Episode 111 - Why is Moonshine Illegal?

What’s shakin, cocktail fans?

Welcome to episode 111 of The Modern Bar Cart Podcast!

Thanks for joining us for this mailbag episode, where we answer some of the best spirits and cocktail related questions our listeners submit via email and social media. Remember - we’re here for you. So if at any point you’re confused or need help developing a cocktail formulation, just send a quick email to podcast@modernbarcart.com - like all the folks in today’s episode did - and we’ll do our best to point you in the right direction.

Featured Cocktail: The Harvey Wallbanger

This episode’s featured cocktail is the Harvey Wallbanger - and this is a drink that emerged during the cocktail dark ages of the 1970s, an era I really enjoyed reading about in Derek Brown’s new cocktail book, Spirits, Sugar, Water, Bitters: How the Cocktail Conquered the World.

Harvey Wallbanger Cocktail.jpg

To make the Harvey Wallbanger, you’ll need:

  • 1.5 oz of Vodka

  • 4 oz Orange Juice

  • ¾ oz of Galliano (which I’ll elaborate on in just a moment here)

In a large rocks glass with ice, add your vodka, then your orange juice - the order is important here because if you add the vodka second, it won’t mix as evenly - and then finally float the Galliano on top and garnish with an orange slice.

A couple really important things to note here:

First, if this sounds like a screwdriver to you - it basically is - and the Harvey Wallbanger is just one of many screwdriver variations the crawled out of the woodwork during the cocktail dark ages.

And second, we need to talk about Galliano, because it’s not a cocktail ingredient that most people are familiar with, especially here in the U.S. 

According to Derek Brown in the book I just mentioned:

Galliano is one of those products that is indispensable in a bar, if only for three very specific reasons. First, it’s tall, slender bottle shape helps with the measurement of back-bar shelving. Second, its size and thin, tapered neck makes it a handy weapon against would-be assailants. And third, it can make a Harvey Wallbanger.

In terms of its origins and flavor profile, Galliano is an Italian liqueur - but it is certainly not classified as an amaro. Because it does contain a number of herbs, barks and spices, I suppose some folks out there might consider it an aperitivo, but I’m not sure I’m one of those people.

The two main flavor notes in Galliano are anise and vanilla, with other woodsy botanicals bobbing around in the background. Much like Strega, another Italian liqueur, it has a bright yellow color, which is going to be largely drowned out by the orange juice in the Harvey Wallbanger, but as you might imagine, it could lend a compelling color if you wanted to include it in an original cocktail.

One last thing to note: as Derek Brown alluded to, this bottle is hefty and tall, so if you’re going to pick one up, just make sure you can fit it in your liquor cabinet, or at least be comfortable leaving it out for all to see as you chip away at its contents over the course of several years.

So, now that you know how to make a cocktail with a very silly name, let’s turn our attention to some of the excellent questions submitted to us by the Modern Bar Cart community.

Moonshine: Legal or Not?

First up, we’ve got a question from Laurie in North Carolina, who writes:

Dear Eric,

I listen to your podcast every week on my drive to work, and I’ve learned so much about making drinks, but I do have a question I hope you can answer about moonshine.

When I was little, I thought that moonshine was illegal liquor that people sipped from mason jars or jugs. But now, I’m seeing a ton of “moonshine” at the liquor store. Did moonshine become legal at some point, and I just didn’t realize?

Also, is any of it worth trying?

Well, Laurie - American moonshine is a fascinating topic but before I jump into the history and the “legality” of making it, let me just say that 90% of what you’re seeing when you look at the moonshine on your liquor store shelves is marketing. You’ll notice that a lot of it comes in mason jars of bottles that are meant to look like vintage jugs, and this is all designed to evoke the romance and danger of moonshine that became legendary during prohibition, when folks were forced to distill in the woods.

Now, to answer your main question, let’s rely on our old friend, the square is a rectangle metaphor.

All illegally produced spirits are illegal, and here in the U.S., the generic term for illegally produced spirits is “moonshine.”

However, not all moonshine is illegally produced. If you own a distillery and you operate that distillery in good standing while making an un-aged neutral spirit that you call moonshine, then you can put that in a bottle and sell it in a liquor store.

A lot of people are under the false impression that making moonshine is illegal simply because you’re evading the government, who really wants to tax any alcohol that comes off a still. If that was the case, we wouldn’t call it “illegal distilling” - we’d call it “tax evasion,” so there’s got to be something more to the moonshine story.

