A Brief History of Moonshine:
Moonshine, White Lightning, Mountain Dew, Branch Water…these are just some of the names for a distilled spirit made from grain, sugar, and a dash of illegal history. Just the mention of the name may bring to mind illicit whiskey making in the dead of the night.
However, moonshine production and selling are very different than they once were. Throughout South Carolina, micro-distilleries have popped up thanks to a 2009 state law allowing the licensing of small spirit producers. The making of an unaged white whiskey has become part and parcel of a national movement centered on creating artisanal spirits.
Moonshine, as we know it, hasn’t been moonshine for very long.
In the South, drinking moonshine has always been a rite of passage. Whether it’s the spirit’s turbulent history or its risky notoriety, moonshine has secured a place in Southern culture.
Moonshine, as we know it, hasn’t been moonshine for very long. It started in England as a word to describe any work done at night by the light of the moon. The term wouldn’t describe illegal liquor until the late 1700s. It’s interesting to note that producing moonshine and other spirits wasn’t illegal until prohibition.
Up until that time, it was perfectly legal to produce alcohol beverages. The issue though, was US taxes. You could make and drink as much as you wanted, but as soon as you tried to sell it, that’s when things got chancy.
So how did moonshine turn into a popular American drink from one tainted by illegality? Here is a quick trip through American history.
In the years before the American revolution, a huge influx of Scottish-Irish immigrants moved from the northern Irish counties to the English counties in North America. They soon had a well earned reputation for brawling and distilling liquor.
A popular anecdote from early colonial days alleged that when the English would arrive in the new world the first thing they would do was build a church. The Germans would build a barn. But the Scotch-Irish would build a whiskey still!
Then began the practice of bootlegging
Unwelcomed nearly everywhere, the Scotch-Irish were forced to move into remote, mostly mountainous areas where they found the privacy to continue the practice of turning corn, grain, and sugar into alcohol.
In many areas of the developing country, the production of whiskey became so important that it was used as a currency and supported a barter system which fully depended upon the distribution of whiskey as an economic engine. For the newly formed country, the Revolution had been an expensive undertaking and the new republic needed money. Despite the revolution’s catalyst being taxes (and no one liking them), Congress decided it needed a quick infusion of revenue.
In 1791, Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton instituted an excise tax on liquor, thus resulting in a rise in price. Mountain distillers, especially in western Pennsylvania, hated the tax as much as they previously hated the English. They decided to keep on making their own whiskey and ignore the federal tax. With that in mind, they began the practice of bootlegging.
What Is Bootlegging?
The expression “bootlegging” has a long history. It originated in colonial America in the mid-1600s, and it is believed to have been used in reference to selling alcohol to Native Americans.
Some colonists were against this, but others were determined to trade spirits for material goods produced by the Native Americans. These unwavering colonists concealed bottles of liquor in the top of their boots and covered the bottles with their pant legs, thus creating the term bootlegger.
For many citizens, the making and selling of alcohol wasn’t a hobby
For many citizens, the making and selling of alcohol wasn’t a hobby or a way to make extra cash, it was how they survived and took care of their families. To these people, paying the tax might mean their demise.
Federal agents were attacked when they came to collect taxes and, in fact, several were even tarred and feathered.
A stalemate lasted for three years, but eventually the resistance became an occupying force in Pittsburgh when they attacked and killed a local tax collector at his home. Hamilton wanted a military response, which Washington agreed to after negotiations broke down.
With Washington, Hamilton, and Virginia governor Henry Lee at the head, 13,000 Federal troops marched into western Pennsylvania expecting to face a violent rebellion. Yet, by the time the federal force reached Pittsburgh, the rebels had dispersed and the “Whiskey Rebellion” was over.
The Whiskey Tax remained the law of the land for the next nine years but the rebellion spoke to the lengths Americans would go to defend their alcohol practices from the reach of the government and the deep animosity they would feel for the intrusion into their way of life.
The militia did apprehend approximately 150 men and tried them for treason but a paucity of evidence and an inability to obtain witnesses hampered the trials. Two men were found guilty of treason but were later pardoned by President Wshington. The fledgling United States had survived its first challenge to federal authority.
Then came the Civil War
After President Thomas Jefferson repealed the excise tax in 1802, the Scotch-Irish and other citizens were back to producing whiskey without government scrutiny. In the intervening years, taxes came and went and the moonshiners kept trying to find ways to ignore them. But then came the Civil War.
The government knew the war was going to be expensive and congress attempted to balance the budget by creating the Internal Revenue Service to collect taxes on liquor, tobacco and other “luxuries.”
After the war, as part of Reconstruction in the South, the federal government enforced the liquor taxes by sending revenue agents to shut down illegal stills (those not paying taxes) and arrest moonshiners. Such laws did not deter moonshiners.
The revenue agents quickly succeeded in shutting down large operations near cities and towns, but illegal liquor flowed in other areas including Appalachia and the rural South.
Farmers made more money from a gallon of whiskey than a bushel of corn.
As we have seen, producing liquor (whether legal or illegal) was not new to many Southern rural Americans. It was a critical part of their culture and livelihood. Farmers made more money from a gallon of whiskey than a bushel of corn. These factors made revenue enforcement very difficult.
The revenue agents had to cover a lot of territory, much of which was mountainous and filled with the danger of armed resistance and strategically placed ambushes. The agents were eventually issued rifles, and shootouts were not uncommon between revenue posses and moonshiners in the late 19th century.
This is where the modern meaning of “moonshine” really took hold. With the federal government coming down hard on the illegal distribution of alcohol, distillers were made nocturnal. Their activities were done by the light of the moon and thus the term moonshiner came into the common vernacular.
