The old Model T Ford sped down the ridge, headlights switched off, with only the light of the moon shining through the foliage to guide it through the switch-back trails of the Appalachian Mountains. Mud flew from the tires as the driver attempted to keep the car from careening down the side of the hill while still maintaining the breakneck speed necessary to outrun the revenuers — the law men intent on divesting the car of its cargo and putting the driver behind bars.
The year was 1932, and while the Ford looked outwardly like every other replica popular at the time, this particular car held many secrets: a souped-up engine, reinforced shocks to keep the rear from sagging, and 110 gallons of pure, illicit, backwoods, home-stilled moonshine ready to be delivered to thirsty customers all over the South.
With early 20th century Prohibition in full swing, alcoholic beverages of any kind were officially banned. But if you knew a guy who knew a guy, that moonshine could be yours. White lightning, sugar whiskey, mountain dew, rotgut, firewater, hooch — call it what you will, moonshine’s heritage did not end with the 1933 repeal of Prohibition. Neither did those harrowing mountain car chases between the revenuers and the shine-delivering bootleggers, so named because they used to hide flasks of firewater in their boots.
Today, while full-throttle car pursuits are few and far between, the rich history, romantic background, and high-octane punch of moonshine, both legally and illegally produced, continue to make it a surreptitious favorite among corn-mash loving Southerners. A Southern gentleman, who for the sake of this article will be referred to as Noah Guy, will tell you that he does not make moonshine. That bears repeating lest any revenuer (a.k.a. federal agent) intent on career advancement is currently reading this article. Lifetime outdoor enthusiast, fly fisherman, and avid Appalachian aficionado, Noah emphasizes that he does not make moonshine. But he does “know a guy who does.” And in addition to studying the legends and lore associated with moonshining, Noah has visited a few operations that use an old-style approach to making illicit hooch.
“People refer to me as an old soul,” says Noah, who is not yet 50. “But I’ve always loved the Appalachian ways of doing things. Because of that, I’ve just read what I could on the process of moonshining, starting back with some of the early history.”
When the American Revolution ended in 1783, federal taxes were levied on alcohol to make up for financial losses incurred during the war. Farmers, however, who frequently offset a bad year by turning their corn into whiskey, were not inclined to give up that much needed income by paying these excise taxes. As moonshining became more popular, disputes between farmers and tax collectors became more heated and eventually turned violent. The situation became so volatile that in 1794 President George Washington sent troops into Pennsylvania to quell the uprising, now referred to as the Whiskey Rebellion.
After the country regained financial footing, the excise tax was repealed in 1801 but was reinstated after the War of 1812. With each subsequent conflict, alcohol taxes were used as a way to help offset war costs.
And through it all, the shiners kept shining.
Some years were more profitable than others, but the real heyday came on Jan. 17, 1920, when the country officially “went dry” and moonshiners unofficially became the primary providers of all boozy beverages. And they were over the moon about it. Demand for hooch skyrocketed, and moonshiners began to make a fortune. Organized crime got involved and secret saloons called speakeasies, so named because customers had to whisper a password through a small hole in the door in order to gain entrance, cropped up in almost every city.
“My grandfather was born in 1903,” says Noah, “and he would tell me about the speakeasies. He spent a lot of time traveling over these mountains on horseback, and they had certain places where they could wet their whistle — places they could count on getting some refreshment.”
His grandfather also recalled passing over certain streams in the area and getting a whiff of the corn mash being cooked by some disreputable moonshiners. “And he’d say, ‘Oh, it just smelled so good,’” recalls Noah, “but of course he didn’t dare venture too close.”
The notorious nature of some moonshiners made it risky not only to stumble upon their operation, but also to drink their finished product. Many unfortunate souls became violently ill, lost their eyesight, or even died by imbibing questionable moonshine from an even more questionable source.
“It wasn’t the moonshine itself,” says Noah, “but it was how it was being made and what they were adding to it. Some of the old-time moonshiners weren’t necessarily the most honest of people, and they would take shortcuts.”
Backhill stills were not known for their high standards of sanitation. Insects, rodents, and other unsavory substances sometimes made their way into the corn mash and then later into the mouths of those who purchased that particular batch of firewater. Disgusting? Yes. Life threatening? Probably not.