Now, you’ll recall I mentioned Prohibition a few moments ago. During that time, there were two main dangers that accompanied distilling in the woods. One is that you were using a direct fire still made up of mostly improvised components, and if you had any leaks where alcohol vapor could escape, chances are you and anyone else in the vicinity would be consumed by a fiery explosion. The other is the fact that people didn’t have the technology or experience to make precise cuts, which means that harmful chemicals like methanol could end up in the hooch, causing all sorts of bad health side-effects. 

So, in summary, distilling moonshine without a license and a certified facility is illegal primarily because of the harm you can cause to yourself and others - not to mention any property that gets destroyed in a still fire - and yes, also tangentially because the government does want to tax alcohol.

Finally, regarding whether or not the moonshine products you’re seeing at the liquor store are worth trying, I’m going to caution you that the large majority are probably not worth the price you’ll see them listed for. This is because custom bottles and old tymey labels jack up the cost, and so by the ounce, the juice inside probably isn’t worth it.

One thing I will say is to consult the label and see if you can learn what the moonshine was made of. Traditionally, corn is used, but it can be made from pretty much anything. So determining the base grain used to make your moonshine is about the only thing I can think of that will tell you whether or not you’ll enjoy drinking it.

Dry Shake vs. Reverse Dry Shake

Next up, we’ve got a technical question from Jake in Michigan, who writes:

Hey Eric,

I’ve been listening through a bunch of your old episodes and recently came across your egg-based cocktail interview with Dennis Sendros. My wife and I make a lot of heavier, creamy cocktails during the winter where I live, so I’ve been practicing with egg white cocktails, and I wanted to know if you had any easy way to remember when to do a dry shake and a reverse dry shake.

Any help would be greatly appreciated.

Jake - thanks for this question. It’s a good one, for sure.

First, let me catch our listeners up to speed on what it means to do both a dry shake and a reverse dry shake, as opposed to shaking as normal (which is typically called a wet shake). 

Egg White cocktail

A dry shake is when you put all the ingredients of an egg white cocktail into your shaker and shake WITHOUT ice. Then, you add ice and repeat. The effect is that the proteins in the egg white “denature,” resulting in a really thick, frothy head on the drink.

Now, a “reverse” dry shake might be hard to conceptualize because it sounds like a double-negative, right? Isn’t the reverse of a dry shake just a wet shake? Well, yes and no.

The reverse dry shake involves doing a wet shake with ice, but WITHOUT the egg white. Then, you remove the ice, add the egg white, dry shake the drink, and strain into your glass.

When it comes to remembering when to use each method, I don’t have any cute little mnemonic devices. But I can tell you the flavor implications, which should allow you to walk through your drink recipe and decide when you’d like to add your egg white and whether or not you’d like the rest of the ingredients to be chilled when you do.

Cocktails made with a normal dry shake tend to have the richest, most robust head, and that’s because the proteins are allowed to denature before coldness and dilution come into the equation. I recommend dry shaking especially when you’re trying to garnish with something that requires a little backbone to keep it from sinking.

Now, if you’re looking for a softer gradient between the cocktail and the foam head, maybe think about doing the reverse dry shake. In this situation, you’re only giving the egg white half as much time in the shaker, and the overall temperature of the drink is usually going to be a couple degrees warmer than a dry or a wet shake because you’re removing that ice half way through and introducing an ingredient (in the form of the egg white) that is a little warmer than the rest of the drink. 

Usually, I only resort to a reverse dry shake when I’m not quite satisfied with the outcome of a given drink made using a regular dry shake. Mostly because it’s a major pain to remove the ice from the shaker half-way through, but also because when you want an egg white cocktail, the sky is the limit when it comes to how rich that foam can be.

So I’m on team dry shake, but feel free to try out both methods and let us know which one you prefer.

Homemade Orgeat and Falernum

Next, we have a tropical drink question courtesy of Scott in Texas, who writes:

Hey there Eric,

I just moved into a new home with a lot of space, and I’m in the process of building out my own personal tiki bar. When we have folks over, I’d like to be able to make my own “house” version of a couple tiki drinks like a Zombie or a Mai Tai. I’ve got my various rums picked out, since a lot of drinks require a blend, but I wanted to get your thoughts on how to approach syrups like orgeat and falernum. If I make them in my kitchen, how long do you think they’ll stay fresh in the fridge?

Any thoughts are welcome.

I love questions like this one because it’s always exciting to embark on a new project in a space where you have room to experiment. So Scott - here are my thoughts.

The way I think about Falernum vs. Orgeat in the simplest of terms is that orgeat is nutty and perfumed, while Falernum is spicy, tangy, and complex. There are a bunch of different recipes online, so when you’re developing your house recipe, I’d recommend conducting an informal meta-analysis of the first page of the Google search results, and then select what you like from the various recipes. Also, whenever I’m making a “house” anything, I like to throw in something unexpected to truly put my fingerprint on the product.

