Moonshine and Cocktails

This post originally appeared in Southern Food & Beverage Museum’s online OKRA Magazine
after a Tales of the Cocktail Spirited Dinner in 2012. As the city of New Orleans prepares for this year's epic adventure with Tales of the Cocktail, we here at The Museum of the American Cocktail and the Southern Food & Beverage Museum are focusing on our cocktail and beverage exhibits for the month of July! Join us for our annual State of the Art cocktail party and fundraiser on July 16, be the first to try
Two Levees, a collaborative beer made with input from The Chicago Brewseum, Illuminated Brew Works, SoFAB, and Urban South Brewery on Saturday, July 14, and visit the museum to explore the history of the cocktail.

From Kelsey Parris

A still on display at SoFAB

A still on display at SoFAB

Moonshine is one of America's oldest and purest native spirits. Just saying the word conjures up images of back country stills, bell jars, nooks in mountains, and men dressed in overalls with long grey beards. I once brought a jar of Apple Pie flavored Moonshine to a party, and as I offered it around, everyone involuntarily took a step back, as if being too close to the fumes was toxic. Then they all had to have a sip, just to see what it was really like.

Moonshining in America became much more popular in 1764, due to Britain's Sugar Act that raised taxes on the importation of sugar, wine, and other luxury items. The increased price of sugar essentially  shut down the production of rum in New England (a really fascinating story that can and should be explored with Wayne Curtis's And a Bottle of Rum), made the colonists angry, and jumpstarted the production of other alcohols that didn't require sugar or molasses from the Caribbean. What grew well in America? Corn! So corn was the base of the pure grain spirit that Americans began to make. After the Revolutionary War, Americans quickly moved onto better spirits and moonshine crept back into the hills to become a vibrant part of the Appalachian area economy and culture.


The necessity of avoiding tax collectors is the source of most of moonshine's identifying qualities. It was made using the most convenient source of grain: corn, and it had to be distilled and distributed quickly to avoid detection. Moonshine didn't have the luxury to age in oak barrels or be triple distilled through various charcoal systems—it had to be out of the still and into the market as soon as possible. Revenue agents were constantly on the lookout for illegal whisky making, and could frequently be found combing the forests for stills.

Even under these stressful conditions, there were some moonshiners who distinguished themselves with an excellent product. In the book Illegal Odyssey: 200 Years of Kentucky Moonshine by Betty Boles Ellison, we get to see inside the lives of the people that made their living producing illegal alcohol. One Kentucky master, Wheeler Stinson, developed a reputation for making excellent whiskey in the backwoods of Wayne County. He used only copper barrels and connections for the still, he created a true sour mash with sugar and meal, and he used good quality corn right off the cob to get the best flavor out of the grain. His whiskey was popular enough that he was able to sell it wholesale to other moonshiners and leave the risky retail business to them.

Ellison explores the various strategies of hiding the stills, the moonshiners' relationships with the revenue agents, and how the production of illegal liquor allowed many people to make a living through hard times. Jason Sumich points out in his anthropological study, It's All Legal Until You Get Caught: Moonshining in the Southern Appalachians, “it was one of the few ways to earn cash in the subsistence-dominated mountain economy.” As more jobs moved into the Appalachian area and alcohol became cheaper and more readily available throughout the rest of the country, moonshine was no longer a profitable option for many people. The private stills slowly disappeared.

Photo by Flickr User  Nan Palmero  

Photo by Flickr User Nan Palmero 

In the past decade, several companies have begun to produce moonshine legally in Appalachia. Piedmont Distillers began production of Midnight Moon in 2007 with the help of a long time moonshiner, Junior Johnson. The recipe is supposedly handed down through generations of Johnson's family in North Carolina, and Johnson himself was once arrested for lighting his dad's still. Moonshine has come a long way in flavor from the depictions of eye-poppingly strong stuff of the past. During Tales of the Cocktail this summer, I had the pleasure of enjoying a barbeque dinner paired with Midnight Moon cocktails at Boucherie.

I was mildly apprehensive as I sat down to a full sampling of the seven different flavors of moonshine that Midnight Moon has to offer. Today’s moonshine might not “take the top off your head” like it did in Betty Boles Ellison’s time, but it's definitely still incredibly strong stuff. The flavors are quite intriguing, because they're all literally just fresh fruit put into mason jars with pure moonshine. There's Apple Pie, Strawberry, Blueberry, Cranberry, and Cherry. I think the Cranberry was my favorite, because the flavor was tart enough to cut through the alcohol without being overly sweet. While I'm not running out to buy a case right now, I can see that these moonshines will probably be a big hit in the market. Not only is it a truly American product, but it embodies a sense of risk and excitement and evokes images of race cars and deep woods stills; a combination that vodka just cannot compete with.

My favorite cocktail of the night was the first because it showed just how much can be done with moonshine if we give it a chance.


created by James Denio of Boucherie

  • 2 oz Midnight Moon Strawberry Moonshine
  • 1 oz Amestoi, Getariako Txakolina (semi effervescent white wine)
  • 0.2 oz fresh squeezed lemon and lime juice (equal parts, cut with equal amount of water)
  • watermelon (small and ripe)

Remove the seeds from the watermelon and puree until liquid. If necessary, add a small amount of fresh lemon and lime to get the watermelon to a near water-like consistency (a small amount of foam is normal). Freeze watermelon juice into an ice try.

Add ice, Midnight Moon Strawberry, lemon and lime juice to a mixing glass. Shake vigorously. Strain into rocks glass. Add white wine. Crush 1-2 watermelon ice cubes with the concave side of a heavy spoon. Add crushed watermelon granita to the drink and serve.

Further reading:

Night Shift Gone Legit by Tim McNally:

Illegal Odyssey: 200 Years of Kentucky Moonshine by Betty Boles Ellison

It's All Legal Until You Get Caught: Moonshining in the Southern Appalachians by Jason Sumich

Join us for the month of July, 2018 as we Spotlight the Museum of the American Cocktail as part of the 10 Years of SoFAB programming! The cocktail has always had a unique place not only in American culinary traditions, but also in music, art, politics, culture, and more. The Museum of the American Cocktail explores the past, present, and future role of cocktails and spirits in American Culture.