There’s something seductive about Virginia moonshine, the original American spirit.

Perhaps it’s the long history, dating back to just years after the First Landing of English settlers in Virginia. Maybe it’s the fact that people have taken up arms in defense and opposition to it. It might be that traditionally it was crafted and moved in secret through shadowy mountain hollers and swamps thick with marsh and cypress trees. Or maybe the vivid picture of bootleggers racing down backcountry roads (hello, Nascar!) at night to outmaneuver the authorities is what piques your interest. 

Either way, moonshine has a long and enduring life in Virginia. 

So much so that, during the 1920s, an estimated 99 of every 100 Franklin County residents were in some way involved in the lucrative moonshine trade, giving the area its beloved “Moonshine Capital of the World” distinction. Later this year, the Mountain Spirits Trail – linking Franklin, Floyd and Patrick County producers – will offer a chance to try some of the state’s best and learn the rich, untold history of moonshine. 

And while the tradition runs deep in the mountains, there are more than 15 moonshine producers spanning across the commonwealth. Keep reading to learn more about the process of making moonshine, where to find it, how to properly store it and how to best enjoy it. 

How to Make

The term “moonshine” has been around since at least the early 15th century, though it wasn’t popularized or used in English until Prohibition to describe illicit liquor made and smuggled during the night. There’s actually no legal definition of the spirit.

But, simply put, moonshine is considered a clear, unaged whiskey.

You might find a classic moonshine recipe involves cracked corn, water, malted barley and yeast. Much like whiskey, you can distill from almost any grain. The earliest American moonshiners used rye or barley, though for the last 150 years, corn has been the preferred base for many.

The process has been refined over time as producers look for efficiencies and ways to improve quality, but early moonshiners followed steps like this:

  1. The cracked, dry yellow corn is ground into meal.
  2. The corn meal is soaked in hot water. Sometimes sugar is added (or even used instead of grain), but traditional moonshiners added malted barley to convert starch to sugar. After adding yeast, the fermentation process begins. This mixture, called mash, is stirred thoroughly and heated for a set amount of time in the still. 
  3. The stone furnace beneath the still is brought up to about 172 degrees Fahrenheit. In the past, people used wood, coal and even steam before moving to propane.
  4. As pressure builds, the alcohol steam evaporates through a pipe that leads out of the top of the still.
  5. The distilled alcohol condenses in the bottom of a thump keg – a heated barrel into which the steam is forced and named after the sound of the vapor and alcohol periodically bursting out of the pipe. The hot vapor distills the alcohol a second time, which results in a higher-proof moonshine. 
  6. The steam travels into a coiled pipe that winds down into a crate or barrel (“worm box”) with cold water, usually diverted from a nearby creek or water source. By constantly circulating in cold water, the alcohol turns from steam to liquid.
  7. The moonshine exits from a spout, tap or hose into a bucket, usually through one last filter. 

 *If interested in making your own “white lightning,” you must follow Virginia codes and regulations.

The Virginia Way

You’ll find producers in Virginia who are using old-time recipes and methods passed down from generations in their family, quick-studies who developed a passion for moonshine and experimentation and those that fall somewhere between. 

Roosters Rise-N-Shine Distillery is one of those Franklin County places that held onto an original recipe – one that churned out illegal hooch for years – from an area native. Over time, it’s added its own spin with new flavors. The distillers here want people to know that while moonshine once came from backwoods operations, it’s now commercially available and just as good. They still find people wandering into the tasting room curious, and sometimes untrusting, but when moonshine is regulated, the product remains delicious and is totally safe when drinking responsibly.

Five Mile Mountain Distillery also uses traditional methods to produce its spirits – using an all-copper pot crafted in Virginia, fired by an open flame and a recipe that remains true to history. Every ingredient is hand-selected to create distinctive flavors and bottles. One thing they’d like to set the record straight on: moonshine is a versatile spirit that shouldn’t be limited to sipping. Moonshine cocktails make for some of the very best cocktails.

