American Whiskey:
White Whiskey: Legal Moonshine


FOR SOME PEOPLE, fine whiskey means Kentucky Bourbon. Once upon a time it might have been Pennsylvania or Maryland Rye. Of course, what they mean by "fine whiskey" is barrel-aged bourbon or rye which has acquired the caramel and vanilla flavors that result from years of storage in never-used-before, charred oak barrels. Whiskey without those flavors is sometimes characterized as raw, crude, and evil-tasting; a product suitable only for unsophisticated tastes, or perhaps as a novelty.

Now, to some of us who enjoy fresh-made whiskey, that characterization seems a little bit like suggesting that fresh peaches lack the delicate balance and flavor nuances of the more sophisticated canned peaches.

In the dim past, this was the whiskey that farmers made from their crops and sold to riverfront whiskey merchants. In Pennsylvania and Maryland, the farmers were mainly German-Swiss (Pennsylvania Dutch) rye growers; in Virginia (which included Kentucky then) they were mostly Scots-Irish corn (maize) growers.

But the rye farmers didn't make the Monongahela sipped in Baltimore and Philadelphia taverns.

And the corn farmers didn't make Bourbon.

No matter who wrote that book you read, or what that 275-pound bartender with the nasty look on his face tells you.

Even if it meets all other criteria, whiskey cannot be called "bourbon" until it's been stored in a new, charred, oak barrel. Even if the old frontier farmers had a new, charred, oak barrel, it's not likely that they'd store whiskey in it. Barrel-aged whiskey was the realm of the whiskey merchant, not the farmer-distiller.

And then there's White Lightnin'.

Many people believe that fresh whiskey and moonshine are the same thing. This has an interesting effect on the public perception of this spirit, because the sense of "naughtiness" that view imparts adds both a tingle of excitement to the experience of drinking it, and a tendency for people to distance themselves from association with it.

There is such a thing as moonshine, of course.  In fact, there might be nearly as much real 'shine being made, sold, and drunk than there is legal fresh whiskey, at least in the states where it's most prevalent. In the movies, magazines, and novels, moonshine is nearly always portrayed as either a horrible hillbilly atrocity (made crudely, of course, because "everybody knows" mountain people aren't supposed to be intelligent or sophisticated enough to make a refined product), or as prohibition bathtub gin made by evil criminals with nothing better to do than blinding and killing unsuspecting flapper-girlies and collegians. Although there are plenty of examples to support either of these characterizations, most fresh-made whiskey falls into two somewhat more benign categories.

First we have the moonshine commonly known as white lightnin', or popskull, or mule-kick, or something along those lines. It's not really "whiskey" at all, being distilled from a "mash" of fermented sugar-water with perhaps a handful or two of cornmeal tossed in for flavor (and so that everyone can pretend there is some relationship to corn in the product). It is typically stored in 1 gallon plastic milk jugs.

It is also NOT typically consumed by the distiller or anyone he knows. This is the 'shine you might obtain at a keg-party, in illegal "shot-houses" set up in people's homes, or from a "blind-tiger", which is a setup by which the money for the purchase is left in an unattended location and the 'shine is later picked up at that (or another) location, all without the buyer ever seeing the seller. And once you get out of Elliot Ness' Chicago and up into the hills, people are much less likely to confuse their local moonshiner with the likes of Al Capone. According to an interview with Johnston County (North Carolina) District Attorney Tom Lock (who defended several moonshiners before he was elected to run the office that prosecutes them), "In the scheme of things, it's not treated all that seriously. It's only a misdemeanor. We certainly can't condone it and we can't ignore it, but I don't think the prosecution of non-tax-paid liquor in and of itself is a high priority in the minds of most citizens." In North Carolina, most charges regarding the manufacture and sale of liquor on which tax is not paid are misdemeanors, punishable by fines ranging from $50 to $500. A raid which actually succeeds in capturing the distiller, his still, his stock, and his customer list (a rare occurrence) would result in four charges: possession of non-tax-paid liquor; possession with the intent to sell such liquor; possession of equipment to manufacture it; and manufacturing it. Of those, the most serious charge is manufacturing. Under state law, a second offense can be prosecuted as a felony, although it is the lowest-grade felony possible and generally would bring probation or a very short jail term. Almost always, the defendant will plead guilty to one or two of the charges, pay a fine and get the others dismissed.

