Why moonshine is the latest trend in spirits

The modern world of booze is rife with misnomers, and for my money, moonshine is right up there with the best of them. Every time I see a bottle in a liquor store or bar that has 'moonshine' on the label, the purist in me has a chuckle – doesn't selling the stuff legally contradict the definition of the term?

For anyone not up with the intricacies, moonshine commonly refers to an unaged spirit – traditionally corn-based, though not always – that has been produced illegally without a license or permit, and hence, no tax or excise has been paid for its production (in reality, that last part is what governments get most ticked off about).

'Moonshine' comes to us from the US. It hails from the Appalachian Mountains near Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, Georgia and the Carolinas, where Scots-Irish immigrants, long accustomed to home distilling, took to the hills to make their own hooch and evade the authorities. These cunning shiners often worked at night so the smoke that rose from their stills couldn't be seen through the darkness, hence the 'moonshine' moniker.

Moonshine Down Under

Unbeknown to many, Australia also has a long history of illicit distilling. In New South Wales' earliest days, some crafty Irish and Scots decided to ferment and distil locally-grown wheat (it was intended to be eaten, not drunk). As a result, distilling was eventually prohibited in 1796 – the already sauced-up colony didn't really need an additional local supply.

In Victoria in the 1880's, a group that came to be known as the 'Nirranda Distillers' were even prosecuted for illicitly distilling their own 'Mountain Dew' – the local term for their efforts – near present-day Timboon. The current – and very legal – Timboon Railway Shed Distillery, producers of fine single malt and other spirits, reference this history with their current operation.

I often say, moonshine is just unaged whiskey.

Andrew Fitzgerald

The new shine

Fast forward to the 21st century, and moonshine has undergone a makeover, with licensed distilleries now releasing their own interpretations of the spirit. The Ironbark Distillery on the outskirts of Sydney was one of the first premium Australian producers to pay homage to the tradition, with the release of their Corn Rye Moonshine – a big, oily, complex spirit well-worth seeking out.

Then in 2015, the Melbourne Moonshine Distillery ramped things up by founding an operation dedicated to exploring the potential of the spirit. The distillery was established just south of Melbourne's CBD by a pair of former engineers, Andrew Fitzgerald and Ben Bowles.

Why moonshine? Bowles hails from South Carolina in the US where five generations of his family have turned grain into booze and moonshining has strong cultural roots.

Beyond the family connection, the two sensed an opportunity to explore the category in a more serious way. "We felt that there was a spot in the marketplace – no one was serious about moonshine in Australia," says Fitzgerald.

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A serious spirit

When the distillery's Sour Mash Shine was first released in 2015 – a creamy, clean spirit with a surprising fruity character – it was a much more refined spirit than anticipated. That was the intention from the beginning, says Fitzgerald.

"What we have tried to do and worked hard at is making our moonshine more approachable … We didn't want our products to be a 'dare' to drink. We want them to be taken seriously as a delicious spirit – and a very versatile one at that."

Whiskey, unaged

Their moonshine has quickly taken off and can now be found in bars across Australia. It's often drunk neat or with a simple mixer like soda water or lemonade, but many bartenders are also using it cocktails that call for vodka – the richer, heavier spirit adds more flavour and texture.

The distillery has also released two liqueurs, Apple Pie Shine and Sweet Tea Shine, which are designed for mixing and make an accessible gateway to the raw white spirit. Fitzgerald admits, however, that the public still has a way to come before fully understanding what moonshine is and how best to drink it.

"What we noticed when we first entered the marketplace is that we need to educate people – even bartenders.  'What is moonshine?' is a common question, so aging some of it is a way of showing its links to the whiskey world. I often say, moonshine is just unaged whiskey."

Get into the spirit

The distillery is releasing a single cask range to emphasise this link, maturing their corn spirit in a range of different casks – new oak, ex-port and even red wine casks. A single malt spirit has also been filled into barrels, along with a four-grain bourbon-style spirit. 'Moonshine is our focus, but we've always made some whisky. We love whiskey,' says Fitzgerald.

Plans are now afoot to open the Melbourne Moonshine Distillery to the public, and a Pozible campaign has been launched to help with the construction of a coffee shop and bar that will be complemented by a new barbershop, Uncle Rocco's, from the highly-regarded Melbourne barber, Fabian Sfameni.

When you walk into the sleek and modern distillery, you're met by two gleaming, hand-beaten Portuguese copper pot stills. It's a long way from the mountains of Appalachia and the 'white lightning' that shiners tried to scrape a living from. But when you drink some of the stuff produced here, it's hard not to get into the spirit.

Check out the gallery above to see our selection of moonshine.

A professional barman in one of Australia's most revered whisky establishments, Luke McCarthy has also travelled the world to learn more about the spirits he serves. The result is two parts drinks culture and one part global trends, served with a dash of critical assessment. His book, 'The Australian Spirits Guide', was recently published by Hardie Grant Books.

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