Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Moonshine
Moonshine: the backwoods tipple of choice, the stuff marked in cartoons with a triple X, the booze “that’ll make you go blind.” There’s a lot of lore, mystique and fear surrounding moonshine, or “white whiskey,” which is what it actually is. But for Cory Straub, author of the new book Moonshine Mixology, it’s just another bottle on the bar—one worth drinking straight, on the rocks or in a cocktail.
In his new book, Straub presents moonshine not as some illicit substance to be avoided at all costs or downed on a dare, but something delicious, craft and even easy to make at home. Yes, the book dedicates a full section to making your own moonshine—including a DIY still. There’s also flavored moonshine recipes, creative moonshine cocktails and moonshine gifts (moonshine lollipops, anyone?). We recently chatted with Straub to find out more about that great American spirit, moonshine.
Supercall: Why do people have such a fascination with moonshine?
Cory Straub: I think a lot of it is the fact that it’s against the law for normal, everyday Joe to make it. Whenever you have something that someone says, “no, you can’t do that,” then you have to do it to prove you can.
SC: How did you become interested in it?
CS: When I was little, my grandfather actually made his own moonshine in his basement, and I watched him. Unfortunately, he passed away when I was 11, and his equipment just sat there. But I ended up with his equipment when I moved out on my own. And so I just thought it kind of fun to do because it was something that he did.
SC: Did you ever taste his shine?
CS: I never did. They got rid of all of his before I could sneak any of it.
SC: Do you remember what your first batch was like?
CS: I honestly don’t, it was so long ago. But I can tell you I’ve ended up with lots and lots of vinegar, though. Technically what I do is more along the lines of brandy, because I cook it off of wine I’ve made. If you get the wrong kind of yeast in your wine, you end up with a lot of red or white wine vinegar.
SC: What should good moonshine taste like?
CS: The biggest thing is not burning your throat to pieces in the process of swallowing it. But there’s also a couple other things you want to look for. Say you’re using a corn mash. I would look for a very subtle corn flavor at the finish of it. Also, alcohol boils at about 172 degrees Fahrenheit, so if you get it hotter than that, you get a burnt taste. If you do it right, it’s a really slow process—you have to bring the heat up really slowly. Because once it’s scorched, it’s scorched, and you can’t disguise that no matter what you do. Look for moonshine that goes down smooth and easy, with a subtle aftertaste of whatever the prominent ingredient was in the mash.
SC: What else affects the flavor of moonshine?
CS: What your equipment is made out of. A lot of places have moved away from copper pot stills and use stainless steel because it’s easier to maintain. But passing the alcohol over the copper takes some of the chemical taste out. So some distillers have a section of copper even with a stainless steel still. Back in the old days, moonshiners used to use old radiators to make stills, and whatever was in there—the solder, the lead, the anti-freeze—that would come through in the final product.
SC: So I will not be taking apart my radiator to make a DIY still any time soon. Is that how people used to go blind from drinking moonshine?
CS: Yes, that goes back to when they were using the radiators. A lot of times they would use lead solder and the lead would leach into the product. And then also, a lot of moonshiners were looking for a way to make their product unique, so they would put brake fluid, formaldehyde, cow manure in there to flavor it. That’ll cause all kinds of health issues and problems.
SC: Instead of lead or cow manure, you recommend a bunch of actually delicious ways to flavor moonshine in the book. What’s your favorite flavor?
CS: My longtime favorite is the cinnamon. It’s so easy—you just take one or two cinnamon sticks and let them sit for awhile in the moonshine. But I also like the cooking extracts. The nice thing with them is, if you are having a party and you’re running around and trying to get ready and someone says, you know, a Lemon Drop would be great, you can just grab a bottle of moonshine and some lemon extract, make it right then, and you’re ready to go. There’s not a waiting period like there would be with the cinnamon or the mint or the sweet tea—they require more of a steeping period.
SC: You also include a lot of cocktails to make with moonshine, both flavored and unflavored. What’s your favorite drink from the book right now?
CS: The Lunarita [a moonshine take on a Margarita] is a really good one. When we had the book-signing party, that was one of the drinks we made. For people who wanted a cocktail more on the mild side, we would just add some limeade into it—that’s not in the recipe—and it would tone it down. They absolutely loved it.
SC: So that would be a good intro cocktail for someone looking to get into moonshine?
CS: Yes, definitely.
SC: What’s your preferred way to drink moonshine?
CS: Usually I just sip it straight.
SC: Room temperature or chilled?
CS: You can go either way. It really boils down to personal preference. But I like to keep it in the freezer. It almost makes it look like maple syrup.
SC: Where do you see moonshine going in the future? Do you think more people will get into making it at home?
CS: I know there’s a small movement starting now. There are people trying to get the government to allow a small amount of homemade moonshine for personal consumption, like beer and wine. In Utah, you can make 106 gallons a year of beer or wine. A lot of people are saying if we can make that, why can’t we make this as well? Whether that will happen or not, who knows, but I think you’ll start seeing things go that direction.