Written by Jennifer Justus, The Tennessean
It happens at frat parties, hip barbecues, Titans tailgates and even suburban class reunions. A Mason jar emerges from a cooler, shining with a clear, bright liquid, passing surreptitiously from person to person. Suddenly the wine glasses and plastic party cups lose their appeal.
Moonshine is the Waylon Jennings of spirits - all-American, old-fashioned and outlaw, with a swagger that's sure to get a party started.
While distilling illicit moonshine can mean a $10,000 fine and five years in jail, tasting it has gotten a lot easier of late. Licensed distilleries have been marketing "white whiskey" - essentially, legally distilled moonshine - to drinkers and mixologists. And since state law eased Tennessee's restrictions on distilleries about a year ago, two new distilleries have opened in the state, with white whiskey on their rosters: Ole Smoky Distillery in Gatlinburg and Corsair Artisan Distillery in Nashville.
White whiskey is appealing to distillers because it's less expensive to make than aged whiskeys, and bartenders appreciate its unique flavor.
"There's a huge demand for un-aged whiskey right now," said Andrew Webber of Corsair.
Old poison is new again
Though right now it's hot (and not just going down your throat), white whiskey is nothing new.
"It's been around for as long as people have been distilling, because it's really just raw whiskey," said Tyler Zwiep, a salesperson at Woodland Wine Merchant in East Nashville.
Indeed, brown whiskey such as bourbon and Jack Daniel's gets its color from being aged in wood barrels, which also imparts toasty, vanilla and caramel flavors. White whiskey is un-aged, which explains part of its appeal for distillers - particularly new distillers who want to get products on the shelves quickly.
"It's a way to generate revenue while (brown) whiskey matures," Zwiep said.
Zwiep said Woodland Wine Merchant began carrying Death's Door white whiskey from Michigan in October and Buffalo Trace White Dog from Kentucky last month. Corsair, which also operates a distillery in Bowling Green, Ky., introduced Pumpkin Moonshine in October, and a new product, Wry Moon, a whiskey made from rye grain, will be available in the next couple of weeks.
Beyond its appeal to distillers, Zwiep attributes white whiskey's popularity to the renewed interest in cocktails and experimentation with unusual spirits.
Traci Bond, a sales representative with Best Brands distributors, whose roster includes white whiskeys by Buffalo Trace and Tuthilltown Spirits (Hudson Whiskey), agrees that it goes hand-in-hand with the movement that has mixologists making more classic cocktails such as sidecars and Manhattans, and fewer cosmos and appletinis.
Mixologists riff on white liquor
At City House, a restaurant known for its renegade style (think plates of pig ear sandwiches and pig hearts), bar manager Stephanie Melidis serves a drink called The Junior. Named for NASCAR legend Junior Johnson, who was convicted for making moonshine, the drink combines Death's Door white whiskey, crème de violette, lemon bitters and Dr. Enuf, a soft drink made in East Tennessee.
"You know how in the South people mix moonshine and soda?" she said. "It's a play on that."
Meanwhile, at Patterson House and Margot Cafe and Bar, patrons can also order white whiskey drinks, such as the White Manhattan.
"Bartenders and mixologists like moonshine because it has the mixability of vodka but (the) cereal character of a whiskey," said Darek Bell of Corsair.
Vodka is legally defined as something without flavor, Bell said. While illicit moonshine is traditionally made from corn, legal white whiskeys are being made from a variety of ingredients, such as rye, wheat and millet, all of which impart their own flavors.
And as bartenders experiment more with moonshine, it will likely increase interest for drinkers, just as a DJ introduces club goers to new music.
"It really can be a learning experience for new whiskey drinkers, because you can really get to know what you like," Bond said of the various whiskey ingredients. "It's going to create a better whiskey drinker."
Bell believes white whiskey's popularity can also be attributed to the growth of micro-distilleries. Larger commercial liquor producers are more conservative in their processes, while smaller companies and independent bars and restaurants are often up for trying something new.
Will it keep its cool?
Even with legal versions increasingly available, nostalgia still plays a part in white whiskey's popularity.
"I think a lot of people like that it's a homegrown American product," Bell said.
And, of course, it has an edge, too.
"It may be a slight taboo thing, like absinthe had for a while," Zwiep said.
But therein lies the rub. Can a product that is no longer taboo stay cool?
When Kindy Girdley, a manager at Rumours East, passed a table of 30-somethings at the restaurant on a recent evening, she offered the group a taste of Catdaddy Carolina Moonshine, a legal version being made by Junior Johnson.
The reaction was mixed. As with potato salad and banana pudding, we all believe we've got an uncle or friend or distant cousin who makes it better.