Belle Isle Craft Spirits bottle on the James River

Belle Isle Craft Spirits is a modern take on moonshine. Two brothers, Vince and Brian, saw that vodka and tequila had premium products that people clamored after, but moonshine did not. Thus began their quest to create the first premium moonshine. In a few short years, Belle Isle (based in Richmond) became known for its iconic and playful infusions. This distillery’s style and approach breaks the mold for moonshine and is a classic example of how local producers blend tradition with innovation to create something unique. You can find ready-to-drink cans and more with its diverse product line. 

How to Shop

If you’re lucky enough to live in Virginia, a.k.a the Birthplace of American Spirits, you have no shortage of options when it comes to the original spirit, moonshine. (And if you don’t, luckily, many distilleries ship out-of-state). 

You have two simple options to purchase a local bottle: At Virginia ABC stores or straight to the source at a distillery. With 400+ stores, you’re likely not far from a Virginia ABC store. If your store doesn’t have what you’re looking for, you can order online and have it shipped to a store of your choice within 7-14 days. If you’re looking for an experience and you want the opportunity to try before you buy, visiting a local distillery is your best bet. Plus, you’ll even find some small-batch products at the distillery that may not be on the shelves or listed with Virginia ABC. 

Taking advantage of events or festivals is another great option to sample before committing to the purchase. 

You could also mark your calendar for September, or as we like to call it: Virginia Spirits Month. For the whole month, many Virginia spirits, both in-store at Virginia ABC and at distillery tasting rooms, are offered at 20% off. The perfect time to stock up or try something new.

Finally, simply ask for “Virginia-made” at your favorite restaurant. Chat with your bartender or server to determine a cocktail recommendation or which ones are available for a sip. The more we ask for and support local, the more you’ll see Virginia on the menu!

How to Store

High-proof spirits like moonshine tend to have a long shelf life if it is properly stored. Exposure to certain elements like temperature, light, air and outside contaminants can impact the taste, aroma and overall quality of moonshine.

Keep your bottle in a cool, dark and dry environment where there is little-to-no sun exposure. However your shine is packaged originally, ensuring your bottle or jar is air-tight is among the most crucial parts of storing your moonshine – if oxygen creeps in, the chemical composition of the alcohol will begin to change.

How to Enjoy

A misconception of moonshine is that it is flavorless. While the flavor profile may be more subtle than others, there are plenty of elements to pick up on the palate. The strength of the flavor depends on the number of distillations it has been run through; multiple distillations create a more muted spirit. Though, many Virginia distilleries offer new, inventive flavors (see honey habanero or cold brew from Belle Isle) to add an extra element of depth and delight.

The image many have of moonshine is a clear liquid served straight up in a canning jar. Indeed, most moonshine is enjoyed with aplomb at room temperature, although there is nothing to stop you from pouring it in a tumbler and adding a few ice cubes if you wish. Keep in mind, the coolness of the cubes and dilution from melting ice will mute some of the flavor profiles, but if you enjoy it on the rocks, do so.

Another way to enjoy it chilled is to keep a bottle of moonshine in a freezer – it won’t freeze, or chill it in the refrigerator, even for a short spot of time before service.

And some folks don’t care for a spirit that is straight up, so infusing the ‘shine or crafting a cocktail with moonshine is perfectly acceptable – and delicious. 

Just like the producers who sell flavored moonshine, nothing is stopping you from infusing your moonshine. Pour some in a large glass container and add ingredients that will flavor it. Throw in sliced cucumbers, strawberries, peaches; crushed blueberries, blackberries, cherries or raspberries; chunks of pineapple or watermelon; or orange peel. Make an impromptu limoncello with lemon peel.

