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A Brief History of Moonshine

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In the South, tracking down and drinking moonshine is a rite of passage. Whether it’s the booze's rebellious history or its dangerous reputation, moonshine has cemented a place in the culture at large.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, moonshine is defined as “whisky or other strong alcoholic drinks made and sold illegally.” With that definition, it may be confusing to walk into liquor stores (or Costco) and find booze labeled as moonshine.

Part of the problem lies in the lack of federal requirements for labeling something as moonshine. Unlike whiskey, which must be made from grain, distilled and bottled at a certain alcohol content, and aged in oak, ‘shine has no equivalent. Like vodka, it can be made from anything fermentable: fruit, sugar, grain, or milk. Like vodka, there’s no upper limit on its alcohol content. Unless you want to describe it as white whiskey on the label, you can make it any way you please. So, despite what you might have read in the OED, legally made hooch labeled "moonshine" is all over the place.

Despite its super Southern connotation, hooch isn’t exclusively a Southern drink. The term moonshine has been around since the late 15th century, but it was first used to refer to liquor in the 18th century in England.

The American roots of the practice (and of modern American whiskey production in general) have their origins in frontier life in Pennsylvania and other grain-producing states. At the time, farms with grain mills would distill their excess product so that it wouldn’t spoil. Back then, whiskey was even used in some places as currency.

In 1791, the federal government imposed a tax on liquor made in the country, known as the “whiskey tax.” For the next three years, distillers held off the tax collectors by less-than-legal means, which brought a U.S. marshal to Pennsylvania to collect the taxes owed. More than 500 men attacked the area’s tax inspector general’s home. Their commander was killed, which inspired a protest of nearly 6000 people. The tax was eventually repealed in 1801, and the events from the decade prior came to be known as the Whiskey Rebellion.

A lot of the lore and legend surrounding moonshine is true. Bad batches or certain production techniques (like distilling in car radiators) could result in liquor that could make you go blind—or worse. Though some moonshiners claim that these stories were spread in an effort to discredit their work, legal producers differ. Either way, the federal government commissioned Louis Armstrong to record radio ads about the dangers of drinking it.

Don’t confuse moonshiners with bootleggers. Moonshiners make the liquor, while bootleggers smuggle it. The term bootlegger refers to the habit of hiding flasks in the boot tops around the 1880s, but with the introduction of cars, it came to mean anyone who smuggled booze.

Mechanics quickly found ways to soup up engines and modify cars to hide and transport as much moonshine as possible. In running from the law, these whiskey runners acquired some serious driving skills. On their off days, they’d race against each other, a pastime that would eventually breed NASCAR. The two were so closely linked, in fact, that a moonshiner gave seed money for NASCAR to its founder Bill France. Another well-known link is Robert Glenn Johnson, better known as Junior Johnson. As the son of a notorious moonshiner, this former driver and NASCAR team owner recently partnered with a North Carolina-based distillery to produce “Midnight Moon.”

Whether you call it shine, rotgut, white lightning, firewater, skullpop, mountain dew, or just moonshine—its rebellious history and contentious present make it a helluva drink.

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What's the Right Way to Make a Sazerac?
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If you pronounce New Orleans "New Or-leens," or if you can’t get enough of those Big Ass Beers sold on Bourbon Street, you’re probably not actually from New Orleans. But if you’re feeling adventurous and missing the Big Easy, a Sazerac might be just what the doctor ordered. 

‘Tails and Stories

A few hundred years ago, you might have actually gotten a doctor’s order for a Sazerac. One of the drink's origin stories claims that it was invented by New Orleans apothecary Antoine Amedie Peychaud. According to this tale, Mr. Peychaud mixed up the drink with his eponymous bitters and served it in an egg coupe in his shop. 

A more likely origin story states that the drink was invented by a different New Orleans resident (though in the same neighborhood). Around 1850, Sewell T. Taylor sold his bar to Aaron Bird and went into the import business. One of his products happened to be Sazerac-de-Forge et Fils brandy. While Taylor was importing, Bird renamed his bar the Sazerac House and began serving a house cocktail that featured Taylor’s brandy and, as the story goes, bitters made by his neighborhood apothecary, Mr. Peychaud.

In the 1870s and 1880s, Europe's grape crops were decimated by an infestation of American aphids. In just four years, French wine production was cut by 67 percent, and even the most dedicated cognac drinkers switched to whiskey. For New Orleans, that meant switching to rye whiskey that was shipped to the city down the Ohio River and through the Mississippi. Thomas Handy, who owned the Sazerac Bar during that time period, likely switched the drink's main ingredient. This take on the signature cocktail is the one that found its way into the 1908 edition of The World's Drinks and How To Mix Them, with the recipe calling for "good whiskey," not Sazerac cognac. 

