In the world of spirits, two terms frequently pop up in conversation, but their connotations couldn't be more distinct: new-make spirits and illegal moonshine. Both terms are associated with un-aged spirits, but their journeys, legality and quality set them poles apart.
New-make spirits represent the un-aged distillates that come straight off the still. They may not have the colour of fuller flavour profiles of their barrel-aged older siblings, but new-make spirits do have their virtues.
These spirits encapsulate the essence of distilling and highlights the craftsmanship involved.
Distillers take pride in their new-make spirits, which showcase the quality of their ingredients and the precision of their skills.
There are some spectacular Aussie new-makes on the market that we absolutely love.
Tara Distillery’s The Exile Poitín and Belgrove’s White Rye in particular are stunning spirits that work on their own and mixed into cocktails.
So What About Moonshine?
On the other end of the spectrum lies illegal moonshine.
Moonshine refers to homemade spirits produced illicitly, often in makeshift stills hidden away from the watchful eyes of the law. Unlike new-make spirits, moonshine is typically not made according to regulated standards, which makes it unpredictable and potentially dangerous.
For this reason, the word moonshine carries obvious negative connotations.
In the past, moonshine played a significant role during times of prohibition, where alcohol’s illegality drove demand, and poverty when hard times forced folk like farmers to use excess grain to produce spirit to sell.
Bush stills were also very popular in the early years of colonial Australia, where rum was used instead of hard currency.
All the same, the equipment—and the spirit that came from it—was not regulated. The product was inferior at best and at worst, dangerous to the drinker.
Despite their contrasting nature, new-make spirits and moonshine share some similarities that contribute to the confusion between the two.
Both are un-aged spirits and both usually have a high ABV.
However, it is essential to recognise that these similarities are only superficial. And although the key differentiators are the legality and safety of the production process, the most noticeable is how they drink.
Moonshine tends to be harsh, full of off flavours and aromas, and lacks any kind of nuance.
New-make, however, is made with the same care the distiller shows to spirits they intend to age or—if they make other white spirits—like their gin and vodka etc. In Australia, new-make still represents a premium craft product that has its own merits.
To confuse things more, you’ll probably find legitimate craft distillers using ‘moonshine’ or one if its synonyms on their labels.
After all, some of the slang around moonshine over the ages and around the world is pretty cool.
Names like white lightning, mountain dew, bush whisky, popskull, white dog and hooch (which comes from ‘hoochinoo’, a rum-like spirit made by the Tlingit people of coastal Canada and Alaska) offer great marketing hooks.
Tara Distillery’s new-make takes its name ‘Poitín’ from the Irish moonshine that was illegal up until the late ‘90s (in Northern Ireland, it’s still illegal).
Distillers would use pretty much anything they could ferment to make their poitín, whereas Tara’s superb white spirit is made from a carefully selected mash bill of local oats and barley, triple distilling it to a clean, bright and remarkably smooth spirit that’s simply delicious.