STORY BY AREN BESSON & DESIGN BY KRISTI WALKER
Terry Hill’s father made moonshine, and so did his grandfather, but not Hill. Instead, he has spent his career as a special agent for Tennessee’s Alcohol Beverage Control, catching people who make alcohol illegally as his father did. Hill, who says that he just never took his paw-paw’s craft, has caught more moonshiners than he can count in his 31-year career. If there is one trend that he has seen in that time, it’s that moonshine isn’t going away.
“When I came to work in the early ’80s, there were counties, small rural counties, that had as many as 20 bootleggers at one time,” he says. “It seems like even in the past few years we still get more complaints about people having stills than we did in the whole span before that.”
Moonshine is any alcohol that is sold without being taxed by the state and federal government. While it technically encompasses any untaxed liquor, true moonshine, the kind that was made in the mountains during prohibition, is simply un-aged whiskey that is sold straight from the still.
“I’ve worked cases where you get people whose daddy made it and their daddy’s daddy made it and it’s handed down like that so they just keep doing it as the family tradition,” Hill says. For these people, moonshine is a way of life. It was a family trade passed down through generations to make a living.
For the rest of the South, it has become a novelty, romanticized and married with the iconic Southern spirit. In the past few decades, its popularity has skyrocketed, allowing a television show like Moonshiners to survive for four seasons and attract a viewership of 3 million.
Moonshine, or white lightning, shine or white whiskey, appeals to Southern rebelliousness. It has been more than 80 years since Prohibition ended, but some people still choose to get their buzz from a drink that they purchased from a guy who knows a guy rather than driving to the closest liquor store. Enough people support the moonshine industry today that entire families can make a living off an illegal still.
Perhaps the motivation is economic; not having to pay taxes on moonshine allows distillers to pull a greater profit. But maybe there is something deeper at play. There are plenty of safer and more profitable trades than making moonshine, but generations of Southerners are still drawn to the craft. Maybe it represents a certain rebellious spirit that in some way overlaps with this vague, abstract notion of the Southern heritage. At the very least, moonshine has become a symbol in Southern culture that represents some vestige of the past. It is most certainly mainstream today, but that was not always the case.
“That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and that be the white whiskey agent, or be the white whiskey principal, I will wreak that hate upon him.”
– Captain Ahab, if he hunted moonshiners instead of Moby Dick
“Jim Beam, one of the largest whiskey distillers in the nation, produces about 300 gallons of un-aged whiskey every day,” says Johnny Pieper, head distiller at the Striped Pig Distillery in Charleston, S.C. “They wouldn’t have made any money selling it like that 20 years ago but that’s not true today.”
Top-shelf white whiskey, like the kind distilled by the Striped Pig Distillery, can sell for $30 a bottle. It is marketed as moonshine, but that’s not really the case when it is sold legally.
“It has become profitable to label something as moonshine now. It has become this popular drink now, and it seems to be pretty popular in the South,” Pieper says.
Why is that the case? Why did the South become this hotbed of untaxed whiskey? Why is the idea of moonshine attached to an image of a half-blind hillbilly in overalls, speaking broken English out of a toothless jaw in the Appalachian Mountains?
The answer has to do with railroads, says Bob Hutton, a history and American studies professor at the University of Tennessee.
“It is possible to make whiskey anywhere you can grow corn,” he says. “And corn is practically grown everywhere.”
“Over in places like Iowa, there were plenty of tracks laid out for the Civil War, so those people had an easier access to the market; you would make more money just selling corn as it is. That wasn’t so in the South. For Southerners, it was way more practical to turn surplus corn into whiskey rather than selling it because pound-for-pound you would make a greater profit. It had a lot to do with the regional relationships with the marketplace,” he says.
After the Civil War, distilling and selling unregulated whiskey became an industry, he says.
In 1862, Congress voted to help fund the war effort with the second U.S. Whiskey Pact, which imposed a tax on whiskey.
The United States played with a whiskey tax 70 years before that with poor results. The first tax on whiskey was imposed in 1791 and led to the armed Whiskey Rebellion.
The 1862 act favored larger producers, and only those with a certain amount of capital could afford to exist with the new tax. Smaller distillers were pressured to shut down since they could no longer make a living.
Shortly after the federal government began enforcing this tax, local prohibition laws were emerging. In the 1870s, counties could decide if they wanted to be wet or dry, and a handful of counties decide to ban the sale of alcohol.
At this time in the South, small-time distillers who couldn’t afford the tax and couldn’t make their liquor in dry counties had few options, and some decided to continue making alcohol, Hutton says.
When national Prohibition hit, the infrastructure to move alcohol illegally already existed in the South, since many Southerners were already making alcohol illegally to escape the tax.
“Prohibition really knocked out 99 percent of the distilleries in the states,” Pieper says. “By the time it was over, there were only really like 750 distilleries that could get back to making alcohol, and it was hard to get a permit even on through to today.”
Between Prohibition and now, states didn’t give out many licenses to distillers, and the taxes remained fairly high, Pieper says.
“It has only really been in the past 10 years that the government has had an interest in giving out permits, and there is still a lot of red tape. A few major producers were making alcohol for a long time until it became easier to get a permit. It all lines up with the boom in microdistilleries,” he says.
To get a permit today, a distiller needs to own a still, despite the fact that it is illegal to have one. Applicants need to prove that all the money they have has been taxed and has not been procured illegally.