By 1915, many localities had opted to prohibit the production and sale of alcohol beverages altogether
Further complicating the enforcement of alcohol revenue laws was the connection between the laws and their enforcement and the Civil War. The mostly rural and white Southern moonshiners deeply resented liquor revenue enforcement and viewed it as an extension of Yankee tyranny. This, as well as the cultural importance of moonshining in the rural South, contributed to the actions of local political officials and law enforcement personnel who made little effort to stop moonshining and often resisted revenue enforcement.
Moonshiners could not keep up with the demand
By the late 1880s, public opinion was beginning to shift and the temperance movement began to gain a foothold. By 1915, many localities had opted to prohibit the production and sale of alcohol beverages altogether.
In the South, this was part of two political and social movements, the first sought to end the evils of alcohol and the second to remove the federal government from liquor revenue enforcement.
Local bans proved not to be successful. Local law enforcement were no match for the entrenched moonshiners. For every still destroyed, one more would take its place. Moonshiners had learned to be mobile and the production of illegal liquor rose and fell but never came close to ceasing.
In 1920, a nationwide Prohibition took effect. However, this was the greatest thing that could have happened for the moonshiners. Suddenly, there was no legal alcohol available and the demand for illegal spirits skyrocketed.
The price they could ask for their product doubled and even tripled. Enterprising Americans ventured into the criminal world and produced, transported, and sold illicit liquor. In the South, the number of stills quadrupled and operations grew in size as the result of higher profits.
Moonshiners could not keep up with the demand. This, in turn, led to cheaper and more sugar-based moonshine which was of a lower quality and more watered down. To “extend” the amount of liquor, some moonshiners would mix their alcohol with gasoline, rubbing alcohol, or nail polish remover….anything that could extend the product. This added to the moonshiners’ bad-boy reputation.
Organized crime soon cornered the market, creating elaborate moonshining networks and forcing farmers to run stills for them. Moonshiners played a dangerous game of cat and mouse with federal agents.
Many of these same young drivers became the early, legendary drivers that built NASCAR.
The end of Prohibition, in 1933, did not see the end of moonshining. The South was still the major producer of moonshine. Liquor production was now legal, but there still was that nasty business about taxes.
The federal government was once again concerned about collecting taxes and the moonshiners had mechanics design high performance automobiles to become faster and more maneuverable and modified them to conceal the illegal alcohol they were transporting.
These “tanker cars” (most often 1940 Fords), with an experienced driver, could navigate tight turns and treacherous terrain….though chases sadly often ended in the death of the revenuer or the moonshiner. Out of these powerful cars and high speed chasers grew the sport known today as stock car racing.
Many of these same young drivers became the early, legendary drivers that built NASCAR.
An estimated 90% of moonshine was distilled in the South
During World War II, a drop in the abundance of moonshine occurred due to a wartime shortage of sugar and other distilling ingredients. Then, in the 1950s and 1960s, technological advancements in moonshine distilling led to a large increase in production.
The number of federally seized stills was dropping. An estimated 90% of moonshine was distilled in the South. One out of every five gallons of liquor produced in the US at that time was illegal moonshine.
By 1980, most of the larger operations had been shut down due to dedicated enforcement and the extensive use of infrared cameras on airplanes to detect stills at night.
For much of its 300-plus-year history, moonshine referred to any illegal, home-made spirit, including low quality brews with deadly contaminants. Today, it usually describes unaged whiskey. Also, standards have improved as distillers no longer need to operate in the shadows.
When the global financial crisis hit the Appalachian heartlands, counties all over the region tapped into one of the few growth industries by legalizing moonshine. The first legal distillery in Tennessee opened its door in 2010, and others followed in Kentucky, Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina.
Moonshine you’re buying from your corner liquor store isn’t authentic
Ultimately, though, moonshine today describes the style of liquor rather than the legality of it. The moonshine you’re buying from your corner liquor store isn’t authentic, in the traditional sense. Maybe it was made in the same way, and it came in a mason jar, but you found it in a store.
That’s really where it stops being illegal. At this point, moonshine becomes a word like bourbon, scotch, cognac, or one of the thousand words for wine. Mystique, folklore, and danger are words associated with moonshine….but the spirit is far more than that. It’s time that moonshine takes its rightful place on the liquor store shelf or on the bar of your favorite watering hole. It is a spirit worth drinking straight, or on the rocks, or in a cocktail.
Purists might object to the very idea that any product made for retail could be labeled “moonshine,” insisting that the term only applies to illegally made spirits. According to them, anything that pays taxes and calls itself moonshine is a fake.
Yet, to me, the truth may not be so open and shut. On the one hand, the origin of the word points to its meaning (illegal liquor) at least as far back as the 1700s when it referred to brandy smuggled into England. Many dictionaries also define moonshine primarily by its illegality.
However, the word moonshine has been used to refer to perfectly legal liquor in the past. As we have written, the non-payment of taxes, not the production, has usually been the rub (except for Prohibition).
The meaning of the word moonshine has evolved over time and, more to the point, has proven fluid. In the American tradition, legal and illegal spirits that qualify as applejack, rum, vodka, and whiskey have all gone under the label moonshine.
Nowadays, micro distilleries are in the business of making legal corn whiskey, sugar-spiked corn whiskey, and all-sugar “shine” and calling it moonshine.
All things considered, I fail to see why anyone should take issue with this. Neither law, definition, tradition, or history precludes a legal distillery from making a product that follows along the lines of time-honored moonshine recipes and calling it moonshine. Any naysayers should keep that in mind.
Now that you have a basic understanding of moonshine, go check out our our guide to The Best Moonshine in South Carolina!