What Good is Moonshine? Examining Different Styles of White Whiskey

What Good is Moonshine? Examining Different Styles of White Whiskey

Bottom Line: sipping moonshine versus an aged bourbon of any quality, there’s absolutely no comparison. When a decent bourbon can be had for $20-$30 there’s simply no reason to buy from a sipping perspective. Good moonshine can, in some sense, replace bourbon in bourbon cocktails. But It’s not easy and there is a high variability in quality.  Moonshine isn’t actually an easy replacement for vodka at all, though it can surprise.

Now for the details: 

Every whiskey around brags about the wood it uses and the time it spends in the barrel. Then you see a whole proliferation of “white whiskey” or “moonshine” or “white lightning”… a bunch of clear spirits claiming to be whiskey and all essentially un-aged.

Why would you buy it? If you got it, what are you supposed to do with it?

Distilled, raw alcohol really doesn’t taste that good. The history of spirits is one, long movement of the mass of humanity trying really hard to make it taste better. All the major spirit categories are based on this simple premise. Consider:

Liqueur: raw alcohol mixed with sugar and spices to make it taste better.

Scotch: malted barley to sweeten the grain and then aged in oak to soften the flavor.

Bourbon: various grain bills aged in new-charred oak to soften the flavor and introduce vanilla/caramel flavors.

Tequila: can be drunk clear and raw but the more expensive brands are rested or aged in oak to soften the flavor.

Rum: made from a base of sugar/molasses almost always aged and then filtered (silver rums) or else aged and bottled (gold and aged rums). Then there’s spiced rum, which has all sorts of additives put in it.

Gin: a staunch try to introduce botanicals into a raw spirit to make it taste better. (Aquavit and related spirits do the same.)

Canadian Whisky: allows up to 10% additives and sweeteners to improve the flavor.

Brandy: aged in oak to soften the flavor.

Vodka: even this spirit is distilled up to a high, high proof (190) in order to achieve an almost tasteless, odorless quality… that’s not because raw distillate tastes great south of that proof.

When you look at it this way, one has to wonder: outside of blanco tequila, certain eau-de-vie, and other exotica, moonshine stands apart as something that claims to taste good despite literally millennia of effort to the contrary.

That was all from the consumer perspective. Let’s instead look at the many, many reasons why a producer would want to sell un-aged whiskey.

  • It’s way cheaper to distill, bottle, and sell then it is to distill, buy a barrel, store the barrel for many years, blend the barrels into a consistent taste, and then finally bottle and sell.
  • It really is a lot, lot cheaper to not age it (see item 1)
  • But that hasn’t prevented the market from exploding and the Discovery Channel Moonshiners show gaining huge popularity (not to mention untold gallons of moonshine solid illicitly). So what gives? Is it an acquired taste? Is it marketing bullshit? We’re a little puzzled ourselves so we went about finding out.

    We decided to compare some classic spirits (vodka and bourbon) against three different styles of moonshine.

    Corn Vodka—corn because we wanted to mimic a different distillation technique of what would otherwise be classic moonshine corn whiskey. We ended up using Tito’s.

    Legal Un-Aged Whiskey—we had a 200ml sample of George Dick un-aged corn whiskey to sample. This is stuff that is perfectly legal and sold in real glass bottles.

    Lewis County Whiskey—this was un-aged whiskey that was provided to us from an undisclosed source in Door County. Its vessel was a mason jar. We will not be too specific about its origins save to say it is perfectly authentic.

    North Carolina Whiskey—another un-aged whiskey from another undisclosed source in North Carolina. This, too, was very authentic. Furthermore, we were promised that this was the product of a hallowed “craft” and that “What I sent to you is increasingly hard to find.”

    Bourbon—we needed to test against a known standard in bourbon (itself at least mostly corn-grain based) and compared it to Woodford Reserve.

    Our goal is simple: try to figure out what one is supposed to do with un-aged whiskey (which we’ll call moonshine from this point forward).

