From the beginning, moonshine was the spirit of rebellion. U.S. whiskey distillers first camouflaged their barrels and coils in the late 18th century after treasury secretary Alexander Hamilton put a steep federal tax on spirits to pay for the country’s victory in the Revolutionary War. The Whiskey Rebellion and other protests followed, proving that American drinkers would take up arms to preserve their access to reasonably priced hooch.
It wasn’t until the repeal of Prohibition in 1933 and the subsequent industrialization of the spirits industry that moonshiners faded from prominence, having lost their competitive advantage to automated assembly lines and economies of scale. But they never entirely disappeared, and today some of their best recipes are showing up—legally—in liquor stores and cocktail bars under the category of white whiskey, unaged whiskey, or plain-old moonshine.
At its heart, modern moonshine is simply whiskey that was never aged in oak barrels, which give it its caramel color and vanilla notes. And it’s true that a shot of moonshine can’t compare to the velvety smoothness of a barrel-aged bourbon, let alone some ancient Scotch. But moonshine’s not trying to seduce you with its gentility. Sometimes a mouthful of heat is what you’re looking for, a rebellion against the idea that smoother is better, and that the alcoholic bite of a spirit must somehow be subdued. Sometimes you want to taste the fire, just to remember that you’re alive and full of fight.
Wigle White Rye Whiskey ($32)
Death’s Door White Whiskey ($36)
Original Moonshine Clear Corn Whiskey ($40)
Tuthilltown Spirits Hudson New York Corn Whiskey ($35)
Midnight Moon Corn Moonshine ($20)
Buffalo Trace White Dog Rye Mash ($16)
Dutch’s Spirits New York Sugar Wash Moonshine ($35)
Not pictured but worth trying: White Pike Whiskey ($32)