It also makes a great substitute for other spirits like gin and vodka. Consider a moonshine and tonic with cucumber, a moonshine and soda, a moonshine and cranberry, a moonshine bloody mary, a moonshine martini, a moonshine negroni and more. Here’s some inspiration: 

COCKTAIL RECIPES

lemon lavender Virginia moonshine cocktailblackberry Virginia moonshinehoney habanero Virginia moonshine cocktail

Apple Pie Shine

  1. In a large pot over medium-high heat, add 4 cups natural apple juice, 4 cups natural apple cider, 3/4 cup granulated sugar, 1/4 cup packed brown sugar, 2 cinnamon sticks and 1 tsp. apple pie spice.
  2. Bring to a low boil, cover pot and reduce heat to medium-low. Simmer for 1 hour.
  3. Remove from heat and allow to cool to room temperature.
  4. Remove the cinnamon sticks, add 1-1/2 cups moonshine and stir.
  5. Transfer to three pint-sized, sealable jars. Jars can be refrigerated or stored at room temperature. Shake jars well before serving. Yield approximately 6 cups.

Moonshine Martini

  1. Pour 1/2-oz. dry vermouth in a martini glass and swirl glass. Make sure vermouth coats the glass interior. Discard remaining vermouth.
  2. Fill a small glass pitcher with ice and pour in 3 oz. moonshine.
  3. With a metal spoon, stir in a clockwise motion 100 times.
  4. Strain chilled moonshine into prepared martini glass and garnish with a lemon peel.

Oyster Shooter

  1. Rim a tall shot glass with Old Bay.
  2. In the glass add a freshly shucked Virginia oyster and top with 1 tsp. cocktail sauce.
  3. Pour in 1/2 tsp. pickle juice and 1-1/2-oz. of moonshine.

MOONSHINE WITH FOOD

To pair with food, you’ll most likely want it chilled or in a glass with ice. Cocktails and dishes go great together but do change the pairing from just a glass of moonshine by itself. When pairing cocktails with food, consider the primary flavor in the cocktail and compare and contrast with the dish.

Here are some of our favorite foods to enjoy with a nice tumbler of Virginia moonshine on the rocks:

Cheeses

  • soft cheeses, like brie, Epoisses, buffalo mozzarella, burrata or goat cheese
  • sharply flavored cheeses, like aged cheddar, gorgonzola or roquefort

Fruits

  • Citrus
  • Large firm berries, like blackberries or strawberries
  • Kiwi
  • Watermelon; try plugging a whole melon with moonshine

Meats

  • Bacon
  • Country ham
  • Fried chicken, perhaps cut up on a salad
  • Cured meats like prosciutto, salami, chorizo, pancetta, and longanisa
  • Jerky

Seafood

  • Smoked salmon
  • Smoked oysters
  • Roasted oysters
  • Anchovies, perhaps on flatbread or pizza
  • Spicy tuna sushi roll

Patrick Evans-Hylton is a Johnson & Wales-trained chef, food historian and award-winning food journalist covering tasty trends since 1995. He is the author of Virginia Distilled: Four Centuries of Drinking in the Old Dominion. Visit VirginiaEatsAndDrinks.com for more.

It’s probably no surprise that whiskey is the top produced spirit in Virginia. Across the Commonwealth, you’ll find bourbon and a variety of other whiskies (corn, rye, barley or wheat), all unique compared to the next. Virginia is also on the front lines of the expansion and development of the American Single-Malt category.

Virginia has a long, documented history of distilling corn into liquor, dating back to at least 1620, when George Thorpe did so at Berkeley Plantation. (Apparently enjoying a cocktail at the beach is a long-standing tradition for Virginians!) While the end result looked and tasted a little different back then, the premise is the same: with a little patience and love, grains make for the most delectable sip.

Before we give you the run-down on how whiskey is made, shopped for, stored and enjoyed in Virginia, let’s clear up some misconceptions.

