Difference between Moonshine and Whiskey

Key Difference: Moonshine is any type of alcohol that is produced illegally. The produced alcohol was most commonly whiskey or rum. Whiskey is a type of distilled alcoholic beverage made from any form of fermented grain mash. Moonshine and whiskey differ from each other in appearance, taste, proof, flavor and hygiene. Moonshine was also higher in proof and alcoholic content compared to whiskey that has been set to a certain proof by authorities.

The term moonshine is an old word that was popular during the American Revolution but is now only used in select places in the United States. Moonshine is used to describe any alcohol that is made illegally. Whiskey is a distilled alcoholic beverage that is made from fermented grain mash. Moonshine is usually whiskey or rum; however they differ in the process by which they are made.

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Moonshine dates back to the beginning of the American Revolution, when the government wanted to control the alcohol trade in the country. Moonshine is also known as white lightning, mountain dew, hooch or Tennessee white whiskey. The Revolution was becoming very expensive for the government and after exhausting all means revenues; they started levying federal taxes on liquors and spirits for additional funds. This did not sit well with the American citizens, as one of the main reasons for the war was to free themselves from the heavy taxes levied by the British Empire. Many Americans continued making alcohol (more commonly whiskey) in secret. Thus, moonshine was born. Moonshine has become obsolete these days because of the large distilleries offering alcohol at cheap prices. However many small distilleries in United States continue to produce moonshine with a cleaner and safer process to maintain the tradition.

The most common forms of moonshine that were distributed were whiskey and rum. They most simple recipe required to make moonshine were corn meal, sugar, yeast and water. However, the corn meal could also be replaced with other forms of grains such as barley, rye or any other kind of grain mash. The mash would be mixed with yeast, sugar and water and put through the process of fermentation, where the yeast would break down the sugar. After that distillation would occur where the mash would be boiled to evaporate the alcohol in the mixture. Boiling makes it easier to collect alcohol as it has a lower boiling point compared to water. The evaporated alcohol is then pushed into a thump keg, where some mash can also be present. The alcohol is then re-evaporated from the thump keg (to remove any traces of mesh) and filtered into a cooler barrel where it condenses into liquid form. Moonshines are usually high proof alcohol and are known to have a ‘kick’ in their taste. Moonshine is usually transparent and clear in appearance.

Whiskey or whisky is a type of distilled alcoholic beverage made from any form of fermented grain mash. Depending on the geographical region or type of whiskey that is being made, whiskey can be made from barley, malted barley, rye, malted rye, wheat, and corn. They are often aged in charred barrels. According to Wikipedia, the word ‘whiskey’ is the anglicisation of the Gaelic word ‘uisce|uisge’ meaning “water”. Distilled water was known in Latin as aqua vitae meaning “water of life”. The process of distillation can be dated back to the Greeks in Alexandria around the 3rd century AD; however they did not distill alcohol only spirits for fragrance purposes. The distillation process was passed down through the ages to Italy in the 13th century AD where the first distillation process of alcohol took place and alcohol was distilled from wine. The alcohol was originally used for medicinal purposes before it become consumable as a beverage. Whiskey first become popular as a beverage in Scotland before it spread to other neighboring countries.

There are various different types of whiskey and they differ in terms of base product, alcoholic content and quality. The main two types include malt whisky and grain whisky. Malt whisky is made primarily from malted barley, while grain whisky is made from any type of grain. Malting is when the grain is put under the process of germination. Germination requires the barley being placed in water for a certain amount of time and being constantly turned to ensure proper soaking. Whiskies can further be classified under: 

  • Single malt whisky: is whisky that is from a single distillery and is made from a mash that uses only one particular type of malted grain.
  • Blended malt whisky: is a blend of different malt whiskies from different distilleries.
  • Blended whiskies: is whiskey that is made from a mixture of malt and grain whiskies along with neutral spirits, caramel, and flavoring.
  • Cask strength: These whiskies are bottled directly from the cask and are undiluted or only a little diluted. These are rare whiskies.
  • Single cask: Each bottle of a single barrel whiskey is from an individual cask with the cask number labeled on the bottle.

Whiskies must be strengthened and aged in a barrel. They do not mature in the bottle, hence if a person keeps the whiskey bottle over a long time, it would not become any stronger in flavor or alcohol content. The alcohol content and mash content varies depending on the regulations of the geographic region. The whiskies require a charred oak barrel during the aging process, which provides them with the golden brown and amber coloring. Additional flavors and colors can be added to the alcohol depending on the regulations.

Moonshine and whiskey differ from each other in appearance, taste, proof, flavor and hygiene. Moonshine was made in very unhygienic conditions in the backwoods of many farms and they often had a chance of making people ill. Moonshine was also higher in proof and alcoholic content compared to whiskey that has been set to a certain proof by authorities. The process of distillation is also temperamental and could also cause disastrous results if done wrong. It can turn the alcohol dangerous to health. Moonshine also has a special ‘kick’ in flavor, which is described as a sharp taste, while aging of the whiskey reduces that ‘kick’ and makes the drink much milder in taste. Howstuffworks states that in order to differentiate moonshine from other drinks and to maintain that ‘kick’ many moonshiners added lethal additives such as manure, embalming fluid, bleach, rubbing alcohol and even paint thinner. Though, whiskey is a bit more expensive compared to moonshine, it is considered as a much safer and milder option. These days, because of the bulk purchasing and manufacturing, cost of alcohol has gone down significantly resulting in moonshine to slowly becoming obsolete in many places.

Image Courtesy: pfiwestern.com, shopping.rspb.org.uk

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