The origins of the Sazerac’s name is vague. It’s possible that it was a nod to the fact that it was the bar's house cocktail, but it’s also possible that it’s a reference to the brand of brandy. In those days, “cocktail” referred to a specific alcoholic drink format. As put forth by The Balance and Columbian Repository in 1806, a “cock-tail” is “a stimulating liquor composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water, and bitters.” If you wanted this type of drink with whiskey in it, you would ask for a Whiskey Cocktail. If you wanted Sazerac brandy (until the aphid plague, at least), you'd ask for a Sazerac cocktail.

Hit the Lab

Sazerac Recipe:

2 dashes Peychaud's bitters
.25 oz simple syrup (or a sugar cube)
2 oz good rye whiskey (use the good stuff)
lemon peel for garnish

Place the sugar cube into an absinthe-rinsed rocks glass. Dash the bitters onto the cube and muddle. Add whiskey and one large ice cube and stir to combine. Garnish with a lemon twist.

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What’s the Right Way to Make a Caipirinha?
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The Rio Olympics start in just a few weeks, and all eyes are on Brazil. To celebrate, we decided to focus on the country’s most famous cocktail creation: the Caipirinha.

In form, the Caipirinha is pretty much a Brazilian Daiquiri. It’s made from sugar, lime, and cachaça. Cachaça could be considered a cousin to rum, but it is altogether unique. While most rum is made from molasses, cachaça is made from fresh sugarcane juice.

Unlike rum, which can be made anywhere, cachaça can only be made in Brazil. Though it’s often sold unaged, it is usually matured in woods that are native to Brazil, like peanut and balm. As with wine, beer, and whiskey, different kinds of wood affect the product inside differently.

The classifications of cachaça aren’t based on the type of cask in which it’s aged. It can get a bit confusing: Spirit that is not stored in wood or is kept in stainless steel vats before it’s bottled is often called branca (white). But cachaça aged in wood that doesn’t color the liquor may also be labeled as branca. This category goes under several other names, including prata (silver) and clássica (classic).

Cachaça that’s stored or aged in wood is usually labeled as amarela (yellow), in reference to its color. These may also be labeled as ouro (gold). Envelhecida (aged) cachaça, a subtype of amarela, is a bit more involved: it’s considered aged if more than 50 percent of the content of the bottle has been aged for at least a year in a barrel that’s 700 liters or smaller.

Cachaça is the “third most produced distilled drink in the world,” according to Alcohol In Latin America: A Social and Cultural History. Though more than 5000 brands existed in 2008, it was relatively ignored outside of Brazil until the recent resurgence of craft cocktails. In fact, until 2013, it had to be labeled “Brazilian rum” to be imported into the U.S. As a result, it’s often mistaken by many people for being a type of rum.

Unfortunately, we don’t really know anything definite about the origins of the Caipirinha. Like the Mojito and the Old Fashioned, the formula was perhaps first used in folk medicine. Carlos Lima, the executive director of IBRAC (the Brazilian Institute of Cachaça) told Casa e Jardim that a mix of lime, garlic, and honey with a pour of cachaça was probably used in São Paulo around 1918 as a remedy for the Spanish Flu.

As the story goes, someone eventually decided to skip the garlic and honey. Then, to balance the acidity of the lime, sugar was added. Over time, the drink spread into bars, ice entered the equation, and it became the Caipirinha we know today.

HIT THE LAB

Like the Mojito, the classic Caipirinha recipe is quite simple, but it’s also been the subject of many, many variations. We’ve included the International Bartenders Association (IBA) recipe as well as a modern take on the drink.

Caipirinha
Modified from the IBA website.

2 ounces Cachaça
1/2 of a lime
1 tablespoon sugar

Muddle lime and sugar in an Old Fashioned glass. Fill with ice and pour cachaça over it. Stir and enjoy.

Prata B. (Puerto Rico Asta Ah Brazil)
Recipe by Luis Ramos, bar manager of Bourbon and Branch in San Francisco.

1 3/4 ounces Avua Prata Cachaça
3/4 ounce lime juice
3/4 ounce pineapple gomme syrup
1/2 ounce Pedro Ximenez sherry
1/4 ounce Punt e Mes
Grated nutmeg, lime zest, lime wheel for garnish

Combine all ingredients in a Collins glass. Add crushed ice and stir until glass frosts. Top glass with grated nutmeg, lime zest, and lime wheel.

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