the unaged, traditional drink itself—at least in this corner of the South—is a high-proof time machine that hasn’t changed. Drink up.