The Shinery has 70-some moonshines, including some from Wisconsin. (Photo: Courtesy of The Shinery)
White dog. White lightning. White whiskey. Rotgut firewater.
Out of all the nicknames for illicit spirits distilled during America’s history, “moonshine” has lasted the longest – but modern renditions are not what you might expect. The clear, unaged and potent liquor has evolved from homemade hooch made by the light of the moon to legit tasting rooms (pre-coronavirus) with many renditions of legal, flavored moonshine to sample.
A lot has happened since the teetotallng laws of Prohibition kicked in nationwide 100 years ago, with hopes that a ban on alcoholic beverages would lower crime rates and elevate quality of life. The era lasted less than 14 years but still leaves a bad taste about moonshine among uninitiated Northerners.
Much is different in Appalachian communities, where moonshine remains a product of regional pride and heritage. “Moonshine has entered the mainstream,” writes Jaime Joyce in “Moonshine: A Cultural History of America’s Infamous Liquor” (2014, Zenith Press). “A growing number of legal distilleries, big and small, across the United States … are making it. Drinkers are eager for a taste of America’s homegrown spirit, and if it’s made by small producers out of locally sourced ingredients, the appeal is even greater.”
Moonshine is not a legal category of spirits: It’s more about the preferred way to market liquor. “There’s a wide spectrum, and there’s no legal definition for moonshine,” says Eric Zandona of the American Distilling Institute. “Think of it like this: Jack Daniels is a fanciful name, but Tennessee whiskey is the category name” for the product.”
Moonshine can be listed on a label, but it typically is classified as grain neutral spirits or corn whisky.
Smoky Mountains to Fox Valley
Repeated vacations in Gatlinburg, Tenn., are what led Troy and Lisa Reissmann to open The Shinery Moonshine Company back home in Appleton in 2015. They started with only Tennessee products and replicated the area’s moonshine tasting experience.
Now Wisconsin-made moonshines make the cut too. Hendricks Family Distillery, Omro, makes Oatmeal Apple Crisp moonshine under The Shinery label and uses locally tapped syrup for Mountain Maple moonshine.
Troy and Lisa Reissmann own The Shinery in Appleton and have opened a second location in Cedarburg. (Photo: Courtesy of The Shinery)
For sale are 70-some moonshines. From Ole Smoky, the first to commercially produce moonshine legally in Tennessee, are Apple Pie and Butter Pecan to Mountain Java and Sour Watermelon.
“Moonshine is about tradition,” Troy Reissmann says, to explain the intrigue and opportunity. “It’s a part of American history,” but may as well be foreign history because of lingering misconceptions. “We’re a beer and wine state,” he asserts. “A lot of (liquor stores) don’t even know where to put moonshine. It’s hard to categorize.”
He believes many Wisconsin consumers think moonshine remains illegal and dangerous to drink. The Shinery benefits from Discovery Channel’s “Moonshiners” series and spinoffs because the business sells products from the reality shows and hosts cast member to producer visits.
“It’s been so much fun,” Reissmann says. “There are plenty of vodkas and brandies for sale. This is something different.”
A second location, in Cedarburg, opened in late 2019. The Appleton shop stays in business by temporarily moving out of shuttered Fox River Mall.
Fun with food, cocktails
Besides spirits, The Shinery sells foods with moonshine in the brine (pickles, mushrooms, asparagus) or sauce (salsa, barbecue). Most are produced locally, and Reissmann says moonshine helps pickled veggies taste crisp and fresh.
What else? When distillers provide food recipes, the call for flavored moonshine by far outnumbers the plain product. “We prefer to use flavored moonshine in our recipes because each brings a distinct flavor, and many of our flavors were inspired from foods and flavors around The Old Mill,” says Danielle Speelman of historic Old Mill Square, a dining-shopping area whose anchor is an 1830 flour mill in Pigeon Forge, Tenn.
Wisconsin moonshine makers and sellers are more likely to create craft cocktails with unflavored moonshine. “They’re not easy to come up with because not everybody likes the taste of moonshine,” says Heidi Retzer of Ledgerock Distillery, Fond du Lac. Customers are encouraged to infuse moonshine with their favorite flavors.
“Cinnamon sticks work great along with different juices, candies and fruits,” husband Jay Retzer says. “We sell the base product, and once our limited supply is gone, we will not do much of it in the future – we want to focus on aged whiskey and vodka.”
