Moonshine: From Outlaw to Muse to Craft Cocktail Darling

My turn at bat for this installment of Vin Diagram, and I’m digging back into the Hump Day Happy Hour* archives for more musings on music and booze.

This time around we’re taking a look at un-aged or white corn whiskey, aka moonshine, aka white dog, aka white lightning, aka mountain dew (NOT the soda!) This spirit has a fascinating and often sordid history; rooted in the cornfields of the south, moonshine flows throughout American distilling, music, and culture.

Although whiskey can be distilled from a number of fermented grains including barley, wheat, and rye, corn became the grain of choice in the south, particularly in Kentucky, the birthplace of bourbon (corn-based whiskey aged in charred oak barrels, which imparts color, flavor, and softness). This is in part because of the 1776 Corn Patch and Cabin Rights Act, which granted 400 acres to settlers who built cabins and grew corn in the expanding western territories, as well as Thomas Jefferson’s land grants several years later. Immigrants from Scotland, Ireland, and Germany brought their distilling traditions with them, adapting their rye-based whiskey recipes, prevalent in Pennsylvania and Maryland, to corn when they crossed over the Appalachians.

The “moonshine” moniker derives from the practice of distilling whiskey in secret “by the light of the moon”. Once the provenance of every homesteader, distilling was first driven underground by the Whiskey Tax of 1791 and subsequent Whiskey Rebellion. Although the tax was repealed by Jefferson, distilling would be forced outside the law again in 1862, with the return of the alcohol tax and creation of the IRS (coining the term “revenuer”) to help pay for the Civil War. “Bootleggers” came into the popular lexicon with Prohibition in 1920, a time which also saw the rise of organized crime, as smuggling booze became big bucks. To outrun law enforcement, bootleggers began modifying their cars with “stock” parts, and enjoyed racing each other for fun when not running liquor. This backwoods “stock car” racing eventually became the foundation of NASCAR, with many early drivers, including the legendary Junior Johnson, winner of the 1960 Daytona 500, getting their starts as bootleggers.

Unsurprisingly, MY first taste of moonshine came at a bluegrass festival, backstage out of a shared flask. I forget whether it was in PA, NC, or WV, but throughout the years I’ve enjoyed a broad spectrum of “mountain dew”, ranging from smooth, refined vodka-like sips (albeit served out of a repurposed plastic water bottle) to stuff that would give paint thinner a run for its money. Moonshine is, needless to say, the subject of MANY bluegrass and country songs, as both moonshine and bluegrass share the same geographical and cultural origins. 

Today moonshine is still very much illegal to DIY but many craft distilleries have caught on and there is great ‘shine available locally and further abroad. We really like Kings County Distillery’s Moonshine, for its smooth notes of cornbread and fresh hay, either for sipping or for enjoying in cocktails.

Sip a Rosemary Lemon Moonshine Sour while spinning the Stanley Brothers’ (or Flatt and Scruggs’) version of the bluegrass classic, “Mountain Dew” (written in 1928 by Bascom Lamar Lunsford - a lawyer in NC who often defended moonshiners!)

Email us if you'd like the recipe! And if you're interested in checking out my music (and life outside Team Artisan Wine Shop):

*Hump Day Happy Hour* is a live stream series I started back in May (* it’s actually only 15 minutes), where I explore the relationship between music and alcoholic beverages. (It’s also a fun excuse to drink wine, make cocktails, and sing classic country songs.)

The Hump Day Happy Hour* archives are over at


Sara Milonovich