Written by Roger McCredie
Beverage, medicine, currency, contraband, and liquid history: You know it as moonshine.
Alkihol has and will be around as long as time, whether it is for medicine or to get drunk as Hell. I hope I will be there to help them in one way or the other.” —Marvin “Popcorn” Sutton, 1946-2009
In the 1890s, the Scottish anthropologist Sir James George Frazer published The Golden Bough, a sort of catch-all history of the “old religions” that had their roots in the practice of magic. Several of these old traditions had a common thread: a legend of a sacred grove where the holiest of secrets were kept, watched over by a semi-divine priest-king who stayed in office until he was eventually murdered by another priest-king who took his place.
Frazer focused his attention on the sacred grove of Nemi, a few miles outside Rome. Presumably he didn’t know that in his own time, and long before, and down to the present moment, people with special powers were and are guarding sacred groves, thickets, gullies, and caves all over Appalachia. They guard a common secret that combines history and tradition with chemistry and, some would say, magic. What goes into these sacred places is wisdom, experience, and cunning, along with grain, sugar, and fresh spring water.
What comes out is moonshine whiskey.
Now, to prevent you from going immediately to a place already staked out for you by Hollywood and the funny papers, and populated by somnolent hillbillies holding jugs of something marked “XXX,” it’s probably best to get the semantics lesson out of the way early. Whiskey (or more universally “whisky,” the addition of the “e” being an Irish/American anomaly) is an alcoholic beverage made from distilled grain. Moonshine is whiskey that is manufactured (a) illegally, without a license or the payment of taxes; and (b) in secret, usually in a highly concealed place and frequently at night, so as to avoid the consequences of (a). “The word ‘moonshine,’” Wikipedia primly tells us, “is believed to be derived from the term ‘moonrakers’ used for early English smugglers and the clandestine nature of the operations of illegal Appalachian distillers who produced and distributed whiskey. The distillation was done at night to avoid discovery.”
The “moonraker” theory, even with its allusion to a secret, illegal activity, has always seemed an overreach to me; I doubt if many bootleggers on either side of the pond know what the hell a moonraker is unless they’ve read a lot of Victorian novels. As for “moonshine,” the origin of the term is self-evident, though it was coined not by “Appalachian distillers,” but rather by their centuries-gone ancestors.
We know, because Encyclopedia Britannica (kind of a pre-internet Wikipedia, but in bound book format) tells us, that distillation—the process of turning a substance into a purified liquid through alternate heating and cooling; or, if you will, evaporation and condensation—was practiced by first-century Greeks. They were using the method, though, to turn aromatic herbs into liquid perfume. We also know that by the ninth century, Arabs were using distillation for similar purposes. Crusaders were probably responsible for bringing the methodology back with them to Europe, and by the 1200s, wine was being distilled in Italy, mainly in monasteries. Monks, discovering the happy properties of their end product, began using it to treat, or at least relieve the symptoms of, such diverse ailments as colic and smallpox.
Fruit or fruit-based wine, when it is distilled, yields brandy. Hence the liqueur called Benedictine, made by Benedictine monks, and Christian Brothers brandy, made by friars who drank it and got fried. Distilling spread like a brand new gospel within the monastic community until it finally reached—wait for it—Ireland and Scotland. There, somebody towards the end of the fourteenth century reasoned that what could be done using fruit could also be done using grain. And there the substance those old monks had referred to as “aqua vitae” (literally, “water of life”) eventually became known by its Gaelic equivalent: uisque beatha: whiskey.
In the year 1405, according to the Gaelic chronicle Annals of Clonmacnoise, an Irish chieftain died from drinking “a surfeit of aqua vitae” over Christmas. This should have served as an object lesson for holiday partiers down the centuries, but it had rather the opposite effect. By 1494, James IV of Scotland was ordering uisque beatha in case lots, and the City of Dundee had a standing order with its Guild of Surgeon Barbers, who had managed to corner the market. But it was Henry VIII who was most directly responsible, albeit unwittingly, for turning whiskey loose upon the masses. As part of his war on English Catholicism, Henry dissolved the monasteries. When that happened, a lot of distillation-savvy monks found themselves on the streets. They became the first bootleggers, running off small batches of hooch in exchange for their daily bread and even sharing the secrets of distillation with enterprising laymen who knew a money maker when they tasted it.
