Moonshine History

The story of moonshine is, in many ways, the story of America. 

While many Americans are just learning about the history of moonshine today through the increasing popularity of craft distilling or TV shows like Discovery Channel’s “Moonshiners,” moonshine holds a rich and proud history in America.

The skills and traditions of moonshiners continue today, passed down from father to son, from generation to generation. Moonshine is, and always will be, a unique part of America’s proud history.

Whiskey and Colonial America

Moonshining in America dates back to the early 1600’s. Moonshine legend has it that American colonist and Englishman George Thorpe was the first to distill corn whiskey in the United States in the fall of 1620 in what is now Gloucester County, Virginia. Thorpe is said to have brewed a simple beer from corn he obtained from the native Powhatan Indians. Thorpe then distilled this mash, creating the first whiskey from corn, the base of which forms moonshine and, when aged in American oak, bourbon.

Thorpe was not the first person to make whiskey, of course. Whiskey enjoys an even longer history than moonshine, dating back many hundreds of years. Early American settlers were likely versed in the Scotch Irish traditions of whiskey making. But what they found here was a new ingredient than they had available at home – corn – which would come to launch liquor distillation, and moonshine, in America.

American Revolution

join-or-die

The taxation of distilled spirits has played a substantial role in the history of moonshine that continues today. In the early 1760’s, after a series of victories by the British Empire that protected the American Colonies from the French military threat of the French and Indian war, the Britain determined America should contribute to the costs of its defense and began levying onerous taxes on the American Colonies, including taxes on distilled whiskey. This of course would ultimately lead to the Boston Tea Party, “no taxation without representation,” and the American Declaration of Independence from British rule.

Distilled whiskey played a prominent role in the new America. Beer, cider, and whiskey was consumed in higher quantities than water as the fermentation process made them a safer drinking source than contaminated water.

Whiskey Rebellion

Finding itself struggling to pay for the expenses of defeating the British Empire in the American Revolution, Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton and President George Washington soon turned to the taxation of whiskey as a means to fund government programs. Beginning in 1791, farmers who had turned their extra corn and grain into profitable whiskey suddenly faced new excise taxes on their whiskey products.

This new tax went over about as well as you would expect, with farmers continuing to distill whiskey, while evading the federal tax collectors, or “Revenuers.” By 1794 the “Whiskey Rebellion” reached its climax when 500 armed rebels attacked the home of the tax inspector general in protest of the whiskey taxes. President Washington responded by quashing the rebellion with 13,000 militia collected from several of the largest early states.

Though Washington won the battle, collection of the whiskey tax remained problematic. The whiskey tax was finally repealed when Thomas Jefferson’s new Republican Party defeated former treasury secretary Alexander Hamilton’s Federalist Party in 1801.

Prohibition

Moonshine History

In 1920, the National Prohibition Act, also known as the Volstead Act, was signed into law by President Woodrow Wilson. The law was the climax to many years of temperance movements, culminating in the enactment of the 18th Amendment to the United States Constitution, which established the national prohibition of alcohol in the United States. The 18th Amendment’s purposes were:

  1. to prohibit intoxicating beverages (any beverage containing more than 0.5% alcohol by volume; moonshine can run 40% to as high as 80% ABV);
  2. to regulate the manufacture, sale, or transport of intoxicating liquor (but not consumption); and
  3. to ensure an ample supply of alcohol and promote its use in scientific research and in the development of fuel, dye and other lawful industries and practices, such as religious rituals.

The Amendment provided that “no person shall manufacture, sell, barter, transport, import, export, deliver, or furnish any intoxicating liquor except as authorized by this act.”

With their freedom to distill and consume whiskey again threatened as it had been by the British Empire and then their own American government, whiskey drinking and moonshining Americans again rebelled against the outlaw of “intoxicating liquors.” The Roaring Twenties, speakeasies, and classic era of mobs and gangsters soon followed. Ironically, Prohibition actually helped to increase moonshine production – though Prohibition could change the law, it could not change a person’s proclivity toward drink.

It is also during this time that many of the common stereotypes of moonshine and whiskey were solidified. Pushing the production of whiskey underground led to a general decrease in quality and sanitation practices that often produced substandard, and downright dangerous, moonshine. Many of these stereotypes still survive today.

Prohibition is a fascinating period of our American history. Ordinary, otherwise law-abiding, American citizens driven underground merely because they enjoy the fermented and distilled fruits of corn. The creation of a whole subculture of citizens giving money to bootlegging gangsters like Al Capone to help fund their criminal activities. The formation of speakeasies, special secret clubs intricately designed to hide the alcohol consumption taking place within, often with ordinary folks drinking next to high-powered politicians that helped keep the law in place. Just an amazing time in American history.

Bootlegging

The years 1920-1933 saw a rapid growth in bootlegging and the creation of large, intricate moonshining networks. Prohibition forced moonshiners to the hills to produce liquor, and whiskey drinkers underground to consume it. 

