Moonshine vs. Whiskey: Key Differences and Similarities

Back in the day, when alcohol was under siege, you could find moonshine brewing under the night’s moonlight or hidden clearly in a mason jar away from the public. Today, you’ll find moonshine slightly aged into oak barrels and soon-to-be signature white whiskey flavors prized in crystal glass bottles.

boozy alcoholic american moonshine shots ready to drink

But there’s a question that many ask: moonshine vs. whiskey, what’s the difference, and are there similarities?

New generations of distillers that fancy our favorite American spirits are perfecting distillation processes to prepare moonshine for its long overdue renaissance debut alongside its sister-cousin whiskey.

Are Moonshine and Whiskey The Same Thing?

The answer is yes and no. Moonshine and whiskey have the same origin story. However, the way in which they kept their stay is different. And it has everything to do with distillation methods and taxes. 

18th-century Irish and Scottish immigrants who made their homes in the American South brought their favorite homemade recipes and traditions– making moonshine. However, in doing so, government attempts to regulate the sale of homemade goods forced many entrepreneurs to go commercial, thus producing the necessary differences between moonshine and whiskey drinks regulated by the government.

So, What Is Moonshine?

 a collection of five vintage moonshine jugs in a wooden carry crate

Moonshine is a distilled spirit that you will find only in the backwaters of the South. However, the tradition of distilling the spirit under the night moonlight is usually preserved inside the family.

Older generations of barley, corn, rye, and sugar farmers knew their ways around makeshift fermentation and distillation methods that were more reliable than beer products that tend to have shorter shelf lives. Hence, the popularity of underground moonshine markets. 

Moonshine can be any liquor, whiskey or rum, distilled illegally. That means the white whiskey distillers distilled without federal and state licensing or adhering to government safety standards and tax exemption. And moonshine isn’t subject to much specificity. 

The black market moonshine contains all things fermentable and cannot be traced to a single or blended grain origin. Instead, moonshine can ferment from grain, sugar, or fruit. As long as the moonshine avoids government intervention, you’ve got a nice jar of shine.

However, simply put, commercial moonshine is also famed as homemade white unaged whiskey. And legally speaking, white or clear whiskey is a distilled grain rinsed inside an oak barrel into a bottled mason jar and ready to arrive on your dinner table with a kick. 

With moonshine, there are no mellow flavors or beautiful oak-colored hues. Instead, there’s only a harsh, spicy clear water punch. However, moonshine experts can usually pick up on subtle flavors, mix up a cocktail, or can fruit into a tasty swig of moonshine. 

Moonshine Origins

moonshine still from stone, copper, and a couple of wooden barrels

Since the 1920 Prohibition Era, the United States government has taxed and reinforced safety protocols that outlawed creating homemade liquor. While some were able to recycle and reuse leftover grains into moonshine goods that offered barter, new, and undocumented revenue streams in the rural South, others fell victim to tax collectors and government regulation. 

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Government regulation was not limited to unrealistic home safety protocols and licensing. Although some government propaganda spreads myths about moonshine so scary that it could make men blind, they may hold some weight. However, many homemakers were harmlessly distilling liquor in the privacy of their own homes without harming a fly. Despite that, governments still do not recommend distilling moonshine at home.

Making moonshine under unregulated conditions can pose a severe lethal threat if processed and consumed illegally.After all, distilled spirits contain higher and denser rates of alcohol that exceed beer and wine. In addition, the government enforces penalties, fines, and criminal charges if you get caught.

On the contrary, moonshine is becoming more popular at your local Total Wine & Spirits as the moonshine renaissance emerges into the 21st century without pressure to operate inside the black market. 

What Is Whiskey, Then?

A glass of whiskey on old oak barrel with bunch of rye

Whiskey is the aged amber-colored spirit of moonshine. Similar to white moonshine, whiskey beings with a fermented grain like barley, rye, or corn. But differently, whiskey ages inside oak barrels. If the spirit didn’t touch the oak, it’s not whiskey. 

Despite the prestige specific to oak aging, the time the whiskey has to sit inside the cask is unique to the distiller’s motive. Whiskey can age for up 50 years and as little as a few months. And the spirit must be distilled at less than 95% ABV.  Unlike moonshine, there are a variety of whiskeys ranging from blended whiskeys, such as Canadian and Irish whiskey, to stiffly regulated Bourbon whiskey. As a result, the flavor profiles are more fluid, with layers of spicy caramel or warm notes. 

The origins of whiskey begin in Europe as one of the Scots-Irish unaged best-kept secrets of water, cereals, and spices. After whiskey left Europe, it first arrived on the east coast, notably taxing Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania pioneers with loops and hopes of unrealistic fees.

The new tax laws stirred up a Whiskey Rebellion that urged entrepreneurs to take their brew down south into the hills of Kentucky and Tennessee.  In addition to the thrill and hope of escaping taxes in the eastern US, the South was rich with the finest resources to create the infamous American whiskey. The newfound materials and natural ingredients were so rich that whiskey continued to divide into occult favorites like sour mash and bourbon.

However, similar to today, the government imposes its regulation on the population fueling the prohibition era into the speakeasies and backcountry transactions.

Despite the backlash, the demand for American whiskey continues to exceed the government’s strict quality control standards regarding grain type, aging, and proof. After all, the resilience and courage to stand against tax mongrels make American whiskey deliciously immortal– just like America’s favorite brands: Jim beans, Maker’s Mark, and Eagle Rare.  

What Are the Main Differences Between Whiskey and Moonshine?

