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: 


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.


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:


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


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


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


  • 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 for more.