Other moonshiners, and often the same ones who make 'lightnin', make a different kind of 'shine in their stills. This is real honest-to-Pete corn whiskey (or rye whiskey) This form of fresh whiskey, called "corn whiskey" or "rye whiskey", "white whiskey", or "white dog", uses little if any Dixie Crystal Pure Cane Sugar, and obtains its sugars from the enzymes found in malted corn or barley. This is the whiskey the distillers drink themselves and serve to friends. Unless you're family or a neighbor, the only way you're going to taste this whiskey is to get yourself invited to the daughter's wedding. That's because, unlike bread, or candles, or apple pies, or furniture, it's illegal to make whiskey at home non-commercially in the United States. The law sees no difference between a distiller of whiskey for gifts or personal consumption and an unlicensed commercial distiller. Still meeting its original mandate to eliminate a competing monetary basis, the law forbids any distilling (or even possession) of beverage alcohol whatever, except for large, licensed, regulated commercial distilleries.

But we're not concerned here with whiskey you can't legally buy or distillers you can't visit without "gittin' yore haid blowed off". What separates the distillers of fresh whiskey we'll be visiting here from their moonshinin', bootleggin' cousins is that they're legally licensed to produce, bottle, sell, and pay taxes on whiskey marketed through regular retail channels. What separates their operations from the other whiskey distilleries we've been visiting is that these distillers make fresh, white whiskey.

And within the past few years, some brave souls have gone to the considerable expense and trouble to obtain official sanction to produce and sell it legally. In 2005, Linda and John visited the sites of three such distillers. One is Payton Fireman, a young lawyer and entrepreneur in Morgantown, West Virginia, whose West Virginia Distillery Company produces Mountain Moonshine, a perfectly legal unaged white spirit whiskey made from a bourbon-recipe base. Another is Rodney Facemire, another West Virginian, who was the owner and winemaker at Kirkwood Winery in beautiful Summersville, West Virginia for many years (and still is), before deciding to concentrate on his Isaiah Morgan Distillery operation. Rodney not only makes corn liquor, but he is one of only two legal bottlers of unaged rye whiskey in the world (actually the only one, since Old Potrero, the brand Fritz Maytag produces in San Francisco, California is no longer offered completely unaged). Just outside of Culpeper, Virginia, we meet Chuck and Jeanette Miller whose Belmont Farms of Virginia produces Virginia Lightning and Copper Fox from corn grown on their own farm and distilled in their big old 1930's moonshine still. And they sell it, quite legally, through the Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control stores.

In 2011, they visited another handful of (legal) white whiskey distillers. As the laws of the individual states begin catching up to the federal 21st Amendment, there will be more and more small, craft/artisan distillers, and because you can't make old spirits or new spirits without starting with white spirits, we will almost certainly be seeing more and more of them. It's impossible to keep up, and we don't intend to try, but each of these distillers offers an important experience in both the way spirits are made and they way America was made. You should visit them, too, if you get a chance. They'd love to see you.

Corn whiskey (and unaged rye whiskey as well) is a very different spirit from aged bourbon or rye, and not everyone likes the taste of their whiskey raw. But for those who do enjoy it, and for those who want to understand the relationship between the product of the corn or rye farmer and the spirit we know as bourbon or rye whiskey, the following explorations are vital to understand.

White Whiskey: Yes, Virginia (and West Virginia, Tennessee, and even Kentucky), there is legal, hand-crafted hooch

Belmont Farms of Virginia Culpeper, Virginia Chuck and Jeanette Miller have been making Virginia Lightning and Copper Fox here since 1989. Now they're being featured on public television and The History Channel and gearing up for visiting tourists.
Corsair Artisan Distillery Nashville, Tennessee
Bowling Green, Kentucky
Darek Bell and Andrew Webber produce very sophisticated spirits, the type sought by the top bartenders and mixologists in the country. They make them from white spirits they distill in Nashville, one of which is a white dog rye whiskey they bottle by itself as Wry Moon.
Isaiah Morgan Distillery Summersville, West Virginia Rodney Facemire's distillery is (a very small) part of his Kirkwood Winery. He makes white brandy (grappa), Southern Moon white corn liquor, and unaged Isaiah Morgan Rye Whiskey.
M. B. Roland Distillery Pembroke, Kentucky Paul Tomaszewski and his wife Merry Beth (nee Roland), for whom the distillery is named distill White Dog, Black Dog, and True Kentucky 'Shine from locally-grown corn, along with several other products made from white whiskey. They make make aged whiskey, as well.
Prichard's Distillery Kelso, Tennessee Phil Prichard is a craftsman and an experimenter, and a respecter of no one's limitations on what can be made with a good still and some Moxie. His interests tend toward rum, but he enjoys making whiskey. Especially controversial whiskey. His Lincoln County Lightning calls into question all the "expert" definitions of Tennessee whiskey.
West Virginia Distilling Co. Morgantown, West Virginia   Payton Fireman makes Mountain Moonshine spirit whiskey and Mountain Moonshine Old Oak Recipe in Bo McDaniel's old auto repair garage.

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Story and original photography copyright © 2005 by Linda Lipman and John Lipman.
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