It was during the lead up to and enactment of Prohibition that the culture and history of moonshining took hold in the United States, particularly in the South and Appalachia. Prohibition served to create an increased demand for moonshiners’ supplies, driven by the growth of underground drinking in major metropolitan cities like New York and Chicago. Though Prohibition was finally repealed on December 5, 1933 by the 21st Amendment, it helped cement the traditions and folklore of America and moonshiners.

NASCAR

It is said that in 1941 Lloyd Seay won the National Stock Car Championship in a Ford coupe he had driven just twelve hours before on a moonshine bootlegging run. A day later, Lloyd Seay was shot and killed by his cousin in an argument over sugar – a primary ingredient of moonshine.

Car culture had begun to take hold in America by the 1940’s, and with it came the American muscle car. Moonshiners of the 1940’s had every bit the need to outrun the Revenuers as did their early American predecessors, but had a little more horsepower available to them.

In order to evade the tax collectors, and the law, bootleggers souped up the engines and suspensions of their cars while leaving the exteriors unchanged as a means to evade, and outrun, police should they happen upon a moonshine run. Moonshine runners became skilled drivers, valued on their abilities to outrun and outsmart the law. Bootleggers began to hold informal races of their moonshine running cars which, moonshine legend has it, led to the organization of these races into auto racing and, eventually, stock car racing.

One famous moonshine runner named Junior Johnson is one of the legends of early NASCAR. It is said that he quit illegal moonshining in 1960 after winning the Daytona 500. But today, ol’ Junior has gone legal, selling Junior Johnson’s Midnight Moon Carolina Moonshine 80 proof corn-based liquor.

Popcorn Sutton

No history of moonshine is complete without mentioning immortal moonshiner Marvin “Popcorn” Sutton, the most infamous of modern moonshiners.

Popcorn came from a long line of moonshiners and made a lifelong career of his trade. Sutton’s legend increased in the 2000’s with several television and documentary appearances, including 2002’s documentary The Last One Popcorn Sutton Documentary
as well as recognition from his self-published autobiography and moonshine production guide Me and my Likker.

Popcorn’s legendary run came to an end in 2009 when, facing 18 months in federal prison, Sutton chose to end his life and his moonshining career. His self-authored tombstone reads “Popcorn Said Fuck You.”

Moonshining: An American Tradition

Moonshine Still

Illegal moonshining has waned somewhat from its peak in the 1960’s and 1970’s. But today a growing number of legit, legal moonshines are coming on to the market, many from well-known legendary moonshiners like Tim Smith of the Discovery Channels’ “Moonshiners” and even a ‘shine supposedly based on Popcorn Sutton’s own recipe and affiliated with Hank Williams Jr.

The rise in legal moonshine is a result of government taxation of the moonshine whiskey, which comes in at as much as $15.50 in tax alone just for a gallon. The rapid rise of craft breweries and homebrewing beer has also given rise to a new generation of micro distillers. It’s also paved the way for a growing interest in home distilling, despite the illegality of distilling liquor, even for personal consumption, without a federal license.

Though it is illegal to distill liquor without a permit, it is still legal to own a whiskey still or moonshine still. You can easily find a moonshine still for sale online via marketplaces like Amazon and through a number of still makers providing everything from copper stills to pot stills to stainless steel stills to whiskey still kits.

The Future of Moonshine

Though technology has likely ended the golden era of moonshiners making ‘shine under the cover of the hills by moonlight for good, the traditions of moonshining will live on forever as a fundamental metaphor of American culture.

The recent rise in popularity and interest in moonshine and craft distilling will increase the recognition and appreciation of moonshine, both as a spirit and a uniquely American cultural phenomenon. Tens of thousands of Americans will continue to practice the craft of distilling and efforts to remove penalties for home distilling have already made their way through several state legislatures. If the history of moonshine shows us anything, though, it’s that whiskey will always find a way.

Until then, drink what you think is right. Cheers.

Let’s Hear from You

Have a personal story about your own history with moonshine? Let’s hear it – leave a comment below.

 

Moonshiners fans, it’s official! According to Variety, the Discovery Channel has renewed the popular series for a Moonshiners Season 3.

According to Variety:

“Moonshiners” performed strongly on Discovery with male demos during its sophomore run, standing as the top cable show on Wednesday nights among men 18-49 and men 25-54. The season two finale of “Moonshiners” drew almost 4 million total viewers.

The Moonshiners Season 2 finale aired to nearly 4 Million viewers on January 30, 2013. Channel Guide Magazine has a nice rundown of the Season 2 Moonshiners Secret Summit here.

So if you’re anything like me, you can’t wait for another great season of Moonshiners with Tim Smith, Tickle, and the rest of the guys. What do you think – will there be any major changes to the third season of the show?

To get geared up while we’re waiting for the third season to arrive, why not check out this 10 gallon Moonshine Still for sale by Clawhammer Supply? Let me know what you think.

 

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