• Image about Phil Brandon
Brian McKenzie (right) and Thomas Earl McKenzie, no relation, of Finger Lakes Distilling in Burdett, N.Y., with a vat of their Glen Thunder Corn Whiskey
Courtesy Finger Lakes Distilling

Though moonshine was, for years, relegated to the illegal confines of backyard brewers, legal versions of this clear, corn-based whiskey have become the hottest new thing in cold drinks.

I’m scared. The spirit of John Singleton Mosby, a Confederate cavalry battalion commander who has been dead for 96 years, is sitting right in front of me. It is white and shimmery, and I am certain it is about to hurt me. This spirit, Catoctin Creek Organic Mosby’s Spirit, is, in fact, the brand name for a clear, unaged grain alcohol — a whiskey that never spends enough time in a barrel to turn golden or to pick up flavor from the wood. I have had this kind of unaged whiskey once before. That was an illegally made, gasoline-flavored backyard brew known as moonshine. And I’m frightened that Mosby’s Spirit will be a painful reminder of that stuff.

White Whiskey Margarita
This drink shows how some white whiskeys can substitute for other white liquors — in this case, tequila.

1½ ounces Rock Town Distillery Arkansas Lightning
1 ounce Cointreau or other orange-flavored liqueur
1 ounce lime juice
¼ ounce agave syrup

Combine all ingredients in a shaker over ice. Shake. Strain into a margarita glass.

But as I lift the glass of Mosby’s Spirit for a taste, it reveals itself to be one friendly ghost. There is a smooth flavor of rye up front, a pleasant sweetness on the midpalate and a back end full of sass. Even with the finishing kick, it’s a revelation to me that unaged grain alcohol can taste this refined and delicious. And bartenders and booze buyers from coast to coast are having the same revelation in increasing numbers. Today, dozens of small craft distilleries are cranking out their own versions of this clear liquor and selling it — legally — across the country. Some call it grain spirit. Some call it corn whiskey. Many call it white whiskey. And Derek Brown, an acclaimed bartender who owns the Columbia Room and the Passenger in Washington, D.C., calls it cool. “There is a rich tradition of Americans making white whiskey, both legally and as illegal moonshine,” he says. “I think this heritage adds a cool factor. You feel as though you’re connecting to history.”

White Whiskey Collins
This simple, sweet-and-sour approach is usually reserved for vodka. But it can also work with either a smooth, grain-flavored unaged whiskey or one that has a prominent sweet-corn taste.

2 ounces Glen Thunder Corn Whiskey
1 ounce lemon juice
1 teaspoon superfine sugar
Club soda to taste

Combine all ingredients except soda in a cocktail shaker over ice. Shake. Strain into a Collins glass filled with ice. Top with soda. Garnish with an orange slice.

For the craft distilleries that have, in the last few years, popped up from Park City, Utah, to Brooklyn’s Park Slope neighborhood and just about everywhere in between, white whiskeys also offer the chance to connect with cash almost immediately after they fire up their stills for the first time. “With the economy the way it is, that really makes sense for these small distilleries,” says Max Watman, author of Chasing the White Dog: An Amateur Outlaw’s Adventures in Moonshine and the leading expert on white whiskeys. “If you’re running a distillery right now and you’re watching booze come off the still — and if people like it just as it is — then why put all of it in the barrel to sit and age? Just sell some of it now.”

That’s exactly what Phil Brandon is doing. After he was laid off from his telecom job, Brandon opened Rock Town Distillery in Little Rock, Ark., in 2010, with the primary plan of making bourbon whiskey — the kind that has to be aged in a barrel. Then he discovered there was a market for the clear, corn-and-wheat-based liquor that he was putting into those barrels. So he started bottling Arkansas Lightning. At a blistering 125 proof, the spirit is a true moonshine throwback, which probably explains some of the people who have visited Rock Town, the first legal distiller of any kind to open in Arkansas — one of the nation’s driest states — since Prohibition. “I have moonshiners who show up here and want me to taste their products,” Brandon says. “Some of them have even taken a class I teach on distilling. They’re interested in how to make things legally. But once they hear about all the paperwork and the taxes, they say, ‘Forget it.’ ”