Moonshine. Hootch. White Lightning. Mountain dew. Whatever you call it, the home-brewed alcoholic beverage has a long and storied history in the United States. Nowhere is that history more colorful than in the Southern Appalachian Mountains of the eastern U.S.
So how and why did moonshining start? Why did the industry thrive in Appalachia? It’s a fascinating tale of bootlegging, criminality, and ingenuity.
What is Moonshine?
Moonshine is a general term for distilled spirits that are high in alcohol and made without government authorization. The name comes from the practice of distilling during the night to avoid detection by the authorities.
Moonshine is made from barley, rye, corn, or sugar. Fruit brandy made from peaches or apples also falls under the term. Its roots go back to Scotland and Ireland’s stills, where there has been a long tradition of home-brewing and distilling “clear, unaged whiskey.” The first instance of the term being used to describe illicit alcohol is in 1785.
Why Did Moonshining Flourish in Appalachia?
Appalachia was a perfect location for moonshining to occur. The area was remote and difficult to access. Its first European inhabitants were from Scotland and Ireland, where home-brew was a usual way of life. Living in isolation meant it was easy to distill illegal liquor without the knowledge of the authorities.
Moreover, because of the lack of proper roads and access to the small farms and communities, it was difficult for farmers to get their crops (mainly corn) to market. Many farmers realized it was much more profitable to turn their corn into liquor. The liquor was much easier to transport and earned distillers much bigger profits.
Early History of Moonshine in Appalachia
Moonshining as an illicit trade emerged during the American Civil War (1861-1865). Many states in the South made it illegal to use corn and barley for anything but food, forcing distillers to go underground. There were few consequences, as Confederate authorities were more concerned with winning the war than clamping down illegal distillers.
After the war, the federal government enacted a law that taxed all home-brewed liquors. The unpopular tax resulted in the “Whiskey Rebellion.” The federal government crushed the mini-revolt, and the tax remained.
Moonshining was popular over much of the country before the war, but the federal tax disincentivized the activity. More people moved away from family farms to cities, and large, legal distilleries began selling liquor, so moonshining lost its appeal in much of the country.
Not in Appalachia, though. Many people still lived in isolation, and very few even knew about the tax. Enforcement became stricter in the 1870s, however, and when the taxman came calling, bitter feuds developed between rival moonshining clans, and there were shootouts with federal tax collectors.
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Moonshining in the 1900s
Moonshining had its heyday in the 1920s when the federal government banned alcohol during the Prohibition years. Illegal distilling became highly profitable as the demand for liquor increased across the country.
Hundreds of moonshiners in the Appalachians ran their illegal distilleries around the clock, sending barrels of alcohol to bootleggers who shipped it to thirsty cities such as Chicago or Kansas City.
Moonshining didn’t end with the end of Prohibition. The Great Depression saw another window of opportunity for those who made their own booze.
Rampant unemployment created a market for cheaper, tax-free alcohol, and many of the farmers of the Appalachians were more than happy to make extra money selling it. Any legal industries in the area evaporated, making moonshining the only way to earn a living.
After Prohibition and the Great Depression ended, many counties in southern states kept strict alcohol regulations, many banning it altogether. However, where there’s a will, there’s a way. Many people in so-called “dry” states refused to be parted from their spirits and turned to illicit sources.
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Famous Appalachian Moonshiners
Marvin “Popcorn” Sutton may be the most famous of all the Appalachian moonshiners. He came from a long line of Irish-Scottish distillers and brewed illegal liquor in Tennessee for decades.
He wrote a book and released a VHS video in the late 1990s explaining how to distill moonshine. Sutton has appeared in several documentaries about Appalachian moonshiners.
He evaded prison for much of his career, but federal authorities finally convicted him of the offense in 2009. Rather than report to federal prison, Sutton killed himself by carbon monoxide poisoning in his car on his property.
Robert Glenn Johnson Jr. is most famous for NASCAR racing, but Johnson comes from a long line of Appalachian moonshiners and bootleggers. Federal authorities often raided his family home in North Carolina. He spent a year in jail for owning an illegal still. So how did Johnson become a racing legend?
Like many NASCAR and stock car racers of the mid-1900s, Johnson gained his driving experience while running liquor from the Appalachian stills to the cities. Bootleggers would travel the roads at high speeds in souped-up cars specially designed for transporting barrels of alcohol.
On the outside, there was nothing unusual about the vehicle’s appearance, but on the inside, the car was fitted with special carrying hatches and struts designed to carry the heavy loads.
Related: How to Proof Moonshine
The End of Moonshine
Sugar is the predominant ingredient in Appalachian moonshining, and when the price of sugar tripled in the 1950s, many moonshiners struggled to stay afloat.
Instead, many moonshiners took to the burgeoning drug trade: growing and selling marijuana. The Appalachians were still isolated and unpopulated, and farmers could grow giant fields of marijuana in the forest, and the authorities would never find them. Growing pot quickly overtook the illegal booze trade.
A new highway built in the 1930s also opened the region to industry and trade and offered more locals legitimate jobs with living wages.
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Appalachian Moonshining Today
Moonshining in the Appalachians undoubtedly exists today, but it is no longer the industry it once was.
Popularized by television series such as Moonshiners, the myths and legends of the mountain moonshine distillery and the people who operated them still fascinate many people.
Many liquor manufacturers now play on the “moonshine” myth in their logos and brands as more consumers move to smaller craft liquors. Cheers!