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Moonshine Makes a Comeback: Quick Look at the Illicit Alcohol

I've spent half a century writing for radio and print (mostly print). I hope to still be tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

He's getting a sample of how his vision will change after he drinks that moonshine.

He's getting a sample of how his vision will change after he drinks that moonshine.

How Americans Began Making Illegal Moonshine

The government of the United States was strapped for money after the American Revolution, so it put a tax on booze. Almost immediately, the entrepreneurial spirit sprang to life and people started making their own liquor in seclusion—deep in the forested hills.

The industry got a new boost during Prohibition and is still going strong today as the recession following the banking crisis of 2008 spurred increased production and consumption.

According to Claire Prentice, reporting for BBC News, “Official figures are hard to come by, but experts believe as many as a million Americans could be breaking the law by making moonshine—also known as white lightning and white dog.”

How Moonshine Is Made

The illicit booze starts with simple ingredients―corn, sugar, water, and yeast. Let that mixture stew away for a while as it produces alcohol.

Then, using a still, the alcohol is concentrated to produce what some call mountain dew. But, there’s a bit of skill involved that folks in the trade likely “learnt from my granddaddy.” What the moonshiner is looking for is ethanol.

The alcohol is boiled off and condensed in some sort of cooling device. Car radiators have been re-purposed to do the job, but there’s always the problem of leftover antifreeze getting into the final product. In addition, there can be lead in the old radiator, and that's not a prized ingredient either.

Sometimes, amateurs make rotgut liquor with too high a methanol content. The result is blindness and death, something that happened frequently during the Depression. This is no longer a problem in America, but it is in the Indian subcontinent. In June 2015, at least 90 people died in Mumbai after drinking contaminated booze. There are dozens of other cases.

If the distiller concentrates the ethanol too much, there is the ever-present danger of an explosion.

This Backwoods Booze Is an Acquired Taste

Illicit wobbly pop is rarely aged in barrels as regular whiskey is; consumption follows quickly after production.

It’s called moonshine because it’s usually made a night to avoid detection. While it’s associated with Appalachia, skullpop, as it’s sometimes called, can be found almost everywhere in the U.S. An imbiber doesn’t have to look far.

Betty Boles Ellison wrote about the moonshine trade in her 2003 book Illegal Odyssey: 200 Years of Kentucky Moonshine. She quotes Kentucky humourist Irving H. Cobb’s description of the product of local stills: “It smells like gangrene starting in a mildewed silo; it tastes like the wrath to come, and when you absorb a deep swig of it you have all the sensations of having swallowed a lighted kerosene lamp.” With a maraschino cherry? Irresistible.

North Carolina―still now a museum piece

North Carolina―still now a museum piece

Distilling Liquor Without a Licence

Moonshine may have become the tipple de jour in certain circles, but it’s still against the law to make it in many places. Penalties upon conviction in the U.S. can be anywhere up to $15,000 in fines and five years in jail.

But the big attraction of the hooch is that it’s free of taxes. Those that make and sell the eye-watering liquid in Mason jars also don’t declare their revenue as income. That kind of irks the authorities.

John Dawson Pierce, 61, of North Carolina, was caught with 15 gallons of his finest quality home-brewed whiskey at his distilling operation on an island in the Pasquotank River. That drew a 30-month prison sentence, $60,000 in restitution, and the forfeiture of two boats, a pick-up, and a car.

However, in other jurisdictions, John Pierce might not have felt the law’s sting. Here’s a 2015 report from CNN: “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 doors in 2010, and others followed in Kentucky, Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina.”

A 1922 delivery of moonshine intercepted by the authorities

A 1922 delivery of moonshine intercepted by the authorities

Why It Is Gaining Popularity Again

Few would expect to see a flagon of moonshine sitting next to a bottle of Glenmorangie single-malt Scotch, but this is apparently something that happens.

The BBC’s Claire Prentice writes that foodies, following the trend for artisan produce, are embracing outlaw liquor as an alternative beverage to serve guests. She quotes Max Watman, author of the 2010 book Chasing the White Dog, as saying the popular view of illicit hooch “has changed dramatically. The stigma has gone. It’s become cool.”

Today’s licensed distillers try to keep the mystique of the back-country brew by marketing it in Mason jars.

The Booming Moonshine Industry

The increased popularity of moonshine does not surprise Colonel Vaughn Wilson. He makes “Custom handcrafted copper stills, forged by the Colonel himself here in the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas. Old fashion craftsmanship combined with a few modern touches makes these the finest looking copper stills available.”

According to the Colonel, the demand for his products had doubled in recent years. Having extolled the distilling virtues of his machinery, the Colonel then says on his website, presumably with his tongue firmly planted in his cheek, “All copper stills are sold as art décor only.”

But, the colonel does undermine his pledge that these are not to be used as working hard liquor factories by including recipes on his website for such delicacies as Jalapeno Shine, Robert’s Cherry Bomb, and Black Beard’s Rum.

Bonus Factoids

  • The leg of tall boots has for centuries been a convenient place to stash contraband as well as knives and guns. So it was during various attempts to ban the sale and consumption of liquor that people took to hiding a flask of booze in their boots. Hence, a bootlegger.
  • According to NASCAR, “A bunch of dirt poor good ol’ boys who lived anywhere from Virginia on down to Georgia had no other choice to survive than the illegal whiskey business.” They juiced up their cars so they could outrun revenue agents on the twisting back-country roads. That led to bootleggers racing each other, first on roads, then on crude tracks. Today, the teams competing on the NASCAR circuit are estimated to be worth $1.4 billion.
  • In 1791, the U.S. government brought in a tax on liquor. Distillers refused to pay the tax, and a mob of 500 attacked the home of the inspector general of taxes in West Pennsylvania. George Washington rode at the head of 13,000 militiamen whose aim was to subdue the rebels. There was no confrontation, and the so-called Whiskey Rebellion ended peacefully. Eventually, the government realized the futility of trying to collect the tax from such independent-minded distillers and repealed the law in 1801.


This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2017 Rupert Taylor