But what was potentially lethal was the practice of watering down the shine to keep up with ever-increasing demand and then adding ingredients that would mimic the taste of pure hooch, such as rubbing alcohol, bleach, or even turpentine. “It made it seem like it was stronger,” says Noah, “but what they were giving these people was awful.”
Shoddy equipment also resulted in numerous injuries and fatalities. Pure copper pots were used by responsible moonshiners. However, if a moonshiner used a lead radiator for the condenser part, rather than a copper one, he negated the use of his clean boiler (pot). The lead then contaminated the resulting liquor. “That’s what was actually causing people to go blind,” says Noah. “Not the alcohol but the technique and equipment that were used in making the spirits.”
Prohibition eventually ended, but moonshiners, who often recognized that more money could be made by putting corn liquor in a glass than a corn cob on a plate, just kept on producing. “Most reputable moonshiners today do it for the art of it,” he says. “They want to make sure that the old art form isn’t forgotten, that it’s carried on.”
And the secret to making superior, albeit illegal, moonshine? The water.
“The water is everything,” says Noah. “Any moonshiner who is halfway reputable will be very particular about their water source. If they can find a really good natural spring coming out of the rocks, that is better than gold.”
Once the water source is established, the moonshine is produced using cracked corn, yeast, and plenty of sugar. Noah is happy to share the fascinating process, including fermentation, boiling, copper coils, thumpers, and tempering before the clear liquid comes out of the spout. However, the step-by-step process will not be included in this article. Because, again, without a government permit, making moonshine is illegal. Federal and state regulations still restrict any creation of alcohol intended for public distribution and sale. While it is legal under federal law to own a still of any size without a permit, a permit is required to manufacture alcohol with it. On the state level, laws vary widely regarding the legality of home distilling.
“The stuff that is left in the pot is thrown out,” says Noah. “It’s not used at all. It’s possible some of the wildlife in the area use it and have a party afterward.” Always served cold typically in a Mason jar, the Xs on the container indicate the number of times the moonshine has been distilled. Every time it goes back through the process, the potency increases and another X is added, but, according to Noah, experienced moonshiners can tell the proof of a jar with uncanny accuracy by checking the “bead.”
“This method involves shaking the contents in the jar and observing the bubbles,” he says. “Small bubbles that pop quickly indicate a low proof, while larger bubbles that persist reveal a higher alcohol content.”
One of the most famous, experienced moonshiners of recent years was Popcorn Sutton, a long beard sporting, big hat wearing, Model A Ford driving mountain man who could always be depended upon to produce safe corn liquor that was, according to Noah, the best of all spirits.
“Popcorn was the last of the real legendary figures in moonshiners,” says Noah. “And he was right when he said moonshining is some of the hardest work a man can do. It requires lifting, hauling, hiking, and paying constant attention.”
It also requires a way to transport the product, a tricky undertaking when hauling weighty jars of moonshine while simultaneously trying to avoid or often outrun law enforcement agents intent on shutting down the operation. “Bootleggers started souping up their cars,” says Noah, “so law enforcement started souping up their engines.”
And that was the impetus to NASCAR, The National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing, which held its first official “Strictly Stock” race in June of 1949. “NASCAR all started with moonshine and competition over who could rig up their engines to go faster and more powerfully,” says Noah. “And Junior Johnson was right on the leading edge.” That is because Junior Johnson, winner of 50 NASCAR races, 1960 Daytona 500 champion, and Winston Cup Series owner’s champion six times over, was born to shine.
Hired by his father to deliver the family’s moonshine to customers all across North Carolina, Junior modified his Ford so he could move 150 gallons of hooch at a time and still evade the law. Other runners followed suit, and when they weren’t delivering moonshine, they were racing each other for bragging rights. Eventually these races evolved into the prestigious NASCAR events that are enjoyed by spectators all over the world.
Cars and moonshine have always been sentimentally linked in bootlegger lore, but often a mechanical connection existed as well. When gas was unobtainable, moonshine was sometimes used in its stead. Noah tried it in his own Model A Ford, and it worked. “It will cut up and sputter a lot more,” he says, “but it will get you where you need to go.”
Trey Boggs, who together with his brother, Bryan, owns Palmetto Distillery in Anderson, South Carolina, had a drag bike that ran off their very own high-proof moonshine. And, yes, Trey fully admits to making and selling moonshine. He does it in the daylight, in full view of the law, right behind the city courthouse, and he never worries about revenuers.
