Hooch, bathtub gin, rot gut, white lightning, mountain dew — no matter what you call it, moonshine is the stuff of many a Southern legend.
A part of this clear, unaged whiskey’s mystique is its alcohol content, sometimes as high as a whopping 190 proof, enough to knock any imbiber off his tree stump.
Most fables, however, revolve around the fact that traditional moonshine is sold without collecting federal taxes, which therefore makes it notoriously illegal.
Small distillers started hiding their craft during the Whiskey Rebellion of 1791, when George Washington’s Congress decided to help pay the national debt by laying a tax on alcohol. At the time, the Scotch-Irish farmers of Pennsylvania, Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina were turning excess grain into whiskey, and they were not at all excited about the new law.
Violence broke out, which, in 1794, turned to armed rebellion. Eventually, many “Whiskey Boys” packed up and moved to the not-yet states of Kentucky and Tennessee, areas which offered safe haven.
Because of the liquor tax’s political unpopularity, it was appealed in 1803. Then came along the extremely expensive Civil War, prompting the federal government to impose new whiskey taxes that were as much as eight times the cost of the liquor itself. This new law created the moonshiner’s biggest nemesis, a group of agents from the U.S. Treasury Department charged with stopping the illegal manufacture of alcohol, and later popularly known as revenuers. And it was also during this time that the term moonshine came into use, the English word referring to the only light distillers dared work under.
By the 1870s, a tight-lipped organization of graft known as the “Whiskey Ring” was operating throughout the country, including in New Orleans. But moonshining got its biggest boost during Prohibition, the era of mob control, and when an emphasis on quantity made quality suffer.
“Mean Whiskey” was contaminated moonshine that could cause blindness, sores and ulcers, nerve and brain damage, and even death.
“Jake,” the adulterated spirit made from a medicine known as Jamacian ginger, often caused “Jake leg” or the “Jake walk,” a stiff-legged gait. The Prohibition years also saw a dramatic increase in conflicts between moonshiners and federal agents. Their cat-and- mouse games included high-speed chases in souped-up cars, vehicles that gave birth to the stock car and NASCAR racing.
Even with the end of Prohibition, moonshining flourished, as evidenced by the decade of 1954 to 1964, when federal agents destroyed more than 72,000 Southern stills. And according to Tennessee folk hero Popcorn Sutton, the “heyday of moonshining” was actually between1965 and 1972 “when you could buy likker about every 200 feet in places.”
The joke is that there are only two “flavors” of moonshine — legal and illegal. Surprisingly, the state of Louisiana does not have a statute on making liquor (i.e. moonshine) at home for personal consumption. But before jumping online to buy that copper still, be aware that the state ATF defers to federal law, which, on the grounds of zero quality control, tax avoidance and possible explosions, strictly prohibits the activity.
The good news for law-abiding drinkers is that there’s a growing number of federally licensed moonshine producers. Located mostly in traditional Appalachian moonshining states, artisans with names like Midnight Moon, XXX Shine, Stillhouse, Firefly and Catdaddy are brewing up sophisticated “white whiskies” that are smooth and sometimes flavored. And their formulas are authentic.
Tennessee native Justin King, master distiller with the popular brand Old Smoky, for example, proudly tells everyone that the recipe for his company’s moonshine has been in his family for seven generations.
This new breed of hooch averages between a drinkable 80 to 100 proof, and is also carefully regulated and taxed. And these small-batch, unaged spirits have become all the rage in the booming cocktail culture. So raise a legal jar to the new generation of ’shiners, distillers carrying on a tradition that’s been hiding in the South’s backyards, mountains and woods for just about as long as the U.S. has been a country.
Sources: learntomoonshine.com; digital.library.okstate.edu; katc.com; hotrod.com; moonshineheritage.com; georgiaencyclopedia.org
Cynthia LeJeune Nobles is a member of the Newcomb College Culinary History Writers Group and the author of LSU Press’s title “The Delta Queen Cookbook.” You can contact her at email@example.com.
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