By Laura Reiley
Times Food Critic
Moonshine was a DIY staple of the Prohibition era, a backwoods rotgut that could make you blind or see God, sometimes both. And now, among small-batch boutique American whiskey distilleries, it's one of the year's hottest booze trends.
The Discovery Channel docudrama Moonshiners may account for some of this newfound glamor. But industry experts say moonshine, also called white dog, is having its moment in the sun for a number of reasons. The term that is associated with illegal backyard stills now means an un-aged American whiskey, which is legally made at some Florida distilleries.
Dick Waters didn't see this coming in 2009 when he started Palm Ridge Distillery in Lake County's Umatilla, one of Florida's only microbatch distilleries.
"When we first started doing our tastings almost four years ago, there were probably one or two 'shine products on the shelf. You go now and there are probably 20 or 25 of them," he says. "We thought it was a fad, and it still may be, to be honest with you. But this year Jack Daniel's and Jim Beam are doing it — it's got more legs than I thought it did, for sure."
Waters is rolling out his own un-aged white dog at the end of this year. It's the same recipe as his Palm Ridge Reserve whiskey, which spends about eight months in small oak barrels that are turned 40 times a day to extract maximum flavor and color from the charred barrels. Whereas the reserve whiskey retails for around $60 a bottle, what he's tentatively calling Palm Ridge Virgin will sell for about $10 less.
Around the same time, Lee Nelson and Pat O'Brien will debut four Florida moonshines (one of them a cinnamon flavor) under the name Sunshine Moonshine. The two launched Cane Vodka in 2012 in Brandon but are now excited to embrace this new trend.
Waters of Palm Ridge says that some of the white dog phenomenon is driven by the supply side. Small craft whiskey distillers have had to figure out a way to make money while they wait for a first barrel-aged product to be ready. An un-aged moonshine is a way to bring cash into startup distilleries quickly because it can be bottled and sold immediately after being distilled with no additional storage and aging expenses.
Ro Patel, a partner at Anise Global Bistro and spirits director at Grille One Sixteen in Tampa, thinks consumer tastes and the resurrection of cocktail culture play into moonshine's rise.
"There's an energetic youthfulness to it. People are literally making this stuff in their garage. It has cachet. It's one of the most malleable spirits in the world, and when mixologists infuse it with peaches or local fruit to make it more palatable, it becomes very beautiful and elegant."
But as it is, this high-proof, distilled hooch can be the kind of fiery wallop that makes you shout "whoooo-ee." Bourbons are generally around 90 proof and moonshines hover nearer to 100, O'Brien of Cane Vodka says. And unlike vodka, which usually has no discernible flavor, white dog will reflect the grains from which it is made (usually a mixture of at least 50 percent corn as well as wheat, rye or malted barley), but without the smooth vanilla, toffee and molasses that wood-aging imparts.
Angela Weber, senior director of promotions of spirits and beer at Total Wine & More, says Total Wine now routinely stocks 50 moonshine products. While small-batch bourbons run about $40 and up, the moonshine category usually retails between $20 and $40. Weber sees this trend piggybacking on another recent one: flavored vodkas.
"In the last 18 months moonshine has really picked up. It's still a small part of the category, but it's getting a lot of buzz," she says. "The newest thing is flavored moonshines — there are multiple brands doing cherry. It's coming off a strong flavored-vodka trend, appealing to our female customers and younger customers."
The neutrality of moonshine allows bartenders to be creative. Still, Patel estimates that there are 400 to 500 small-batch American bourbons and only a few dozen moonshines. He thinks that, despite their simpler character, these young spirits are connected to their barrel-aged brand mates.
"Some distillers will use more corn or more wheat to soften it. The yeast, the water: It all has a huge impact on the booze. Aged or un-aged, you can see a family resemblance."