“They only want legitimate business owners opening shop; they have to prove that they aren’t in the mafia or something like that,” Pieper says.
The transition from illegal distilling to a legitimate business is difficult for those who have made their living from moonshine. Once a license has been granted, the federal tax per 100 proof gallon is $13.50 plus varying state taxes.
“After costs and overhead, for an un-aged product, you’re only making somewhere between three to six dollars per bottle. Most of what you are making is going to the government,” Pieper says.
If you make the decision to produce moonshine illegally, the payday can be large, says special agent Hill.
“If you have a good product, and you have built up a reputation, and if you had some fairly large operation, maybe making 100 gallons a week, on the low end, just to be safe, that’s about $5,000 a week. That is $20,000 a month, essentially tax free, and we’ve paid anywhere from $50 a gallon to $100 a gallon when we are trying to catch moonshiners,” Hill says.
How To Shine
The process of making moonshine is quick and requires relatively few resources: corn, a still, water and a quiet place that law enforcement won’t think to look.
“Imagine that you have a shitload of corn that is about to go bad and not make any money, there are a lot of ways to preserve it, and one way is to make booze,” Pieper says.
Old moonshiners would take aging corn and put it into a sack. That sack would then be soaked in a river for a few days until it germinated. When that happened, moonshiners would take the sack out of the water and grind it down, perhaps by beating it with a stick. What was left was placed into a still filled with water and boiled until it reached 180-190 degrees.
“As the temperature grows, the corn begins to convert to sucrose. It’s the same thing with cooking an ear of corn, when it’s boiled, it begins to turn sweeter and it tastes good, and that’s what its like with moonshine,” Pieper says.
Once it’s cooked, the temperature is brought down so bacteria can grow. Today, distillers add yeast to the process to ferment the liquid, but that wasn’t as readily available more than a century ago. Even today, buying large quantities of yeast and corn will raise some eyebrows with law enforcement.
“Old rednecks would probably just let it go for a week and say ‘screw it,’ but things today are a little more precise. The old-school methods that worked 100 years ago still work today, but being consistent is important today if I want to put my name on it, but it’s really not all that highfalutin.”
The next step is extracting the alcohol from the fermented liquid. Modern distillers are very careful that the right parts of the liquid are removed so the dangerous byproducts are taken out. But old-school moonshiners were not so scrupulous.
“A lot of these old moonshiners wouldn’t throw away these cuts, and they were taking the methanol, ethanol and propanol and selling it like that so they could make more money off of each run. The old adage that bad moonshine can make you go blind is true. It has nothing to do with the proof of the shine; it has to do with how much methanol is in the drink. I know people personally that have gone blind from drinking bad alcohol.”
The final product is corn liquor. It can be aged until it turns golden brown, or it can be sold straight out of the still for a quick profit. Moonshiners don’t have quite the time to age the whiskey, so selling it white is the only way to move the product as quickly as possible.
Still Shining in 2015
1. Mash, which is a mixture of corn meal and malt or yeast, is placed in a still and boiled to 180-190 degrees fahrenheit.
2. The liquid evaporates out of the still through a pipe known as the cap arm.
3. The cap arm releases the steam to the thump keg, which re-evaporates the alcohol to filter out leftover mash.
4. Vapor travels through spiral pipes into the worm box, which contains cold water that is circulated by a piping system.
5. When the heat of the steam meets the cold water, it condenses into liquid.
6. The leftover liquid is poured from a tap, with the first layers of acetone and methanol being discarded.
So moonshine is historically Southern, and it is easy to produce, but why is it still popular? It is certainly safer and more convenient to go to a liquor store to get a buzz, but moonshine’s popularity has somehow long outlived alcohol’s legalization.
Hutton, the historian, believes that it has to do with the idea of a Southern heritage.
“It is undeniable that there is a certain segment of America, really in white America, that is really jazzed about the idea of moonshine. Moonshine is really just a word to describe the relationship to the Department of Treasury, but a lot of distillers have made a branding decision to call un-aged whiskey moonshine,” Hutton says.
“I think there is a certain volkisch tendency to it. White people use this word heritage a lot, and I’m not too sure what that means, but I think there is this fear among Anglo-Americans that the whole country is being taken away from them. America is going through a browning, with a lot of Hispanic immigration, and it’s the same as it was towards the end of the 19th century and at the beginning of the 20th century when white people were so concerned with their ancestry at the same time that these great migrations were happening and Reconstruction was going on.”
There is a cultural tendency to latch onto some part of the Anglo-American past when change occurs. The novelty of drinking moonshine may come from that subconscious part of white America that has trouble reconciling its identity with the times, Hutton says.
Historically, illicit distilling is not exclusively a white practice. Popskull was the name of the drink made by African-Americans in the Deep South, but it doesn’t receive any kind of attention in the same way the word “moonshine” does.
“The culture industry hasn’t fallen in love with it as they have the image of a white hillbilly distiller. I have to be suspicious of any cultural glorification that is exclusively white. I think there is a certain pretentiousness with how it is made in the 21st century. I can’t imagine any sort of pretentiousness in the 1880s when they were just making it for a living.” Hutton says.
So perhaps moonshine is just a cultural fetish, romanticized until it embodies something much more than it ever did historically. Moonshine is a loaded word, and it might not even taste that great to the uninitiated, but it is a tradition that persists.
For now, products marketed as moonshine will continue to make money. While interest in white whiskey is dynamic, storied and generational, it is a kind of buzz that will always taste American.