Inevitably, so did the Crown, which did what governments always do when they see a money-maker: They slapped a tax on it, together with penalties for evading same. And thus was born the ancient yin and yang of moonshining: private enterprise versus government regulation. Individual rights versus bureaucracy. Snuffy Smith versus Sheriff Tait. An old adage holds that “the power to tax is the power to destroy.” Not so in the case of making whiskey. All the power to tax did in that case was drive whiskey-making underground, where, nurtured by ingenuity and fueled by defiance, it has remained and flourished to this day.
When waves of Scots and Irishmen left the old country—where “moonshine” had become a widely used term for generations before they stepped on the boat—and set up shop in the New World, they found that it wasn’t long before they were having to play hide-and-seek with the colonial authorities. By the time of the American Revolution, whiskey had become such a demand product in the colonies that in some cases it was even used as a medium of exchange: Farmers found it easier and more practical to convert their corn to whiskey and sell it as a cash crop than to try to haul the corn itself overland. Whiskey had, literally, become money.
So when, in 1791, the fledgling Republic levied an excise tax on whiskey, trouble started brewing right along with ‘shine. Many veterans of the Revolution saw this as taxation without representation, the very issue they had fought a war over. Moreover, it became a class thing: George Washington maintained a high-volume commercial distillery at Mount Vernon, and he could afford to. The small farmer who was paid in whiskey couldn’t. And so in 1794, when the gummint added a further excise tax on liquor, it was all too much and the United States had its first rebellion on its hands. Several hundred armed men in Western Pennsylvania marched on the home of General John Neville, the tax inspector.
The Feds won, of course. They directed government emissaries to deal with the rebel leaders, sending 13,000 men personally commanded by Washington—the distiller—to surround them and force surrender. But as far as the whiskey rebels themselves were concerned, might didn’t make right, and if they couldn’t make the government see that, they would simply go home and continue to make whiskey, this time and from henceforth in secret. The government won the battle but effectively lost the war, and, as successful moonshiners will tell you, has been losing it ever since. Moonshiners make moonshine. Some get caught, but the fact is, most of them pay the fine or do a little time and promptly resume ‘shining as soon as practicable.
“Moonshine,” Wikipedia also says primly, “was especially important to the Appalachian area.” Boy, howdy.
Scots-Irish family traditions and virtually impenetrable forested mountain terrain have combined to make the Appalachians the epicenter of American moonshining for generations. Even an elaborate still setup takes up comparatively little space, so every rocky outcrop, every fold of ground, every laurel thicket, is a potential still site so long as it’s accessible to one of two moonshining essentials: pure, cold mountain spring water. And springs abound in Appalachian woods.
The other essential for producing moonshine, genetically encoded in mountaineers, is sheer physical toughness. There is no such thing as a lazy moonshiner; ‘shining is backbreaking and dangerous work. It involves lugging mass quantities of raw ingredients—hundred-pound bags of sugar, corn, and grain (and that’s not counting bottling supplies and food)—through deep woods, and then lugging crates of product back out again. It involves dodging snakes, bears, and the occasional wild hog. It involves infinite patience in maintaining a fire at just the right level, troubleshooting leaks and the hundred other potential hazards of controlling an extremely volatile substance. And it involves the tremendous stress of doing all these things while operating on unflagging sensory high alert, listening for the least unfamiliar sound, watching for the slightest flicker of unidentifiable movement through the trees. It’s being the fox in a woodscape full of hounds.
Mountain moonshining and moonshiner hunting both reached epic levels with the dawn of prohibition. While clueless urbanites were killing themselves with “bathtub gin” and unscrupulous hack distillers were poisoning people with stuff run through old car radiators, skillful ‘shiners came into their own as purveyors of quality spirits to the bootleg trade. (The universal headgear for men at this time was the fedora, which is why many modern shiners sport well-worn fedoras as a badge of occupational pride.) Revenue agents stepped up their game as well, busting huge homemade liquor operations and getting themselves in the newfangled newsreels. But as always, for the most part, revenuers seemed to get to a still site a hair too late. They might find and wreck the apparatus, and even smash a few barrels of product, but the ‘shiners themselves would have vanished, wraithlike, into the wilderness.