A line of tasting glasses filled with different types of Whiskies for tasting

Aside from their difference in street credit, whiskey and moonshine differ in taste, color, and aging processes. As a result, it is rare to find spirit enthusiasts gathered around to tour the layered flavors of white whiskey. Instead, whiskey enthusiasts should reserve whiskey tastings to explore complex caramel-colored whiskeys.

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Let’s start with taste. Although moonshine typically uses grains like corn as the base of the whiskey, fruit remains can influence the potent astringent flavor. Moonshiners often acclaim subtle flavors of corn with the signature rum-like burn that backyard BBQs tend to chase with a lime. Whereas, whiskey liquor blends well with ginger beer or lemon flavors.

In addition, whiskey is a spirit of many flavors, so you may find yourself with various tasty options that help you create a fun, informed decision about whiskey flavors. The classic whiskey doesn’t contain flavors and takes on the flavor of the whiskey cask– oak, bourbon, and rum casks are typical whiskey barrels. 


Second, the apparent difference between whiskey and moonshine is its color. Whiskey can take on a beautiful rich amber Kentucky whiskey color or a sultry golden Japanese whisky hue. Moonshine is clear and white, like water. However, flavored moonshine will usually contain color that you’ll often find paired with pickled or canned fruits. 


The last distinct difference between whiskey and moonshine is the aging process. Moonshine is relatively quick and easy to make. And it doesn’t enter the whiskey cask. However, the signature flavors of whiskey come from its time aging inside charred casks for a time. 

How To Make White Whiskey

buffalo trace whiskey white dog mash

At this point, if you don’t know anyone who makes moonshine, also known as white whiskey, you’re probably wondering how you make your own “legally.”

Legally, there are four main ingredients to creating a decent whiskey: grains, yeast, water, and a still. Common grains you can find inside white whiskey are corn, rye, wheat, barley, or a blend of all of them. To get a better idea of how grains impact the flavor, depth, and texture of whiskey, use this quick guide to refresh your palette: 

  • Corn grains give the whiskey a buttery, creamy flavor 
  • Rye grains are spicy and nutty in flavor
  • Barley tastes smokey and earthy 
  • Wheat is sweet and smooth

Most moonshine’s base grain is corn, which is cheap to buy in bulk and hits the moonshine itch just right. Whiskey cooks raw ground-up meal grains into a pot, slowly churning and cooking them into liquid digestible sugars.

Detail of inside mash tun while making of whiskey

After the yeast ferments inside the liquid for a few to 10 days, the yeast will grow into heat, carbon dioxide gas, and alcohol. So you’re right on track if your fermentation smells sweet and then goes sour.

The fermentation phase is the most dangerous yet exciting phase of making white whiskey. Yeast growth yields fermentation that generates exothermic heat that may kill some yeasts. However, surviving yeasts will eat the gases and leave behind a nice alcoholic beverage.

The next step requires legal licensing– distilling your now alcoholic beverage will transform your beer into a concentrated liquor regulated by the US government. Whiskey makers use a still to strain and concentrate the whiskey at its most explosive phase.   

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Steam is rising from the still to the top of warehouse as the still is going through a distillation process

Each still isn’t created equally. When it comes to whiskey distillation, makers can refer to pot stills, column stills, or small commercial stills that reduce the alcohol vapor the still produces. The pot still is most common in rural areas where moonshiners use large bottom-heated kettle pots to boil off alcohol and excess vapors. The vapors are usually separated to condense. The column still has a different distillation flow. The mash begins from the top of the still and flows downward closer to the heat source until it naturally evaporates through the plate system. 

After your mash is in the still and its thermometer reaches 176 degrees Fahrenheit, the combustible alcohol will begin to evaporate. On the contrary, the mash’s alcohol converts into a refined distillate inside the still’s condenser. 

Lastly, the condenser uses a cold-water shock to return the vapor into the new white whiskey that will find its home in a nice glass under two ice cubes.

In short, there are four significant steps to making homemade white whiskey: 

  • Choose your grain, meal it, and cook it with water in a mash
  • Ferment your cooked mash with yeast
  • Put your mash into the still, wait, and monitor its temperature
  • Shock your vapor, toss your unwanted parts, and enjoy!

If you find yourself scratching your head wondering if making white whiskey at home is easy enough for you to make, don’t make it.

You may need to remember an important step or face legal penalties from the government. Instead, tour your local whiskey distillery and discover the process of brewing white whiskey before it begins barrel aging. You might even get a chance to taste high-quality fermented mash. Or check out your spirit shop and support new and upcoming white whiskey makers.  


Are you still looking for more reasons to uncover a tasty moonshine in your spirit collection? Then, check out these frequently asked questions to discover your next favorite spirit. 

What are other moonshine nicknames?

Depending on where you are in the US, moonshine goes by many names: mountain dew, firewater, white lightning, corn whiskey, corn liquor, bootleg.

However, if you venture outside of the US, you will discover that each country has a unique name for its clear water spirit.  

Can you buy moonshine today?

Yes, you can find moonshine at your local Total Wine & Spirit store– commercial moonshine can taste just as delicious as backwater moonshine. 

Some of our favorite brands include Hudson New York Corn Whiskey, Tim Smith’s Climax Moonshine, Ole Smoky Tennessee Moonshine, Junior Johnson’s Midnight Moon, and Tory & Sons Platinum. 

Is whiskey stronger than moonshine?

No, whiskey is not stronger than moonshine– single-barrel whiskey has similar ABV contents to moonshine.

Although they have similar proof potency, the difference between whiskey and moonshine is maturity, taste, and distilling process.

Please drink responsibly, be fully accountable with your alcohol consumption, and show others respect.

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