Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Podcast Appalachian 11: Moonshine



Hello and welcome to Podcast Appalachia. I’m John Norris Brown.

It’s good to be back with you again. I hope everyone had a great Thanksgiving.. I’m still recovering from my feast of turkey and dressing from last week, but otherwise I’m doing well.

With that said, let’s get on to Appalachia. Today, I want to discuss the spirit of the mountains, a spirit that has accompanied us through good times and bad. One that is good in moderation, but dangerous in excess. An actual spirit; I, of course, am referring to moonshine.

Whether you want to call it “moonshine,” “white lightning,” “popskull,” “mountain dew,” “wet goods,” or any other euphemism, there’s no doubt it illegally distilled whiskey has become closely associated with the hills of Appalachia. Hillbilly cartoons almost invariably feature a jug of ‘shine, usually with “XXX” scrawled across the side.

Moonshine features prominently in Hollywood portrayals of Appalachians as well, from The Beverly Hillbillies to The Dukes of Hazzard.

My own alma mater, Appalachian State University, has a longstanding rivalry with Western Carolina University in which the winner gets to take home the “Old Mountain Jug.”

The term moonshine was used in Britain to describe whiskey runners avoiding taxation for centuries, but the term wasn’t widely used in America until the 1860s as a reference to the substance being produced at night. Today, the term “moonshine” is the widely accepted term for illegally distilled liquor.

In order to make moonshine, one needs only three basic ingredients: water, yeast, and a sugar yielding organic material, like corn or barely. Classic American moonshine used corn, but today most moonshine uses sugar, as it’s cheap and easy to get.

After you have acquired the ingredients, the process can begin. The process consists of only two basic steps: fermentation and distillation.

I won’t go into a detailed description of the process, but if you’re really interested, you can find plenty of recipes and tips online. Not that I condone such activities, of course!

The history of moonshine is long and fascinating, and begins long ago, on the other side of the Atlantic.

Moonshine was born in the British Isles and Northern Ireland as early as the 13th century, when folks began producing their own liquor. Later, the descendants of these early moonshiners would emigrate to the New World, taking with them tools, such as copper pots and condensing coils, along with the knowledge of still making and moonshine production.

Moonshine has been in the New World almost as long as Europeans; the first known corn whiskey distillation began in America around 1620, when George Thorpe, an English colonist, began producing his own spirits.

In the early days of colonization there were a few English and Dutch immigrants who practiced the art, but even so, moonshining was not a particularly common practice. That would soon change with the arrival of Scots-Irish.

The Scots-Irish, who are most closely associated with moonshine, began to arrive in droves around 1717, many of them settling on the Appalachian frontier. Appalachia, with its plentiful limestone soft water streams, proved fertile ground for making liquor. In America, these immigrants used corn or barley in their mash, which could also be easily grown by settlers.

Not surprisingly, corn whiskey became very valuable in the New World, both as a social beverage and for use in medicines. In some areas, it became as valuable as dollars and was frequently used in bartering on the frontier. As a result, it became very economically attractive to farmers, especially the poor, since it is easy to produce and easy to transport.

Even among the elite, corn whiskey proved popular. George Washington, at his Mount Vernon home, operated a still and hired a Scottish distiller.

During the American Revolution, patriotic Mountaineers took up arms and helped cast down the yoke of British oppression. As any student of history knows, one of the major rationales for independence was over the issue of taxes. Imagine the outrage in the hills, then, when their new government, the one they had helped defend against the British, imposed a vastly unpopular tax on distilled spirits to pay down war debts.

In 1791, Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton imposed a whiskey tax. The response was outrage, particularly among the Scots-Irish residents of Appalachia, where opposition was particularly strong.

Protests soon grew, culminating in the so-called Whiskey Rebellion. In 1794, thousands of residents of Pennsylvanian Appalachia took up arms against their new government, rebelling over the issue of taxation. The rebellion was put down by an army dispatched by George Washington, but the tax would remain in effect until 1802, when Thomas Jefferson repealed it.

Many of the rebels, wishing to simply be left alone, left Pennsylvania for the more remote, mountainous areas of Kentucky, Virginia, and the Carolinas where they could ply their trade in peace. The Whiskey Rebellion set the tone for the adversarial relationship between moonshiners and authorities, relationship that survives to the present day.

Following the repeal of the whiskey tax, corn liquor was once again untaxed for over six decades, save for a few years in the 1810s. However, during the Civil War, the Union government once again imposed a tax on distilled spirits to help pay war debts. In addition to the tax, the Office of Internal Revenue was also established to enforce the tax on spirits. Revenue agents became known as “revenuers.”