  • Whiskey or whisky, which is it? We wish it were as simple as “Scotch whisky is spelled without an ‘e,’” but other countries have adopted the spelling as well: Japan, India, and Australia, and yes, even the United States. Traditionally, and much more commonly, whiskey is spelled with an ‘e’ in the U.S. but select producers in Virginia and in other states have opted for the whisky spelling. For the sake of ease, we’ll continue the blog using “whiskey.”
  • What is bourbon? All bourbon is whiskey, but not all whiskey is bourbon. For a whiskey to be called bourbon, it must be made from a mash that is at least 51 percent corn and aged – for no particular amount of time – in new, charred oak barrels. The flavors of American whiskey and bourbon can be similar but differ based on the grains used. For example, a higher percentage of corn can be sweeter, or if whiskey has introduced rye, it could introduce peppery flavors. Bourbon, generally speaking, is considered smoother and sweeter than whiskey, picking up flavor profiles from the oak barrels during aging.

How to Make

All whiskey starts as raw grain (corn, barley, rye or wheat) before it finds its way into a bottle. Details like where the grain was grown (read about terroir), the water used in the distillation process, and how and where it ages all matter and come together to make the final, unique product. The technical process itself is complex and nuanced, but here are the basics:

  1. Malting: If you’re talking about malt whiskey, a special process is needed to access barley sugars. It’s moistened and allowed to partially sprout, which secretes an enzyme that converts the barley’s starches to sugars. This process ends when the barley is dried by heating.
  2. Mashing: The sugars contained in the grain have to be separated before fermentation can begin. The grains that are being used (whether it’s corn, wheat or rye) are ground up, put in a large tank (called a mash tun or tub) with hot water and agitated. Some ground malted barley may be added to help catalyze the conversion of starches to sugars. It should resemble porridge before the fermentation stage.
  3. Fermentation: Fermentation occurs when the mash meets yeast, which converts all the sugars into alcohol. This takes place in giant vats, often called washbacks. The process can take a few days, with different fermentation times and yeast strains all impacting the final product. The resulting liquid reaches about 7-10% ABV before it goes into the still.
  4. Distillation: The process of distilling increases the alcohol content of the liquid and brings out volatile components, both good and bad. The two most common types of stills (pot stills and column stills) determine how this all happens.
  5. Maturation: Nearly all whiskies are aged in wood – usually oak – containers. There are many requirements to be labeled a certain type of spirit (especially whiskey); for example bourbon, rye and other types of American whiskey must be aged in new charred oak barrels. Then, they are stored away and left to age for as long as the producer decides. (Scotch has a minimum age requirement).
  6. Bottling: When it’s ready, whiskey is bottled at a minimum of 40% ABV. When only one barrel is bottled at a time, it’s labeled as single cask or single barrel – always an exciting prospect when shopping Virginia whiskies.

fermenting Virginia Whiskey mash in a washbackVirginia Whiskey being made in still

*If you’re interested in making your own liquid gold, you must follow Virginia codes and regulations. Licenses may be required.

The Virginia Way

Contributions from Shelley Sackier

How does Virginia differ? While much of the technical process looks the same, Virginia distilleries take “local” and “traditions” to heart. More and more, producers are looking to partner with Virginia farmers for grain. They’re buying from local cooperages and they’re using local maltsters. They’re cognizant of climate change and adaptive when it comes to where to source products and how requests might need to shift because farmers are rethinking their plantings and harvests. They’re innovating ways to produce spirits with less of a carbon footprint attached to the product – adopting carbon-neutral facilities, saving and reusing water, exploring carbon capture and recycling more effectively.

History is also something to be celebrated. Virginia producers are the stewards who mindfully protect the traditions, the stories and the heritage of American craft distilling.

How to Shop

If you’re lucky enough to live in Virginia, a.k.a. Birthplace of American Spirits, you have no shortage of options when it comes to whiskey. (And if you don’t, luckily, many distilleries ship out-of-state). With a variety of grains, producers and styles, there is something for everyone.

