Moonshine is made from dry distiller’s grains and this is what sets it apart from other distilled beverages. Malted grains are the source of the sugars required for fermentation, and they usually are released through steeping in hot water. Unlike beer, moonshine contains no hops to act as a preservative because it doesn’t need hops. Instead, distilling increases the alcohol level that preserves the moonshine. Moonshine will taste different based on the types of grain used and the method by which it is distilled.
Here are the most common grains you’ll find in the moonshine-making process and how they affect flavor.
Different varieties of corn have different flavors and different levels of sugars available for fermentation. Corn is a popular choice for those looking for a sweet, neutral flavor as it yields more sugar and is cheaper compared to other grains. Thus, corn whiskey has been a popular choice from early on.
Oats make for a smoother flavor in moonshine. Like other grains, the flavor they provide is highly dependent on the malting process, but oats are typically milder than barley or rye. They are good for blending with other grains to even out any undesirable harshness. This mildness is also desirable for bringing out any fruity flavors that come from other parts of the moonshine production process.
Rye imparts what many consider a spicy or fruity flavor. It is less sweet than corn but more complex. The flavor is also usually drier than when corn is used. Rye is usually blended with other grains, but to be a true rye moonshine, it must use at least 51% rye.
The different types of barley are indicated by “row.” Six-row barley and 2-row barley are common varieties with 2-row having a higher extract level and lower enzyme activity than 6-row barley. Using 6-row barley with higher enzyme activity is useful for moonshines including other grains, but in a single malt moonshine, 2-row barley with higher starch content is often preferred since other grains are not used, making the enzyme activity less important. These options give you greater latitude in mixing and matching grains and malts to create different flavor profiles. Sometimes barley is used unmalted as well.
What Is This Malt Stuff, Exactly?
“Malt” refers to a grain like barley or rye that has been softened by steeping it in water and allowing it to germinate and then dry. This produces an enzyme called diastase, which helps starch in the grains turn first into sugar and then into alcohol. The particulars of the drying process are what really allow malt to give moonshine a unique flavor–it can give it a smoky, earthy, nutty, or even floral taste.
In some recipes for making moonshine, different types of grains are combined to create a unique taste. For example, Hillbilly Stills’ Sweet Feed Mix contains rolled corn, oats and cane molasses. How do you prefer your moonshine: smooth and sweet, nutty and dry or something unusual? What are your favorite moonshine grain combinations?