A Brief History: Moonshine

If you consider yourself an advanced drinker, you may approach moonshine with a bit of resistance and trepidation. Who hasn’t heard of the many terrifying stories from crazy uncle Cletus about going down the rabbit hole with a jar of rotgut? When we discovered locally-distilled Belle Isle Craft Spirits we were intrigued by its updated riff on moonshine and exceptionally smooth and clean taste. We asked them to give us the 101 on one of Virginia’s most notorious commodities that goes by many names: Radiator Whiskey, Ruckus Juice, Alley Bourbon, and our personal favorite moniker: Corn Squeezins’. Belle Isle also kindly created a custom cocktail for us, so after you’ve read up on the origins of the spirit, mix yourself up a cold one. Cheers.

Moonshine has played an important role in American history. In fact, moonshine wouldn’t even exist if it wasn’t for American history. Mankind has produced alcohol for thousands of years. However, the American government was one of the first major governments in the world to tax and control the alcohol industry. The moment the government started to tax and control alcohol was also the moment the moonshine industry was born.

The term “moonshine” comes from the fact that illegal spirits were made under the light of the moon. In ever part of America, early moonshiners worked their stills at night to avoid detection from the authorities. The United States started taxing liquors and spirits shortly after the American Revolution. In the years following, the United States was struggling to pay the bills of the long war. Taxing spirits was an effective way to generate revenue to pay down the tab. In the early frontier days of American history, moonshine wasn’t a hobby, it was a part-time job. Many farmers relied on moonshine manufacturing to survive the bad years. With a little skill, low-value corn crops could be turned into high-value whiskey.

Moonshine has worn many hats over the years. Initially viewed as a premium spirit in the 1800’s, moonshine evolved into a dirty word once prohibition was passed. Overnight, illegal liquor became one of the most profitable businesses in America. Quality and attention to detail fell by the wayside, and what once was premium became a watered down, methanol-infused disaster.

What separates Belle Isle from its predecessor is that it has been distilled up higher than your average whiskey, but lower than a vodka, to create this nice marriage between the two spirits. In the end, it doesn’t possess the grainy characteristics associated with most whiskey’s, nor the tasteless/odorless character of a vodka. The moonshine is made from 100% organic corn, resulting in an exceptionally sweet white spirit that mixes well in both clear and dark spirit cocktails. The spirit is technically a “white whiskey”, but we call it a “Premium Moonshine” to pay homage to Belle Isle.

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As native Richmonders, we know Belle Isle like the back of our hands. We spend our days running its trails, biking along the paths, or jumping into the James River. If you’re not from around here, you might not be aware of all the magic that Belle Isle has to offer and how ingrained it is in our city. What many don’t know, however, is that Belle Isle has had a rich and interesting history. Over the years, the island has worn as many hats as moonshine itself. It was once used as a prisoner of war camp for example during the civil war, and also featured a nail factory, school, church, and general store. Where our story picks up, Belle Isle’s story, was back in the early 1800’s.

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Belle Isle was home to Belle Isle manufacturing, which was one of the major suppliers of the booming railroad industry at the time. During the civil war they pivoted and started producing these high end copper kettles that they shipped to all the war encampments. At the same time, Bourbon distilling was outlawed in an attempt to provide corn rations to soldiers. This created a perfect scenario of excess corn, copper kettles, and a need for spirit. These same soldiers began producing moonshine in the Belle Isle copper kettles. This wasn’t your standard backwoods hooch that would burn your nose hairs. It was a premium spirit, fit for the social elite, Army General’s and even graced the table at a few Governors mansions. Today we carry on and honor that tradition by calling our spirit a Premium Moonshine.

In regards to what it mixes with, I guess the simple answer is anything, but if you’re in a pinch, just replace your vodka with Belle Isle Premium Moonshine and you’ll never use that European lighter fluid again.  We prefer it on the rocks, but it makes a mean martini, and a lights out white Manhattan. Moonshine is America’s clear spirit…it’s America’s vodka.

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“Mason Dixon Smash”

2 oz Belle Isle Premium Moonshine

2 Cherries

2 Lemon Wedges

2 Orange Wedges

1 oz Simple Syrup
Muddle fruit and top with ice in a mason jar. Combine Belle Isle and simple syrup in a shaker and shake well. Pour over ice.

A big thanks to Belle Isle Craft Spirits for their white lightning expertise!

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