At Door County Distillery, Sturgeon Bay, moonshine is “a nod to our rich past as a producer of alcohol,” says Beth Levendusky. “Before Prohibition, our cider industry was robust” with “rumors of stills and other small operations.”
Locally grown cherries “infuse for months” in moonshine before the product is sold. “Most people drink it straight, but you can mix a moonshine any way you would mix a vodka,” she says. In the distillery’s Moonshine Margarita recipe is one ounce of cherry moonshine, 1.5 ounces of Triple Sec, one ounce of lime juice and three ounces of sour mix.
Peter Nomm of Northern Waters Distillery, Minocqua, recommends modifications to the traditional Moscow Mule. His Skeeter Bite is a mix of Northern Waters’ Original Moonshine and Milwaukee Top Note’s ginger beer. The Toddy Mule uses his Honey Lemon Moonshine.
“I doubt that moonshine will ever be one of our best sellers, but it will always have a place on our shelves,” Nomm says. “Two of our other flavors – Maple Vanilla and Cinnamon Maple – are great in an Old Fashioned.”
Craft quality begins here
Moonshine making, Nomm notes, is an important first step when making craft spirits, especially whiskey.
“It is the raw, unadulterated spirit right from the still – either it’s really good or it’s really bad. Not a lot of in between,” he explains. “By learning how to make an excellent moonshine, everything else is much easier. We can now flavor it or barrel age it” to enhance the product and make it different, more complex. “But we want it all to start off as pure as possible.”
Evan Hughes of Central Standard Craft Distillery, Milwaukee, describes moonshine as a spirit that is easy to flavor with cherries, apples or another fruit. Or he’ll add unflavored moonshine to a cola or lemonade.
“Moonshine on its own is generally a little sweet,” he says. “It can have idiosyncrasies. You can’t compare it to a traditional bourbon or whiskey” because the spirit goes from still to bottling, unaged. He describes Central Standard’s longstanding oak whiskey as “like making a giant pot of oatmeal and then distilling it. We still run it once a year, and we have people who absolutely love it, but it’s not something that’s going to move like our other products.”
Look for variations – like a cinnamon oat whiskey for an Old Fashioned – when the distillery opens its downtown Milwaukee tasting room later this year.
RELATED: Milwaukee’s Central Standard Distillery is making disinfectant spray out of high-alcohol vodka to help with coronavirus spread
Moonshine under a microscope
“Moonshine: A Cultural History of America’s Infamous Liquor” by Jaime Joyce takes a deep dive into how the product has packed a proud, personal and sometimes perplexing punch upon family heritage ever since liquor has been taxed.
The book combines scholarly and conversational approaches to show how moonshine has run the gamut from backwoods guzzling, economic survival, political activism and regional heritage to trendy consumption.
The nation’s bestselling moonshine? That would be Junior Johnson’s Midnight Moon, made by Piedmont Distillers in North Carolina and produced in various flavors. It is named after a NASCAR Hall of Famer whose ancestors were moonshine runners during the 1791-94 Whiskey Rebellion.
Fire in the Hole Cinnamon Moonshine from Little Platte Distillery, Smithville, Mo., was judged best moonshine during the recent American Distilling Institute Awards. Little Platte also earned a bronze for its apple pie moonshine.
No Wisconsin distillery was a medal winner for moonshine, but La Crosse Distilling Company earned a gold for Fieldnotes Vodka (and a silver for excellence in packaging it). Downtown Toodeloo Rock and Rye, also from La Crosse Distilling, earned a bronze for flavored whiskeys.
Handen Distillery, Cedarburg, earned six silver medals (for aged gin, gin, vodka – neutral character, blended whiskey, rye whiskey and bourbon) and three bronze (for two types of bourbon and a fruit liqueur).
A bourbon and a wheat whiskey earned 45th Parallel Spirits, New Richmond, two silver medals. The business also distills spirits for Henry Farms Prairie Spirits, which won a bronze in bourbon competition.
Copper Crow Distillery, Bayfield County, got a bronze in classic gin competition. , ,
“We use to have moonshine as a separate class of competition,” says Eric Zandona of the American Distilling Institute. “Now it’s in a specialty spirits class because the number of entries has dropped so much. It represents a change in the market.” Fewer than 10 moonshines were entered, Zandona says, compared to the peak of at least 70 around five years ago. By comparison, more than 300 whiskeys were judged.
