It smells like a blend of a spirited elixir and exotic fruit and it’s a liquid as clear as glass. Its unexpected fragrance keeps you inhaling. You just can’t identify the bouquet, an exhalation hard to describe. Touch a burning match to a teaspoon of it and a pale violet flame dances and whorls like the Aurora Borealis on a frosty Canadian night. Touch that clear-as-glass liquid to your tongue and lips and a searing sting lingers.
Hooch, white lightning, mountain dew, corn liquor, moonshine, rot gut, whatever you call it, this spirit has long been a part of the lore of the South, Appalachia in particular. A fine heritage white lightning has. Its roots go back to the 1790’s Whiskey Rebellion, a time when a federal tax was imposed on whiskey.
In 1791, Congress, at Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton’s urging, placed an excise tax on whiskey to help pay the national debt. Many Scotch-Irish settlers who drank whiskey and distilled and sold it for a livelihood felt picked on. In 1794 they demonstrated and rebelled along the frontier and that uprising became known as the Whiskey Rebellion. Arrested, they were later pardoned by President George Washington. Their actions opened the eyes of others.
Illegal distillers began to make their own liquor, one free from the taxman’s clutches. Making and running white lightning has been a tradition ever since. As many people know, you can get it today. A while back a friend showed me his jar of moonshine. True to form, it was in a 505, self-sealing Mason jar. What did you expect? A bottle? Well never mind what holds mountain dew (It might even be in a real Mountain Dew bottle), the trouble starts when it’s in you. It packs a punch. I’ve never tried it myself but I’ve heard wild stories of men pursued by agents, of stills blown up or dropped in rivers. Indeed, some of these stories emanated from my family during Prohibition.
Few things are as storied in the South as moonshine and moonshiners. Distilled beneath the light of the moon, a clandestine operation seeking to evade the law’s prying eyes, moonshine played an over-hyped role in NASCAR’s history. The oft-told story goes that moonshiners modified their cars to outrun federal agents so they could deliver their cargo of hooch. Fear of arrest and imprisonment can make a man drive pretty fast, mountain curves or not, but not that many racers started out as bootleggers.
Junior Johnson, one of the early stock car racers in the North Carolina mountains, did have a connection with moonshine. He’s gone “legit,” marketing legally produced grain alcohol moonshine. Junior Johnson’s Midnight Moon is produced commercially and sold in liquor stores, packaged in a clay jug or Mason jar.
This colorful, controversial tradition grew popular during tough times when resourceful people found all sorts of ways to put food on the table. The truth is they provided a product people wanted. For sure, impurities and irresponsible distilling injured and killed people. Hooch made in radiators and hooch infused with chemicals (sometimes on purpose to speed fermenting) did some damage. What was safe to drink and what was not became a matter of debate and myths.
Back in the day a common test to see if moonshine was safe to drink involved pouring white lightning into a spoon and setting it afire. Supposedly a blue flame meant it was safe to drink. A red flame meant lead was present. Thus the phrase, “lead burns red and makes you dead.” Today we know moonshine can be deadly no matter what color flame burns.
If you described moonshining as a sub-culture, you’d be right. Like any culture it has its ways and rituals. Some moonshiners practice a ritual described as rare: the firing up of the still for the first time. It must be rare, I could find little about it. It’s a culture passed on by shiners’ forefathers well over 200 years.
As for the drink, well it’s a simple concoction. The main ingredients are water, sugar, corn, and yeast. There are places in Appalachia today where people swear more sugar is sold than locals can consume. Over the years I’ve heard tales of limits on how much sugar a person can buy at one time. I’ve heard anyone buying excessive amounts of sugar is probably a moonshiner but that seems farfetched to me.
The equipment needed to distill this mash is simple too. A copper pot, water-filled barrel, and copper tubing coil for a condenser constitute the elements of a still. Sometimes an oak barrel ages and gives color to the liquor.
I’ve heard that many a fortune has been made making and running white lightning. I rummaged around a bit and found that corn whiskey can bring $45 to $120 a gallon today, but I have no way of knowing if that is accurate.
The peak time for making shine runs from June to October for two reasons: it coincides with the peak of the corn harvest and it’s a time the leaves have yet to fall, thereby providing cover for the illicit activity. Folks say it’s made inside garages and in underground bunkers today.
This old Southern heritage still goes on in ways that will surprise you. Modern times find ways to take old ways and clothe them in a shiny new suit. The moonshiner’s spirit of resourcefulness is alive and well. The December/January 2012 issue of Garden & Gun, a fine magazine about many things Southern, runs a story on moonshine in its “Talk of the South” department. That story, “Heritage Hooch,” describes how a modern-day (legit) “moonshiner” proves every bit as resourceful as old legendary moonshiners. And here’s the surprising part, the moonshiner’s a woman.
Troy Ball, a Vanderbilt graduate and the mother of three sons, is a modern-day moonshiner. According to the article, she and her husband opened Troy & Sons Distillers in Asheville, North Carolina, where they produce “an uberclean white whiskey with hints of vanilla, cucumber, and melon.” Their product is finding a market at the Grove Park Inn and the Inn at Biltmore and distributed throughout North Carolina.
Modern moonshine, for sure, has its devotees as it’s certainly had fans in the past, some famous. “Well, between Scotch and nothin’, I suppose I’d take Scotch. It’s the nearest thing to good moonshine I can find.” William Faulkner said that.
It seems there’s a festival to celebrate just about anything you can think of. In New Prospect, South Carolina, just off I-26 near Spartanburg and not too far from the North Carolina line, folks hold the annual Moonshiners Reunion. I’ve never been and I don’t know if bona fide moonshiners show up. I do know the festival celebrates the moonshine tradition, banjo picking, and bluegrass.
Well, why not celebrate the moonshining tradition. It provided a product people wanted and no doubt some needed. The moonshiner was often portrayed as a poor man simply trying to make a living. Some folks saw in the moonshiner a man “beating the system.”
When the Prohibition era came along, the moonshiner’s image soared. The hypocrisy of Prohibition was obvious. Politicians continued to drink, further elevating the romantic image of moonshiners. It was hard work and risky. The dreaded revenuers would make you pay if they caught with the goods. Today you can lose your property and vehicles if caught making hooch, and yet unflinching souls still make it.
So, how do you know a jar of genuine moonshine today when you see it? According to Matthew Rowley, a bona fide moonshine expert, there’s only one surefire way to know. “The single, universal, and defining characteristic of moonshine is that it is made outside of the law. If you can buy it in liquor stores, it’s not moonshine.” Troy Ball might disagree with that but I’ll leave that to her and Matthew to sort out.
The one thing that’s not debatable is that moonshine, that high-spirited Southern heritage, continues to make its presence felt, literally, across the Southland.