A story that’s probably more than half true concerns the revenue agent who follows a dirt track through the woods and into the hardpan “yard” of a suspected moonshiner. On the steps of a ramshackle house is a boy who seems to be about twelve except for his eyes, which are ancient.
“How do, son,” the revenuer says affably. “Is your daddy home?”
“He’s up at the still,” says the boy.
“Is that a fact?” the agent says, blandly. “Tell you what, I’ll give you a dollar if you’ll tell me where that is.” And he reaches into his pocket and produces a greenback, which he flourishes in the kid’s direction.
The boy looks from the agent to the dollar and back again. “Well, sir, you’ll have to leave your car. You go around the side of the house and down the hill on into the woods. They’s a path. You take it and you’ll come to a branch. Go crost the branch and then turn left and follow it about half a mile. You’ll cross a little field and they’s some more woods and you go on in there and down a little gully and that’s where it is.”
The resourceful agent commits all this to memory. “Thank you, son,” he says.
“Well, gimme the money,” says the boy.
“Oh,” says the revenuer, “I’ll give it to you when I get back.”
The boy’s eyes are very deep. “Mister,” he says, “you ain’t comin’ back.”
Thunder & Lightning
Inevitably, Hollywood discovered that there was this other side to the Snuffy Smith coin, turning the moonshiner into Robin Hood and the unlawful liquor trade into a morality play of clueless bureaucracy versus individual rights. Such films as Thunder Road (1958, which starred Robert Mitchum and was filmed in and around Asheville and Lake Lure), White Lightning (1973), and Lawless (2012) gave audiences a sympathetic and sometimes even three-dimensional view of moonshiners, along with fantastic car chases. (Note: It’s fair to say there would be no NASCAR if there had been no mountain moonshine runners; that organization was founded on the backs of dirt track stock car drivers, who had learned their skills by evading the law while transporting ‘shine on snaky mountain roads.)
Television eventually followed suit. The advent of “reality” programming, which has brought us real-time fare ranging from romance (The Bachelor) to people-running-around-in-survival-mode-with-no-clothes-on (Naked and Afraid) has been the driving force behind the wildly successful Discovery Channel series, Moonshiners. The series, which just completed its fifth season, follows the fortunes of several teams of ‘shiners operating from Kentucky to Louisiana, but mainly in Southern Appalachia: Southwestern Virginia, East Tennessee, Northwest South Carolina… and Graham County, North Carolina. (The county seat of Graham County is Robbinsville and your obedient servant happens to be married to the president and salutatorian of her graduating class at Robbinsville High. Thus, watching an early episode of Moonshiners, Spouse sat bolt upright and began an excited recitation: “That’s… his sister is… and that’s… they were the ones who…”)
Whether and to what extent Moonshiners, which shows liquor—or something—actually being distilled, is fakery has been hotly debated. But both the show’s producers and its cast of moonshiners flatly deny any video sleight of hand and say the show’s integrity hangs on the fact that everything’s for real. They point to the crew’s obsessive attentiveness to legal details and a significant loophole in the law, as expressed early on by one of the show’s first stars, Virginia ‘shiner Tim Smith. In an interview with Bourbonblog.com, Smith said, “With the laws in Virginia, and I’m pretty sure around anywhere else, you must be witnessed and physical samples of the product you’re producing has to be taken and analyzed—and all of this has to go to a court of law, and then that arresting officer has to testify in a court of law that he did that.”
Whatever skepticism that may have greeted Mooonshiners has been overshadowed by its audience’s enthusiastic acceptance. Apart from its sheer entertainment value (the footage is by turns suspenseful, informative, and sidesplittingly funny), viewers overwhelmingly identify with its underlying message: That ‘shiners ‘shine for profit, sure, but also out of sheer dedication to preserving their heritage—something so precious that the protection of it justifies even defying the law and risking the consequences.
Hovering in the dusk near every still fire in Southern Appalachia is the bent, bearded, and benevolent spirit of Marvin “Popcorn” Sutton, born in 1946, late (2009) of Maggie Valley, North Carolina, the patron saint of unreconstructed bootleggers.