You have two simple options to purchase a local bottle: Virginia ABC or straight to the source at the distillery. With 400+ stores, you’re likely not far from a Virginia ABC store. If your store doesn’t have what you’re looking for, you can order online and have it shipped to a store of your choice within 7-14 days. If you’re looking for an experience and you want the opportunity to try before you buy, visiting a local distillery is your best bet. Plus, you’ll even find some small-batch products at the distillery that may not be on the shelves or listed with Virginia ABC.

whiskey glasses being filled on a barrel

Transport back in time and taste history at George Washington’s Distillery at Mount Vernon

Taking advantage of events or festivals is another great option to sample before committing to the purchase. Distilleries are always dropping new releases or will occasionally have pop-up sales, so if there are brands you know and love, be sure to sign up for newsletter lists or join their club for early access. Speaking of insider knowledge, did you know that September is Virginia Spirits Month? Lucky for you, many Virginia spirits, both in-store at Virginia ABC and at distillery tasting rooms, are offered at 20% off. The perfect time to stock up or try something new.

Finally, simply ask for Virginia-made at your favorite restaurant and try a glass out first. Chat with your bartender or server to determine a cocktail recommendation or which ones are available for a sip. The more we ask for and support local, the more you’ll see Virginia on the menu!

How to Store

Once you have your first sip of Virginia whiskey, you might just be hooked. Whether your home bar consists of one or two premium bottles or a dozen, here’s what you need to know about proper storage so the last drop is as delectable as the first.

  1. Keep It Dark and Cool: Limit exposure to sunlight and fluctuations in temperature and humidity, which can damage the label and cork. Keep in mind, if the bottle is open, your whiskey is even more exposed to the elements. The ideal place to store whiskey is a dark, room-temperature cabinet or closet.
  2. Keep it Upright: Instead of storing on its side (like wine), whiskey should always be kept upright so that unwanted flavors from the cork don’t make their way into the high-proof liquid. If you’re holding onto your bottle, turn it on its head every four to six months and let the cork moisten for about ten seconds. (You don’t want the cork to dry out completely and crumble).
  3. Keep it Closed: After opening, you have to pay close attention to too much “headspace” (empty air) at the top of the bottle, which can lead to oxidation and off-flavors over time. There are products like the Private Preserve that inserts inert gas to fill the space. Or consider purchasing smaller bottles, or clean and save old bottles and decant the whiskey into them. Another option is to wrap the bottle closure tightly with Parafilm to keep out moisture and air.

As your collection grows, check out this guide to maintaining (and showcasing) your most valuable bottles. P.s. don’t forget to inventory as you go along!

How to Enjoy

Contributions from Patrick Evans-Hylton

If you’re new to whiskey, or simply want to elevate your glass, knowing the right way to enjoy it – to sip, turn into a classic cocktail or pair with food – is step one.

Virginia Whiskey poured into glass

Sippers vs. Cocktails

Ultimately, how you decide to enjoy your whiskey is entirely up to you. There are no rules, ever. But there are a few guidelines that can help determine your decision between sipping and crafting cocktails with your bottle – and perhaps, might influence the one you decide to purchase.

  • Age: Whiskey age statements tell you how many years a spirit spent in barrel; therefore, its presumed level of maturity. For some connoisseurs, this is everything when evaluating the merits of a particular bottle. However, aging is still a relatively new concept: “until the 1950s, eight years was as high as it went.” Nowadays, age can often mean complexity and smoothness, but sometimes the 5-year-old spirit outweighs the ten and so on (See bullet four).
  • Flexibility and Flavor Profile: For a cocktail spirit, one school of thought may be to look for something that is relatively neutral and not overpowering. If a whiskey has complex tasting notes and is unique in production, you probably want to hold onto it and drink on its own. Or maybe the flavor profile is so interesting and packed with flavor that it could spark an idea for you to develop or tweak your own cocktail recipe.
  • Price Point: A more obvious choice is price. You might want an inexpensive option for cocktails because it will likely take on the flavors of the mixers and overall blend – or if you’re looking for a crowd-pleasing batch cocktail for entertaining. For the ones with the heftier price tag, think of it as a special treat into your collection. Once those are opened, you’ll likely be inspired to sip every last drop.
  • Try It First: Learning the ins and outs of whiskey starts with tasting it! And then tasting it again, tasting a different one and so on and so forth. Do you like it neat? Keep drinking. Could it be enhanced in a cocktail? Go for it. At the end of the day, your taste buds are all that matter, so enjoy it how you prefer. And if you’re going to have a hobby, one that begs you to continuously sample something delicious isn’t a bad way to go!