    We’re often told that moonshine should be a replacement for either traditional whiskey drinks (we’re dubious) or else a replacement for vodka (more plausible). So with three samples of moonshine ranging from authentic to legal, we’re bound and determined to answer the question: what good is moonshine?

    How about just drinking it straight?

    If moonshine is really supposed to be as good as aged whiskey, then it needs to be sippable. One needs to be able to put an ice cube in the glass and contemplate the deeds accomplished and the loves lost over a long life. That is a lot different than passing a milk jug at a rousing Appalachian party.


    Tito’s Corn Vodka

    George Dickel Un-Aged Whiskey

    Lewis County’s Moonshine

    North Carolina’s Moonshine

    Woodford Reserve Bourbon

    Very mild, grain aroma. It’s smooth and sweet on the initial palate with a touch of citrus and then a burn. Biting. Not terribly special.

    Smells of popcorn… not just corn, but popcorn. Or perhaps the smell off the grain elevator near the farm. Nice, beer flavor on the palate with a smooth, warming finish. Well-crafted. Maybe not sipping whiskey but decent whiskey.

    Aroma is off, somehow… the finish is a little methyl-laced as well. The flavor is actually a little more corn, though not as much as Dickel. Charcoal, propane sort of finish. We watered it back a touch… now it took on a wet, fungus character. Not sipping whiskey. Easy to imagine something got in the antique, ramshackle stills in the backwoods.

    Aroma is of wet earth. But milder… not much grain. More cachaca-like. This tastes less like corn and more like wheat or barley. It needles and is probably high proof. Water really calms it down, gives it a bit of sweet. Makes us think much more of wheat. Decent whiskey but not a sipping whiskey.

    It’s full of vanilla and caramel. The profile is velvety smooth and lovely. There really is no comparing these moonshines with a “real bourbon.” This is sipping whiskey all the way.


    What did we learn? You may have idyllic images of overall-clad gentlemen sitting around on humid porches passing this stuff back and forth out of plastic milk jugs but we’re ready to say there’s nothing “sippable” about moonshine. Some of it can taste okay… but in comparison with an aged bourbon of any quality, there’s absolutely no comparison. When a decent bourbon can be had for $10 - $15 there’s simply no reason to buy from a sipping perspective.

     Comparison to Whisky

    There is only one comparison here: we’re going to make a very traditional Old Fashioned cocktail and see what happens. We do it right: large, fresh orange rind plus two maraschino cherries, muddled in simple syrup and topped with delicious whiskey (1½ oz).

    Old Fashioned Cocktail

    Woodford Reserve Bourbon

    Lewis County’s Moonshine

    North Carolina’s Moonshine

    George Dickel Un-Aged Whiskey

    Tito’s Corn Vodka

    Classic presentation and classic drink. Very nice; very delicious; and prevents scurvy.

    Whoops. If someone told us this was an Old Fashioned, we’d think they made it with gin, tequila, or scummy rainwater… anything but whiskey. Drinking it feels almost like a hazing ritual.

    Smells of grain and tastes a little of sweet tart. This is whiskey… clearly identifiable as whisky. Just no wood. This is a surprisingly nice drink. It highlights the sugar and cherry flavors. One would order another one of these.

    Nothing wrong with it but the flavor profile is not distinctive. It tastes of sweet and alcohol—one note and not entirely whiskey. Can vodka be even less flavorful than this? Turns out yes.

    This is a sorority cocktail. Super sweet. Drinkable but we’ve achieved a sweet shooter. It almost needs a float of 151 or tequila. That’s how much it needs some flavor with the sweet.


    Another popular method of drinking whiskey is highball style… we do it in ginger ale with a lemon twist (which is normally fabulous). We used 3 parts ginger ale to 1 part whiskey.

    Ginger Ale Highball

    Lewis County’s Moonshine

    George Dickel Un-Aged Whiskey

    Tito’s Vodka

    Woodford Reserve Bourbon

    North Carolina’s Moonshine

    Oh dear. It smells like something that you tasted good 2 weeks ago before it spoiled. Now? Stale beer and cigarettes. Or brand new racquetball rubber. Not good; not repeatable.