Popcorn, who earned his nickname because in his youth he beat the hell out of a honky-tonk’s popcorn vending machine with a pool cue, was a hereditary moonshiner; he had had the craft handed down to him by generations of Haywood County kin. Popcorn Sutton was among the first of his ilk to be discovered by the media, and he used his notoriety to proclaim his and everybody else’s right to produce whiskey unfettered by federal control and taxation. In his trademark flannel shirt, bib overalls, and sweat-creased fedora, he starred in a self-produced video, which he sold at his Maggie Valley junk shop along with copies of his 1999 self-published autobiography, Me and My Likker, which garnered a mention in the New York Times.
Popcorn led a charmed life—he had several run-ins with the law but managed never to serve any jail time—until 2007, when a fire at his place led to the discovery of several hundred gallons’ worth of his inventory he had stashed in an old school bus. The next year, frail and ill, he was sentenced to serve eighteen months in federal prison. There was a public outcry; petitions were circulated demanding clemency on account of Popcorn’s ill health, and calling into question the whole legitimacy of taxing homemade whiskey. The authorities were not impressed, and Popcorn was told to report for incarceration on March 16, 2009. He never did. That morning he ran a garden hose from the exhaust of his ancient Ford into the interior and took his own life.
And on that day he became a folk hero, the rugged individualist who would die rather than submit to a greedy and oppressive establishment that sought to penalize him for not allowing it to pick his pocket. His obituary was carried in The Wall Street Journal. He is now mentioned in history books and encyclopedias. A new folk festival, named for him, celebrates his life and times. And a year and a half after Popcorn’s death, Hank Williams, Jr.—who had attended his funeral—and his widow, Pam, unveiled plans for the creation of Popcorn Sutton Distilling, which would manufacture whiskey based on Popcorn’s own recipe. The distillery, based in Newport, Tennessee, even hired away the master distiller at the revered George Dickel distillery to supervise its operations.
It was bound to happen. Romanticism, tradition, craftsmanship—they’re all powerful marketing tools and they have helped bring moonshine, or at least something approximating it, out of the backwoods and into the liquor store. Investors with sufficiently deep pockets can purchase the licenses and fees that moonshiners can’t or won’t pay, the credentials that alone make the difference between a legal product and an illegal one, and the consumers—in my observance, primarily yuppies with a hankering for “edgy” stuff—are out there waiting. Tim Smith, who had yearned from the beginning to take his father’s treasured moonshine recipe public, finally managed to do so after years of scrimping, saving, and sacrifice; his Climax Moonshine (for Climax, Virginia, his home town; the company is headquartered in nearby Chatham) is now on ABC store shelves. Craft distillers are springing up at the rate that craft breweries did a decade ago, and flavorings such as peach and “apple pie” are being injected into basic moonshine formulas so as to appeal to more delicate tastebuds.
Somewhere, Popcorn Sutton is probably smirking at all of this. Moonshine is by definition handcrafted in small quantities, and ‘shiners and their clients alike maintain that no mass production process, even based a traditional recipe, can begin to match the flavor and quality of the real thing.
That being the case, you ask, how can you score some? The real thing, that is.
Well, it’s complicated. Moonshining is a referral-based business; ‘shiners are reluctant to deal with folks they don’t know unless the prospective customer has been vouched for by an existing customer. Word of mouth (usually spoken very softly) is the way business is conducted. Find somebody who knows somebody who knows a source. You’ll be told when and how to make contact. Sometimes this will result in an actual meeting to exchange money for goods; more often than not it involves leaving cash at an established and carefully hidden drop point and returning later to collect the product.
“There’s an old hollow tree ‘round the corner from me
Where you put in a dollar or two.
Then you go ‘round the bend and you come back again
And it’s full of that old mountain dew.” —From “Mountain Dew,” a popular bluegrass song performed by, among many, Flatt & Scruggs and “Hee-Haw” star Grandpa Jones
That’s pretty much the way it still (no pun intended) works. But you didn’t hear it here.
Moonshine is far from extinct. There are fresh faces blowing into the furnaces of new stills. In quiet country coves, tendrils of smoke are still climbing up to the sky. Urbanites are now ordering moonshine cocktails in upscale bars, and suburbanites are beginning to experiment with things their granddaddies did. In Popcorn’s own words: “Alkihol has and will be around as long as time, whether it is for medicine or to get drunk as Hell. I hope I will be there to help them in one way or the other.” — from Daddy Moonshine, by Sky Sutton (privately printed, Northampton, Mass.)
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