Considerations & Techniques

Regardless of the type of whiskey or where it comes from, its optimum taste is often thought of as room temperature (between 60-65 °F). If your collection doesn’t live in a slightly cool place – consider chilling the bottle in the fridge for just a few minutes before opening.

If you’re more of a whiskey on the rocks kind of person, we won’t judge you. Adding ice can enhance the taste and aroma and make the drink more approachable. Here are some specific ways ice can impact your glass:

  • Tempering flavors: The melting ice can alter the whiskey’s flavors, helping to bring out more specific aromas and flavors, and suppress others. That’s why some say drinking at room temperature gives you the “truest” reflection of what the producer intended.
  • Reducing burn triggers: Ice brings a cooling effect, which can help ease the high alcohol content’s fiery sensation on the palate.
  • Diluting the whiskey: The melting ice can dilute the whiskey more than you might want. Consider a singular, large ice cube that takes up the size of your glass or start small with your pour to account for melting.

You might also be tempted to try adding smoke to your whiskey or bourbon. Considering the product was aged and stored in wood before it reached your hands, smoke is a natural choice when elevating your bottle. The whiskey will take on more tannic qualities of the wood, developing a new aroma and adding a layer of depth to the flavor. Learn more about methods and considerations for adding smoke to your whiskey here.

Cocktail Recipes

Cherry Walnut Old Fashioned made with Virginia Whisky

Cherry Walnut Old-Fashioned from Virginia Distillery Company

Old-Fashioned

Tradition says the Old-Fashioned is one of the first cocktails ever created, with origins in the early 19th century, and becoming wildly popular in the latter part of the century. It’s called a classic for a reason, and the making of one should be in every whiskey drinker’s repertoire.

  1. In the bottom of an old-fashioned glass, add one sugar cube and three dashes of Angostura or orange bitters.
  2. Add an orange slice, and muddle.
  3. Add several ice cubes and 3 ounces Virginia bourbon and stir well.
  4. Add a splash of soda water, optionally.
  5. Garnish with an orange peel and maraschino cherry.

Whiskey Sour

This cocktail is a great start to a meal, or enjoyable out on the patio. Sours, which can be made with a variety of spirits, have been popular for more than 150 years.

  1. Fill an old-fashioned glass about 3/4 with ice cubes.
  2. Add 2 ounces Virginia whiskey, 1 teaspoon freshly squeezed lemon juice and 1/2 teaspoon superfine sugar.
  3. Stir vigorously until the drink is mixed and sugar is dissolved.
  4. Garnish with an orange slice and maraschino cherry.

*Note, you can craft this drink in a tall glass and add club soda at the end to end up with a Collins cocktail.

Food Pairings

As with pairing food and beer or wine, pairing food with whiskey means understanding the flavor profile of each and how they can complement each other.

Remember when pairing, bourbon is typically smoother and sweeter than whiskey. Foods that are good with bourbon have a rich umami quality or have sweet notes.

Cheese

  • Gouda (aged or smoked)
  • Blue cheese, including Roquefort
  • Brie or other creamy, high fat cheese
  • Goat cheese
  • Quality aged Parmesan-Reggiano
  • Sharp cheddar

Dessert, snacks

  • Apple pie
  • Dark chocolate
  • Nuts
  • Pecan pie

Meat

  • Beef brisket
  • Foie gras or paté
  • Ham: country, honey-baked, or prosciutto
  • Hamburger with an 80/20 ratio or higher
  • Meatloaf with a tomato gravy
  • Pork barbecue, including pulled or minced, and ribs
  • Smoked or grilled sausage
  • Steak with moderate marbling

Seafood

  • Oysters Rockefeller
  • Salmon

Continue reading “Virginia Spirits 101: Whiskey”