Handle The Proof: A Little Moonshine

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Moonshine has a reputation not always deserved. Some people, after all, take pride in their craft, however illicit.

Yeah, some of it reeks of burnt quinine and poisonous residue. The word brings to mind hardened heroes like Junior Johnson and others hauling jars of dubious spirit. And it's difficult not to think of Ozark (or Appalachian) backwoodsmen lazing on a porch surrounded by jugs bearing that notorious 'XXX.'

Maybe I just learned too much from Looney Tunes...

But over the years I've sampled--if that's the right word--some rather intriguing (and at least one impressive) distillates.

At its best, moonshine is just an unimproved spirit. Where vodka makers distill multiple times to smooth out the character and boost the alcohol, where whiskey masters turn to barrel aging, 'shiners just let it drip.

If you ever get the chance, however, take a taste of sour mash whiskey--the raw material of refined bourbon--straight from the still. It smacks of fresh corn and white bread, full of natural sugar and yeast. You don't want much (unless you really appreciate a good hangover), but the flavors are rather pleasant. In the former Soviet countries, old timers in the villages were used to secretly making their own refreshment. This stuff, which they translate as 'brandy,' tends to be fierce. Almost every example I've tried breathes fiery alcohol down your throat, with a strong, grassy bitterness behind it.

Kinda like a bad grappa.

In the Czech Republic, even today, you find better slivovice--also translated as brandy, but of fruit rather than grain--on Moravian farms than in commercial bottles. The best of these can be surprisingly mellow (the kick hits you later), with background notes of overripe fruit and the hodge-podge of skin, seeds and twigs that make their way into the process. This bonds the spirit with a pulpy base perfectly in tune with the main ingredient.

Oh, I've probably overstated the beauty of this liquor. It's not all that pretty--they distill once and just sieve out the remnants. Old timers who've been doing it for awhile know how to bring out a finished product with rough edges, but a clean, flavorful middle.

You gotta get over there and ask around, but the experience is worth it.

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