This article first appeared in the Coloradoan newspaper.
If it shed any light on the subject at all — and it doesn’t remotely — I might be tempted to elaborate on the actual term “moonshine,” and where it originated: i.e. rural England (circa 1780), when country smugglers hid illicit barrels of French brandy in shallow ponds in order to avoid the taxman but were discovered one fated summer night, when the moon shone down so brightly on the surface of the pond that it looked as if a wheel of cheese were floating there, and so these bootleggers told the taxmen that they were, in fact, raking the water not for contraband but for a creamy piece of that cheese. This, however, is all rumor and rodomontade, easily sliced with an investigative blade.
It is in any case almost universally agreed that the term “moonshine” comes from the term “moonraker,” which in turn comes from this legend.
It is also generally agreed that moonshine — or white-lightning, if you prefer, or white-whiskey, or mountain dew — entered America in the early 1800’s, when Scots-Irish immigrants, who back home often made their whiskey without aging it, began settling the Appalachian region of America.
Yet the question remains: if many vodkas are essentially white whiskies, and if many whiskies made of corn mash are not moonshine, what, in the final analysis, is the distinguishing characteristic of moonshine?
The answer, it turns out, is this: illegality.
Moonshine, notorious for its high proof — frequently hovering around 190 (yowza!) — is any distilled spirit concocted in an unlicensed still.
That includes so-called splo, or bathtub gin, or the harrowing hooch confected by your next of kin.