While no one ever really believed the words “legal” and “moonshine” would be used in the same sentence, Palmetto Distillery is proud to be the first legal distributer of moonshine in the state of South Carolina. The idea first came to Trey in January of 2010. “I was up late reading about a local South Carolina moonshine bust,” says Trey, “and I thought, ‘Why does the government hate moonshine so much?’ Then a light bulb went off in my head. It’s taxes.”
Trey was convinced that if they just paid their taxes, he and his brother could make legal moonshine. He spent the night reading the Department of Revenue Law Book, a publication that Trey does not recommend. “I was reading through all this ridiculousness,” he says. “If you ever need to go to sleep and don’t have any Tylenol PM, that is a very good book to read.”
His efforts paid off, however, when he read that the micro distillery laws had changed just a few months prior; so as soon as the sun came up, he headed down to the Department of Revenue, filled out an application for making moonshine, and handed it to the woman behind the desk. She laughed at him.
“It took us a year and a half to get a permit,” says Trey. “We went through a lot of growing pains and had to do everything through snail mail. Forms got lost or thrown away, and I had to redo them multiple times. But on Jan. 5, 2011, we were the first crazy lunatics to get a permit for making moonshine.”
And moonshine is more than their business. It turns out that it is also in their blood. Dock Boggs, the legendary songwriter, singer, and banjo player, is a distant relative. Dock was also a known bootlegger. “He was a struggling musician, and what better thing to do at night but to run moonshine,” says Trey. “That’s how he paid for the shoes on his feet, shirt on his back, and the food for his family. He was running moonshine.”
Once Trey and Bryan procured their permit, they were subject to an inspection by the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division to ensure that production of their product was clean, safe, and in accordance with all government regulations. They could not start production, however, until they acquired a crucial piece of equipment: a moonshine still.
“I had never bought a moonshine still before,” says Trey. “It’s not like you could walk into Walmart and get one on sale.” But Trey knew a guy who knew a guy who sold “yard art.” The yard art just happened to look an awful lot like moonshine stills, so he and Bryan set off to meet the yard art vendor in an undisclosed area of the mountains.
“I’m painting a picture here,” says Trey. “Have you ever seen the movie ‘Deliverance’? The sun is setting over the ridge, and it’s starting to get dark. On the address on the mailbox, the number 1 is broken, so we go by it a couple of times. We finally pull in, and the house that is supposed to be there is completely burnt down.”
The yard art man tells the brothers to pull around the burnt house, and to their relief they are not met by a bow-and-arrow-welding-Burt-Reynolds-lookalike, but rather by children playing quietly in front of a single-wide white trailer.
When their first, 30-gallon pure copper still was delivered, they invited law enforcement to inspect and hopefully sign off on their hard-won permit. “When the SLED officer arrived, the first thing he said was, ‘Son, I’ve been doing this for 27 years, and not once has anyone ever invited me in to look at a moonshine still,’” Trey recalls. “Then, after he actually looked around the premises, he said, ‘Boys, you’re going to need a bigger still.’”
Their bigger still still wasn’t enough. “People were beating our door down,” says Trey. “We couldn’t get the distillery up fast enough; it was like the speakeasies of the old days.”
Using recipes gleaned from actual bootleggers, the Boggs brothers credit much of their success to both the quality and integrity of their products. “Moonshine has been around for hundreds of years,” says Trey, “but it’s always been, ‘Hey, I know a guy!’ People love ours because they know they can buy it without having to worry about where it came from or if it is dangerous. Ours is made under the scrutiny of the government, so we are highly regulated.”
Today Palmetto Moonshine sells bootleg-proof moonshine, flavored moonshine, drink mixes, and a variety of pantry goods, including moonshine barbeque sauce, moonshine pickles, and moonshine jelly. They also sell mini-Mason jars of moonshine, and the biggest consumer of these diminutive hooch-filled containers is, surprisingly, the state of South Carolina.
“The tourism department buys hundreds and hundreds of them every year to give out at conventions and such,” says Trey. “It’s ironic that now the government is buying moonshine from us.”
From government loathed to government embraced, moonshine has come far from the days of flask-filled boot wear, sketchy speakeasy establishments, and perilous high-speed treks down back mountain roads conducted under the cloak of darkness. White lightning, corn mash, rotgut, or hooch, it can now all can be publicly purchased in the light of day.
And you don’t even need to know a guy.