(CNN) – Moonshine is as American as apple pie. Viewed through the lens of history, there’s way more to it than hillbillies with shotguns, long beards, and a distrust for government revenuers. Moonshine is about folklore, survival, politics, war, taxes, NASCAR — and now it is a growing industry.
Moonshine by the traditional definition can never be legal, but since 2010, unaged spirits, labeled as “moonshine,” have surged in popularity, with new distilleries popping up all over the United States. How can that be? Let’s start from the beginning.
Legends around the moon, illicit spirits, and evading taxes first surfaced in Wiltshire, England in the late 18th century. Outside of Wiltshire, a “moonraker” was thought to be dim-witted and foolish. This was based on a tale of Wiltshire men who once mistook a reflection of the full moon for a round of cheese at the bottom of a local pond. The fools were discovered fishing the pond with a rake in a vain attempt to retrieve the lost cheese round.
In Wiltshire, the story was turned around on the outsiders who were spreading those tales. “Moonraking” was a ruse to disguise their true aim, which was to retrieve kegs of smuggled brandy from the pond. From that tale came the origin of “Moonshine” — a clear, unaged, illicitly produced liquor.
English, Scottish, and Irish immigrants who settled the mountain regions of colonial America carried their whiskey-making traditions across the Atlantic. Those settlers adapted their recipes to make use of corn over wheat and rye. In colonial America, making corn whiskey was a way to earn money or barter for goods and services. It was also an efficient way to make use of excess corn that would otherwise spoil and was easier to transport as a liquid rather than bulky bags of grain.
After the Revolutionary War and the formation of the United States, it wasn’t long until the federal government decided it was time to levy taxes to provide much-needed revenue to pay off the debts of war. In 1791, Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton thought taxing the most popular beverage of the day — whiskey — would be an easy solution to the debt situation facing the young democracy. The so-called Whiskey Tax did not sit well with farmers and whiskey distillers — particularly in Western Pennsylvania, where the “Whiskey Rebellion” lead to the largest confrontation among American citizens between the Revolution and the Civil War.
The Whiskey Rebellion was put down by President George Washington, who led 12,950 militia men into Pennsylvania to quash the revolt in 1794. While Washington succeeded in putting down the rebellion, the stage was set for generations’ worth of resentment toward the federal government and its burdensome, unfair taxation on distilled spirits. Eventually some concessions were made and most distillers began paying the tax. Those who outright refused to pay were the original American moonshiners, and that definition holds true even today.
Moonshine remains most closely associated with the Appalachian Mountains in America, where it was produced under the cover of night so smoke from the fire used to heat the copper stills couldn’t be detected from afar.
In many instances, making moonshine was as much about survival as it was providing intoxicating spirits to the local community. Economic opportunities, particularly in the post-Civil War South, and especially in mountain regions, were scarce.
The rural, isolated Appalachian Mountains is where the contemporary view of moonshiners took shape. The enduring image of the typical moonshiner is a poor, illiterate ne’er-do-well who is constantly trying to stay one step ahead of the law. This portrait began to appear in post-Civil War publications, eventually becoming the iconic image of a moonshiner. Legendary moonshiner Marvin “Popcorn” Sutton — who committed suicide in 2009 before serving an 18-month sentence for moonshining — played the role well. But Popcorn was as much of a modern-day marketing genius as he was a traditional, old-timey moonshiner.
Being inherently illegal and without proper regulation, yes, it could be dangerous. As with all things moonshine, there’s more to it. While corn is what makes American whiskey unique, moonshine can be made of anything locally available, such as apples and other fruit. Here, a dividing line between “good” moonshine and the colloquial “rotgut” can be drawn. Moonshine that falls into the rotgut category could be dangerous and even deadly for anyone desperate enough to drink it. While those dangers were — and still are — real and present, they were more the exception than the rule.
Despite moonshiners running criminal enterprises, they still had a reputation to uphold for their regular customers. In the tight-knit communities where moonshine was made and sold, the local moonshiner was well-known. If the quality of the product was sub-par, or if people got sick and even died, that moonshiner would not be in business for long.
Yes. At the end of World War II, young men returned home with new mechanical skills after working on the machinery of war overseas. Some of those returning to the Appalachian Mountains from Pennsylvania to Alabama rejoined family traditions of making moonshine, and with those newly acquired mechanical skills took on work as bootleggers. Bootleggers and moonshiners are often lumped into the same category, but are not the same. Moonshiners make the illicit spirits, bootleggers transport them.
Stockcar racing and NASCAR can be traced to bootleggers. Enterprising entrepreneurs modified their vehicles to create space to haul moonshine and souped up the engines to outrun revenue agents. The curvy roads in the mountains were prime training grounds for racing legends like Junior Johnson. Johnson is now the name and face of the “Midnight Moon” brand of moonshine, which comes in a wide variety of flavors — including the typically American “Apple Pie Moonshine.”
Moonshining in the traditional sense will never quite go away, but the tradition and folklore surrounding it now are much better marketing tools than trying to run large, illegal operations. Although alcohol sales have fallen worldwide in recent years, today’s craft beverage industry is still growing, and moonshine is playing its role. Moonshine — illicit or not — is assured to live on for generations to come.