18 March 2012

Moonshine 101: Glen Thunder

As most of my friends know, I enjoy whiskey. My faves are the corn whiskeys—usually Jack Daniel's, but also some bourbons—but I’ll also have a glass of Jameson's Irish or even a single malt Scotch once in a while. (Thanks, John!)

The corn whiskey that comes out of a still is clear—basically what folks call moonshine. When I thought about it at all, I thought of that young, raw whiskey as a proto-product, a step along the way to making “real whiskey.” When people sold it in that form, I figured that was more of a commercial compromise in order to make liquor fast than it was about quality or esthetics. (My Kentucky in-laws may disagree with me on that.)

To make bourbon—my notion of a “real” whiskey—it has to be aged in charred-oak barrels. That's where it picks up the dark amber color and a lot of its flavor. (By the way, Jack Daniel's—which calls itself a “sour mash” and “Tennessee whiskey” instead of bourbon—meets all of the Federal Standards of Identity for Distilled Spirits to be called a bourbon. The biggest difference, aside from being made in Tennessee instead of Kentucky, is that it’s filtered through charred sugar maple before going into the barrels, which accounts for some of the differences in flavor, particularly the sweetness/spiciness that a lot of us enjoy.)

Anyway, it recently dawned on me that I'd never actually tasted that young, clear corn whiskey, and maybe I should. I'd seen versions of it on sale in some of the larger liquor stores, but unfortunately, not at any of the places around here. Fortunately, we have the Internet.

Since moonshine obviously has been around for centuries and can be widely variable in flavor, strength and quality, I figured it might be a good idea to do a little online research instead of buying the first one I ran across.

It turns out Finger Lakes Distilling in upstate New York makes a clear corn whiskey called Glen Thunder, named in honor of the nearby Watkins Glen racetrack.

The name is a nice nod to the history of NASCAR. While I’m not a fan (although my best friend is), I’ve learned that NASCAR has its roots in and got some of its early stars from among bootleggers who souped up their cars to run moonshine and outrun revenuers during prohibition.

And speaking of roots, while upstate New York isn’t Kentucky or Tennessee, it’s the place where my immigrant ancestors on both my (Irish) mother’s and my (German) father’s sides of the family originally settled after arriving in America.

I did some more reading, and it turned out Glen Thunder got near-universally good reviews. Combined with the historical and genealogical connections, that pretty much closed the deal.
The next problem was how to get it. Glen Thunder is available in a lot of places around New York, a handful of places beyond, and as near as I can tell, nowhere in the upper Midwest. Worse, the only place online I could find that was willing to do a mail order wanted more than the price of a bottle for the shipping and handling.

So I reached out to my online friends. Two members of the NYC-based Yancy Street Gang went looking and one of them soon scored a couple of bottles. Turns out there are some pretty stringent regulations these days about what can be shipped via what carriers and where, but in a feat of what some might call modern-day bootlegging, those bottles found their way to my door a couple of weeks back.

So what does it taste like?

Well, it's obvious that the folks at Finger Lakes work hard to craft their clear corn whiskey as a finished product, not just something that will be transformed into a “real” whiskey later. This stuff is plenty real.

A lot of the reviews I read mention a creamed corn taste. While I definitely tasted corn, it reminded me more of cornbread—almost a dry flavor.

On the other hand, there definitely was a sweetness (this should give you some idea of my ignorant palette—I've got "dry" and "sweet" in the same tasting!), and a bit of a bite as it crosses the tongue. But unlike some of the cheaper whiskeys I've tried over the years, Glen Thunder has a nice, light, almost fruity aftertaste.

It went down fine out of the shot glass, and was even better over ice—the melting water seemed to release some additional flavors, although I haven't got the vocabulary or experience to try to describe them, other than "Good."

I don't think anyone would call Glen Thunder "smooth" or describe the flavors as subtle, but they're a nice mix and no question they're enjoyable.

So the Glen Thunder goes on the sideboard next to the JD Single Barrel—something I'll enjoy straight up or over ice, and will savor and share with company (at least those who enjoy whiskey).