Some alcoholic drinks, by nature, have an air of sophistication. A flute of champagne or a martini — shaken, not stirred — elicit a sense of occasion and refinement. Moonshine, however, has quite a different reputation. With nicknames like “rotgut” or “firewater,” moonshine (essentially just unaged whisky) captures a rough-around-the-edges outlaw spirit. Now, fully legal and much tastier, moonshine is making a comeback. We talked to professional distillers about the fascinating past and present of moonshine, plus got them to share their favorite recipes for moonshine cocktails that may make it your new spirit of choice.
The history of moonshine
“Moonshine has an incredibly colorful past,” notes David Suk, co-founder and CEO of Saint Luna, a craft moonshine brand. Its history is rooted in an angry response to a 1791 tax on distilled spirits, which later began the Whiskey Rebellion. Distillers (or bootleggers) would illegally make corn whiskey — later called “moonshine” since it was made in secret, under the light of the moon — to avoid the tax.
During Prohibition in the 1920s, women were some of the most prolific bootleggers of all. “Women were especially important to the growth of moonshine — in order to secretly smuggle it, they would strap bottles to their legs while hiding them under their skirts,” notes Suk.
What moonshine is made of
Moonshine is, at its essence, a strong, clear liquor. It started as corn whiskey since farmer-distillers could use even their lower-quality crop to turn it into profit. Today, it may be made from a few different things. “Moonshine can be defined as unaged whiskey before it enters the barrel for aging and can be comprised of a variety of cereal grains,” explains Jessica Michalec, head of distilling operations for Spoetzl Brewery in Shiner, Texas. “We make moonshine that is comprised of malted barley, malted wheat, rye and corn.” Suk adds that some moonshines are even made with fruit. And you can find brands in the liquor section of most alcohol stores.
What moonshine tastes like
Moonshine has a reputation for being incredibly potent — used more as a tool for getting drunk than for enjoying its flavor. While that may have been true in bootlegger days, it’s more sophisticated today and has a unique, balanced flavor. In fact, it can easily be used as a substitute for vodka to make moonshine cocktails, according to Michalec.
“Moonshine has gotten the reputation of being a very high-proof spirit that burns and could even make a person go blind,” says Michalec. “But the grains used to make it offer a combination of flavors, including sweet, malty and spicy notes.” Depending on what grains are used to make it, it could be musky or even have vanilla and caramel flavors, as molasses is sometimes used in the base, notes Suk.
As delicious as it might be, drink it in moderation — it may have evolved since the 1800s, but it still packs a punch. “Moonshine typically comes in at a higher ABV than your standard spirits, such as vodka or tequila,” says Suk. Vodka has an ABV of 40%, while some moonshine goes as high as 80%.
Ready to take a walk on the wild side? While you can drink moonshine straight, it’s tastier in a mixed drink. Pick your favorite and kick back with a Chris Stapleton track to feel like a modern-day outlaw.
1. Thyme-Citrus Surprise
This recipe is usually made with vodka, but works beautifully with moonshine instead. It’s the perfect mix of tart and sweet.
- 2 oz. citrus flavored moonshine
- 1 sprig thyme
- 1 Tbs. sugar
- ¼ cup orange juice
- 2 Tbs. tart cherry juice
- 1 Tbs. cranberry juice
- Club soda
- In a cocktail shaker, muddle thyme, sugar and juices untul sugar dissolves
- Add moonshine and strain into ice-filled mason jar or glass
- Top with club soda
- If desired, garnish with orange and lemon slices, cherries and thyme
2. Moonshine Mule
Looking for a good drink for game day? This variation on the Moscow mule is the perfect sip: The zesty flavors of ginger, lime and mint will cut through the sweet, savory and salty fare. (Click through for some of our favorite air fryer appetizers to pair with it!)
- 4 oz. ginger beer
- 1 oz. moonshine
- 1 Tbs. lime juice
- Lime wedges and fresh mint for garnish
- Combine ingredients over ice in copper mug
- Garnish and enjoy
3. Cinnamon Moonshine Appletini
Though this cocktail is traditionally made with vodka, try substituting moonshine for a fun twist! This delicious tipple combines apple cider, cinnamon and caramel for an irresistable fall drink.
- ½ cup chilled apple cider
- ¼ cup moonshine
- 1 tsp. cinnamon
- 1 Tbs. jarred caramel sauce
- Wet the rims of 2 martini glasses with apple cider or water, then dip onto a plate of cinnamon and set aside
- In a cocktail shaker filled with ice, combine ingredients and shake well
- Pour into rimmed glasses
4. Honey Pumpkin Smash
This recipe comes from Aubrey Slater, chief of branding and head mixologist for Saint Luna. “For a chic take on a fun fall cocktail, the honey pumpkin smash features warm honey and pumpkin offset by the brightness of mint.”
- 2 oz. moonshine
- 2 oz. honey pumpkin syrup (recipe below)
- Half a lemon
- 6 pieces fresh mint
- 3 dashes bitters
- Add all ingredients to shaker
- Shake for 30 seconds, dump into glass with fresh ice without straining
- Garnish with mint sprig
Honey Pumpkin Syrup
- 1 (15 oz.) can pumpkin puree
- Equal parts water and honey
- Combine ingredients in saucepan
- Boil until thick and syrupy, stirring occasionally
5. Harbor Patrol
No matter the time of year, a taste of the tropics is always welcome. “This cocktail is a fabulous mix of daiquiri and piña colada,” says Slater.
- 2 oz. moonshine
- 2 oz. pineapple juice
- 1 cup strawberries
- 1 oz. simple syrup
- 2 oz. lime juice, divided
- 2 oz. coconut cream
- Combine ingredients in blender
- Blend until combined and serve in a hurricane glass garnished with fresh fruit
6. Cherry Lime Shine
“One of our most popular cocktails is our Cherry Lime Shine, which is a playful take on a cherry limeade,” says Michaelec. Check out the recipe below.
- 2 oz. moonshine
- 1 oz. cherry grenadine
- 1½ oz. fresh lime juice
- Lemon-lime soda
- Sugar for the rim (optional)
- Wet the rim of your class and dip in sugar
- Combine first three ingredients and top with soda
- Garnish with lime wedge and enjoy!
Want more fun and festive cocktail recipes? Check out our stories below.