If your knowledge of moonshine is limited to what you’ve seen on the Discovery Channel’s “Moonshiners” and the parts of “Deliverance” you haven’t erased from your memory, you need an update. “People have the idea that it’s still made in the backwoods,” says Jason Silerto, bartender at Westend Bistro. “Nothing could be further from the truth. Now it’s small batch and high quality.” Though the word “moonshine” — probably inspired by the smugglers who worked by the light of the moon to distribute the firewater — historically refers simply to illegally distilled spirits, the moonshines you can legally buy today are generally unaged white whiskeys produced by fermenting corn. It’s strong stuff, usually clocking in at over 100 proof and acerbic when sipped on its own, though you can detect a touch of sweetness from the corn. The following bartenders are mixing the original mountain dew into cocktails that evoke urban cool rather than backcountry shenanigans.
1190 22nd St. NW; 202-974-5566, westendbistrodc.com. (Foggy Bottom)
“The mark of a really good moonshine is you should be able to drink as much as you want, pass out and wake up in the morning without a hangover,” Silerto says. He features a smoother-than-expected 105-proof apple-flavored moonshine from Palmetto Moonshine in his Palmetto Moon cocktail ($15). The autumn-inspired sipper is bolstered with peach liqueur, Absolut Elyx vodka and house-made apple cider syrup pepped with cinnamon, clove and allspice. No, it’s not served in a Mason jar — it arrives in a martini glass with a few brandied cherries.
2435 18th St. NW; 202-450-3106, dclibertine.com. (Columbia Heights)
Though this Adams Morgan watering hole has earned a reputation as a haven for absinthe aficionados since it opened last summer, its liquor list also features half a dozen moonshines. Two cocktails feature the spirit, including the Moonlit Affair ($11). Climax Moonshine (so named for the town in Virginia where it’s produced) is shaken with elderflower liqueur, rhubarb spirits, lemon juice and ice, then strained into a coupe glass. “You have to talk people into trying it, because everyone thinks it’s going to be way too strong,” general manager Morgan Tramontana says. “Most of them end up being pleasantly surprised.”
707 Sixth St. NW; 202-289-3600, graffiatodc.com. (Gallery Place)
Mike Isabella’s beverage director, Taha Ismail, was more than a little skeptical when he started working with moonshine. “Everyone has a bad memory of it, myself included,” he says. “I never thought you could make a good cocktail with it.” Corsair Distillery’s pumpkin spice moonshine made him a convert. He combines the squashy spirit with lemon juice, maple syrup and allspice liqueur, then pours the mix into a goblet. The remaining two-thirds of the glass are topped off with pumpkin beer. Ismail dubbed the concoction the Smashing Pumpkins ($10) after the gloomy alterna-rockers. “I think Billy Corgan would like it,” Ismail says.
1841 Seventh St. NW; 202-316-9396, whiskeyhome.com. (Shaw-Howard U)
You won’t see the word “moonshine” on the cocktail menu, but you will find white whiskey. Don’t be fooled — they’re basically the same thing. “Moonshine has this wonderful allure and backstory,” bar manager JP Fetherston says, “but it doesn’t connote good whiskey.” So he uses Corsair Distillery’s Wry Moon to make the white whiskey and smoked cola cocktail ($7). The clear spirit is combined with house-made cola syrup accented with hickory smoke, clove and allspice. The blend goes into a keg, where it spends three days being carbonated. The finished product is available on draft, simply dressed up with a lemon wheel.