Lisa Reissmann of The Shinery Moonshine Company, Appleton, recommends this recipe, which was easy to find online. Several food blogs contain similar versions, as does Jeptha Creed, a five-generation distillery in Shelby County, Kentucky.
In the Jeptha Creed recipe, chicken is not grilled but pan fried. Cornstarch is mixed into the leftover marinade and added to the frying pan after chicken is cooked and removed. The whisked marinade deglazes the pan as it heats and “should be thick enough to run a clean line through the back of a spoon” before serving.
We grilled two large chicken breasts after 10 hours of marinating.
Apple Pie Chicken
Recipe tested by Mary Bergin
4 boneless chicken breasts
3 tablespoons apple pie moonshine
3 tablespoons brown sugar
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1/2 lime, juiced
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1 teaspoon cornstarch
Place chicken breasts in large, closable plastic bag.
Combine moonshine, brown sugar, soy sauce, lime juice, ginger, pepper and garlic. Add to bag, close and shake to cover chicken well. Place in refrigerator to marinate at least 2 hours, or overnight.
Spray grill grate with nonstick spray. Heat grill. Remove chicken from marinade and grill until internal temperature reaches 165 degrees, about 7 minutes per side.
Pour remaining marinade into a heated pan and whisk for 3 or 4 minutes. Combine cornstarch with a little water, add to marinade and whisk another 2 minutes. Drizzle finished glaze on top of chicken and serve.
From Old Mill Square in Pigeon Forge, Tenn., comes this marinade, which makes enough for 4 pounds of meat. We used an unflavored moonshine because none of Madison’s liquor stores stocked the recommended coffee-flavored moonshine.
We marinated a 1.7-pound pork tenderloin. Instead of later covering meat with oil, we removed it from the marinade after 8 hours and quickly seared all sides with 1 tablespoon canola oil in a heated, oven-safe pan. Then the meat and pan were moved into a 400-degree oven and roasted, uncovered, for 20 minutes.
Coffee Moonshine and Molasses Marinade for Chicken or Pork
Recipe tested by Mary Bergin
(Makes about 1 cup sauce)
1/4 cup dark molasses
3/4 cup coffee moonshine
1/2 cup low sodium soy sauce
1 1/2 teaspoons ground ginger
1/4 teaspoon fresh ground black pepper
1 pinch red pepper flakes (optional)
1 cup chicken stock
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 ounces (1/4 cup) butter
Combine molasses, moonshine, soy sauce, ginger, black pepper and red pepper flakes. Add mixture to a trimmed pork tenderloin or pieces of chicken. Cover and marinate in refrigerator for 2 to 24 hours.
Remove meat from marinade, draining and saving excess liquid. Heat marinade over medium high heat in small saucepan, stirring occasionally about 10 minutes, or until reduced by half. Add chicken stock and reduce by half again. Keep warm while meat is prepared.
Cover meat with oil. Cook as desired. Add butter to warmed sauce before serving with cooked meat.
Heidi Retzer of Ledgerock Distillery, Fond du Lac, uses the distillery’s Back 40 Moonshine in these two types of craft cocktails.
Back 40 Punch
Recipe tested by Mary Bergin
2 ounces moonshine
2 ounces pineapple juice
1 ounce fresh lime juice
1 ounce simple syrup (see note)
Mix moonshine, juices and syrup in a shaker with ice. Strain into a glass that contains ice. Garnish with pineapple chunks or slices.
Note: Simple syrup is a 1-to-1 ratio of water and sugar combined in a small saucepan over medium heat. Bring to a boil and stir about 3 minutes, or until sugar dissolves. Remove from heat and cool. Refrigerate or freeze whatever remains unused.
Retzer sometimes substitutes Ledgerock’s vodka for the moonshine in this recipe. We substituted a few frozen blueberries for the cranberries.
Recipe tested by Mary Bergin
2 cups cranberry juice
1 cup orange juice
1 cup moonshine
1?2 cup triple sec
2 oranges, sliced thin
1 lemon, sliced thin
10 ounces cranberries, frozen
Mix cranberry juice, orange juice, moonshine and triple sec in a large pitcher. Add sliced oranges and lemon. Add frozen cranberries and enough ice cubes to chill mixture well. Serve punch with a splash of club soda in each glass and fruit garnishes.
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