    If you try to turn whiskey into beer, this is what happens. It’s a sweet kind of beer but not as good as beer and not as good as real whiskey. Flat beer. It can be finished with a grimace but not repeated.

    This is really a Moscow Mule with lemon instead of lime. And it’s good. That’s exactly what it tastes like. It highlights the ginger and citrus and doesn’t hide it in grain whiskey.

    This is good if you’re looking for a highball. The inverse of the Moscow Mule; this time it’s whiskey with a flavor. (Some say it ruins good bourbon.)

    n/a (we ran out)


    What did we learn? Well, good moonshine can, in some sense, replace bourbon in bourbon cocktails. It’s not easy and there is a high variability in quality. Overall, we have to give the North Carolina stuff the best of the bunch award, though it’s hard to imagine replacing Woodford Reserve with it.

    Comparison to Vodka

    Turning to vodka, let’s come out of the gate with that most common of cocktail: the Cosmpolitan (we decided to eschew the Vodka Martini). We do ours classic: 2oz spirit; ½ oz Cointreau; ½ oz lemon juice (we prefer it to lime); and ½ oz cranberry juice. Is this maybe what gay hillbillies drink?


    Tito’s Corn Vodka

    George Dickel Un-Aged Whiskey

    Lewis County’s Moonshine

    North Carolina’s Moonshine

    Woodford Reserve Bourbon

    Sweet, nice, girly… easy and smooth. Makes us all want to shop for shoes. Highly drinkable.

    More potent; heavier smell. This doesn’t taste like a Cosmo… it’s an alteration. One notices immediately it’s not vodka. Opinions vary on if its better—but everyone agrees it is distinctive. Almost like a float of beer in your Cosmo.

    The smell is Cosmo-like… perhaps a bit grain-forward. But drinking… it’s just wrong. Where the Dickel was an alternation of a Cosmo, this is simply a Cosmo gone wrong. Probably the folks who made this don’t give a damn that it doesn’t go well in a pink cocktail.

    This is miserable. It would start a bar fight. Among sober people.

    This is an actual drink if you look…. Sometimes called it a Samuels (thank you Art of the Drink). Not our first choice for bourbon but we gave it a shot. The aroma is nice… wood and cranberry—like a wooded red wine. It’s an astringent variation on a traditional Cosmo.


    Pina Colada is one of those summer drinks and making them made us pine for warm breezes and bronzed bodies here in the depths of a January winter. We made ours with fresh pineapple juice, cream of coconut, and spirit.

    Pina Colada

    George Dickel Un-Aged Whiskey

    Tito’s Vodka

    Woodford Reserve Bourbon

    Lewis County’s Moonshine

    North Carolina’s Moonshine

    Smells of pineapple and coconut, naturally. Drinking it, would never know that there’s moonshine in there. It’s the tropical drink realized.

    This is cleaner and nicer… appears the grain didn’t help the drink. There is a palpable difference.

    This is pretty damned awesome. Hard to put good bourbon in this drink but it gives the tropical flavor a nice, wood mix and a beautiful finish. We’ve discovered a new drink!

    You would think the ingredients here would obscure the nastiness a little bit… but no. Not at all. It almost approaches a Vegas $1 well-drink (downtown) but it can’t quite hit that “aspiration.”

    n/a (sadly we ran out)


    What did we learn? Moonshine isn’t actually an easy replacement for vodka. There’s a heavy grain flavor and vodka cocktails are often designed to showcase the mixers rather than the spirits; here, the spirit is banging a gong and it has to fit with the musical score. Often, it doesn’t.

     [Disclosure: we received free of charge a 200ml sample of George Dickel un-aged corn whiskey from the producer; we also received our other two moonshines from undisclosed sources who are fans of Proof66; all other items mentioned were acquired at our own cost.]

    By Neal MacDonald, editor

    Published by Proof66.com