When it comes to process, the difficulty with orgeat all comes down to the almonds. You need to blitz those up in a food processor and then let those soak in a pot full of hot simple syrup for several hours. Then, straining is a bit of a pain, so I’d recommend getting yourself a nut milk or jelly bag, which has a finer gauge than cheesecloth. But, once you’re all strained, it’s pretty easy, you just need to add rose water or orange blossom water, and you’re good to go.

Falernum requires more ingredient prep - usually peeling ginger, zesting limes, and crushing whole spices. And some recipes also call for you to make a flavored extract using high proof white rum, and then add that into a syrup after it’s extracted overnight.

So when it comes to both Falernum and orgeat, there’s no quick solution. They both require steeping.

Now, when it comes to stability - essentially, how long these syrups will last in the fridge - I’d really recommend going back and giving a listen to our homemade syrups episode.

But here are six things you can do to make sure your homemade syrups last as long as possible:

  1. Sanitize - This isn’t something everyone does before they cook dinner, but when you’re working with syrups, it’s really important to have a completely sterile workspace and clean hands.

  2. Strain thoroughly - This can help reduce the particulate matter that bacteria might enjoy living on.

  3. Reduce water activity - this means making a richer, thicker syrup. The reason why honey can last hundreds of years without going bad is because it’s got so much sugar in it. The concept here is similar.

  4. Acidify - adding citric acid (which is dried lemon juice) can help ward off certain strains of bacteria.

  5. Add alcohol - if you’re worried about stability, opt for a recipe that includes booze. And not just an ounce or two. That won’t do anything. But think about it this way - it’s YOUR HOUSE - so if your falernum is boozy, just dial back the booze in the rest of the cocktail formulation to compensate. Your house, your rules.

  6. Spice is Nice - syrups with ingredients that have antimicrobial and/or antifungal properties (like clove, cinnamon, and ginger) have a better shot at a long shelf life than syrups without them.

So ultimately, from a stability standpoint, I think falernum has the edge over orgeat, but with a little practice, I’m confident you’ll be able to develop some house recipes that will really blow away your guests.

New York Meets Italy (Cocktail-Style)

Our last question comes to us from Aryanna in New York, and it’s not just a question - it’s a challenge. Aryanna writes:

Hi Eric,

I love your podcast and I can tell you really like designing cocktails, so I’m hoping I can persuade you to weigh in on a cocktail party I’m trying to throw.

In about a month, a number of my husband’s extended family members are visiting from Italy, and I wanted to design a custom cocktail using a blend of New York and Italian ingredients. If you were in my position, what would you make? I guess I’m asking you to do the hard work for me.

Thanks for any advice you may have!

Aryanna - lucky for you, I enjoy a good challenge. And also lucky for you, New York and Italian ingredients go really well together.

Due to the heavy Italian influence in many parts of New York, you’ll find that most good liquor stores will have a decent selection of Italian Liqueurs, vermouths, and amari. So right off that bat, you’re in good shape.

Now when it comes to the cocktails, you really want to ask yourself whether you’ll be making these to order, setting them up in a “make your own” bar format, or doing a large-format punch or mixed drink. So, since I’m feeling good today, I’ll give you a drink option for each use case.

Shaken To Order

If you have the time and space to shake each drink to order, I’d recommend featuring a riff on a New York Sour.

The basic formulation here is Rye whiskey, lemon juice, simple syrup, egg white, and a red wine float. For ease of pouring, you could actually pre-mix the booze, citrus, and simple, then add the egg white to the shaker, and top with the red wine float. That wouldn’t actually be all that bad if you prepped ahead of time. And here’s the kicker - I’m not sure where your husband’s family is from in Italy, but it could be a neat gesture to feature a wine from that region in your float. Throw in a local New York based rye whiskey, and you’re good to go.

Make-Your-Own Bar

If you’re doing a “make your own” bar, I’d go with something bubbly like a spin on an aperol spritz. Maybe you could feature a sparkling wine from the finger lakes region and some optional local bitters, and then of course, it’s always fun to have a bowl of pre-prepped garnishes available.

Pre-Batched/Large Format

And then finally, if you want to batch up something simultaneously exotic and familiar, why not go with a large format junglebird? It’s a tiki drink with lime juice, pineapple juice, and campari, so you’ve got your Italian aperitivo, to which you might add a locally produced rum. The nice thing is, you can batch this up before the party, and either add dilution and refrigerate, or shake to order.

Aryanna - definitely hit us up and let us know how the cocktails go over, and maybe tag us on Instagram when you show them off.