Due to the Civil War and aftermath, the law was not widely enforced in the South until the 1870s. As was the case sixty years earlier, this new law was widely resented by farmers, who went underground and made whiskey illegally by the light of the moon, adding the term “moonshine” to the American lexicon.

The tax was increased in the 1890s, in part due to the Depression of the time. This new tax may have been counterproductive, however, as it drove up the price of moonshine. The Depression had also hit Appalachia hard, almost forcing many poor farmers into moonshining simply to make ends meet.

Although illegal, moonshiners were not always persecuted by local law enforcement. Local sheriffs and officers sometimes sided with moonshiners against federal revenuers, sometimes out of loyalty to friends or family, and sometimes as a result of bribery.

During the late 19th century, skirmishes between moonshiners and revenuers became legendary. These battles were romanticized in books and in the pages of Harper’s Weekly and Atlantic Monthly. As a result, some revenuers became local celebrities, like Kentucky’s William “Big Six” Henderson.

By the early 20th century, many moonshiners were banding together for protection against law enforcement. Sometimes they would attack informants and intimidate law enforcement, protecting their trade by force if necessary.

Moonshining saw great expansion during Prohibition, which began in 1920. The Prohibition and Depression eras marked the peak of moonshining in America.

Although many Southern states had already outlawed alcohol, the nationwide ban created a great demand for spirits in far away places. Bootlegging became widespread. Moonshine made in the remote hills of Appalachia was transported to regional hubs like Knoxville, Chattanooga, and Asheville, as well as huge, far away metropolises, like Atlanta, Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, and New York City.

Because alcohol was greatly in demand, suppliers and consumers took less note of the quality of the product. Additionally, moonshiners could avoid government regulations by using lower grade ingredients. This sometimes produced a substandard, and occasionally toxic, product.

During this period, three Appalachian counties took turns as the “Moonshine Capital of America”. These counties were Wilkes County, NC, Dawson County, GA, and Cocke County, TN.

Even though Prohibition was repealed in 1933, many areas remained dry and moonshine continued to flourish. The economic hardships of the Depression made it very tempting as a means of income for poor farmers.

The Prohibition and Depression-eras spawned drivers who gained racing skills transporting moonshine on narrow, curvy mountain roads at high rates of speed. Cars were frequently used to transport moonshine, as drivers would navigate back roads in cars outfitted to run very fast while carrying heavy loads.

Some of these moonshine runners became legendary. In Dawson County, GA, runners would meet on Sundays to race on a dirt track. It was here that NASCAR was born. Many early NASCAR drivers, including Glenn Dunaway and Junior Johnson, were also moonshine runners.

By the 1950s, moonshine declined due to changing economy and as more counties liberalized their liquor laws, making it easier and less expensive to receive alcohol legally. Still, an ever-increasing alcohol tax helped keep moonshining alive.

And moonshining continues to this day in small pockets of Appalachia. Earlier this year, Marvin “Popcorn” Sutton, a legendary moonshiner from Cocke County, TN, died following a long legal battle with authorities.

As for the future of moonshine, I think it’s a safe bet that people will always want to enjoy it. As a result, there will likely always been moonshiners, though the culture and processes may change.

Interestingly, the future for moonshine might be as a source of alternative energy. With the government increasingly pushing for green energy, some entrepreneurs are considering marketing moonshine not as a drink, but rather as a fuel. A new company in Tullahoma, TN, for example, is selling ethanol—190 proof grain alcohol—made from corn, as a means to power automobiles. Unfortunately for those who wish to drink their fuel, the company has put a poison in the mix to ensure the substance is only used as intended.

The other day, I was watching some old news reports concerning moonshining in the 1950s There was an interview with a sheriff who had been involved in the moonshine skirmishes. He seemed to have a certain admiration for the moonshiners, pointing to one who he had arrested three times for moonshining. He never lied about his activities and never tried to avoid prison time, but once he was released, he went right back to his still and began distilling again. With the money he made, he sent his children to college.

The sources for this episode were The Encyclopedia of Appalachia, edited by Rudy Abramson and Judy Haskell and Moonshine! by Matthew Rowley.

That’s it for today. As always, thanks to the 1937 Flood for allowing me to use their music, and thank you for listening. As always, a transcript of this and previous episodes of this podcast is available at If you want to get in touch with me, please do so. My e-mail address is Also, please feel free to suggest topics for future episodes. I hope you have a nice day, and we will speak again soon.


Don Talley said...

The documentary film, The Last One, about moonshiner Popcorn Sutton will be shown in Black Mtn NC on Thursday January 21st at 7pm at White Horse Black Mtn as part of the Seven Sisters Cinema documentary film series.

Additional info is available at

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