The Moonshining Tradition

“Freedom and whiskey go together,” wrote the Scottish poet Robert Burns. He was thinking of Scotland, but the principle applied to the United States as well where independent farmers enjoyed the right to distill and drink their own liquor without anyone’s approval.

Burns might have added that money and whiskey keep even closer company. Whiskey enabled farmers to convert their corn into a precious commodity that would keep its value for years. In parts of western Pennsylvania, whiskey was valuable enough to be used as currency and collateral. So it wasn’t surprising that these farmers rebelled when treasury secretary Alexander Hamilton put an excise tax on liquor. The Whiskey Rebellion of 1794, which followed, was put down when President Washington sent Federal troops into the region.

The tax was lowered slightly and pardons were handed out to the penitent. But a stubborn spirit of rebellion smoldered in the countryside and a long tradition of illicit whiskey distilling began.

In southern states, opposition to tax on homemade whiskey became something of an institution. Moonshiners gained a national reputation for continuing their resistance to the revenue collectors. Their reputation grew during Prohibition as they moved vast amounts of illegal whiskey into the cities across moonlit country highways in specially customized roadsters. Post author William Price Fox interviewed moonshiners who had been in business in the ’20s.

Edwin C. Arthur stands amid a collection of moonshine containers taken during a South Side raid.

“We had us some nice races back then,” a veteran recalls. “I had me a 1926 Buick that wouldn’t quit. Had the back end jacked up so high with special heavy-duty springs it looked like a jackrabbit with a sore tail when it wasn’t loaded down with seven- or nine-hundred rounds of whiskey. And smoke screens? Why we had us more smoke back then before anyone ever heard of your Mister Al Capone. Used a specially welded little steel box that held about two gallons. Put maybe a gallon of crude oil in and put the can under pressure with a gas-station air pump. I kept that can right by my right knee when I drove and had her linked up through the manifold. All I had to do was throw a little petcock and that stuff would come out looking like ink.

“Later on we got so we’d add a little creosote in with the crude oil; that would make it stick to the windshield of the Law’s car, and I mean you couldn’t ever get it off unless you used soap and water and a razor blade.”

Moonshiners learned how to compete with bootleggers by giving their product the look of true Scotch whiskey.

Their bottles were appropriately neck-labeled, stamped with the proper Scotch or Canadian tax stamp, and wrapped in salt-water-damaged paper and broom straw to give the appearance of whiskey smuggled into this country after a terrible time on the high seas.

The old-timers swear that when Prohibition ended and the real brands began appearing, people thought they were being duped. They wanted the old rectified and smoke-up corn, and were suspicious of any substitutes.

There are several designs for a still.  The best known uses a pot or “cooker,” which captures vapors from the “mash” of corn and sugar and passes them through a condenser coil.

The simplest model is the 200-year-old Horse-Blanket Still. In this type, the mash is cooked in a big pot over an open fire. A thick horse blanket is laid over the pot to collect the steam. When the blanket is saturated with steam, it is run through a clothes wringer, and the moisture that is wrung out is whiskey. The taste will vary, but basically it’s of wool, of earth, of horse and of very, very strong corn whiskey.

John Bowman (right), in his garage, explains the workings of a moonshine still to Mary Hufford and John Flynn.

I’m betting that this whiskey tasted a LOT more of horse than is suggested here.

When Fox wrote “The Lost Art of Moonshine” in 1966, he believed “private distilling” would soon disappear. He needn’t have worried. Today, thousands of Americas—up to 100,000 according to one author—are distilling their own whiskey despite Federal law that forbids any unlicensed, untaxed distilling. Convicted of moonshining, you may face up to five years in jail and a fine up to $50,000.

Because every dollar spent on liquor yields about 50¢ in taxes, Washington D.C. wants to make sure that money and whiskey continue to go together. And, unlike in 1794, they aren’t handing out pardons.