All About Moonshine: Throwing Light on Moonshine

The Origin of Moonshine

Moonshine, as we know it now, was not always moonshine. In the beginning, it was just a word which was prevalent in England to refer to work done at night by the moonlight. Just before the American Revolution, a large number of Scotch-Irish migrated to North America, to settle down and rebuilt their lives in the isolation of the Appalachians. Along with them, came their love for liquor and their skill to craft that liquor. Since they lived on subsistence farming, selling their homemade whisky became the only way for them to make money when needed. For a long time, whisky was their only currencymn.

The goodwill that the Scotch-Irish built fighting the British troops during the Revolution, did not last. In 1791 when Treasury Secretary Hamilton imposed an excise tax on liquor, the price of whisky shot up. The disappointment of the Appalachian distillers in Pennsylvania immediately gave birth to the Whisky Rebellion. The rebellion took a different dimension in 1794 when a rebel destroyed a tax inspector’s home. From showing sporadic violence, the resistance turned into an occupying force. But after federal troops were deployed, the Whisky rebels disappeared and a year later when Jefferson repealed the tax, the distillers found themselves where they had been prior to the Revolution.

Then came the Civil War. While production of moonshine was not illegal, evading taxes on the spirits was. Since the distillers were not paying taxes, active patrols resumed in the Appalachians in the 1870s. The distillers reacted violently to this, going not just after agents but locals who they thought were helping revenuers. Soon the Ku Klux Klan joined the war, on the side of the distillers. Because the federal government was cracking down on illegal distribution of moonshine, distillers became nocturnal. They resorted to running their activities by the moonlight, and thus was born the term “moonrakers”.

Moonshine Today

Although the American Revolution and Civil War tax conflict primarily shaped moonshine distillers into loose organizations, it was not until Prohibition that they got recognition as moonshiners, the way we know them now. The religious revivalism which enforced the 18thAmendment prohibited manufacture, transport and sale of liquor. This not just gave rise to illegal sales of liquor but a wave of organized crimes. Since the prohibition was on recreational alcohol and not industrial alcohol, distillers increasingly started denaturing wood alcohol to make moonshine. Thousands of people were blinded, paralyzed and dead from moonshine poisoning. But when the Volstead Act was repealed in 1933, Moonshine could be found with distinctive packaging on every local distributor’s shelves.

Moonshine, today, is more about the style of liquor. Not to mention, it has also become legal. Several large companies are thus turning moonshine’s history and tradition into a trend to generate profit. Ole Smoky which was legalized in 2009 currently produces fifteen flavors of moonshine, using an authentic hundred year old family recipe, packaged in Mason jars and shipped directly from the company’s Gatlinburg distillery.

One man, Marvin Sutton, was a rare moonshiner, who did not believe living under the radar. Notoriously short tempered, he had once destroyed a popcorn machine in his youth thus winning the nickname “Popcorn”. He was one of the most famous moonshiners operating in Maggie Valley, North Carolina. While he was caught several times and put on probation before, a raid by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms on his property, netted him an 18-month prison sentence in 2009. Bent on not reporting to the federal prison, he committed suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning. The following year Hank Williams Jr. announced his partnership with J&M Concepts LLC and Pam Sutton, Marvin Sutton’s widow to distribute Popcorn Sutton’s Tennessee White Whiskey, in regards of Sutton’s legacy.

In the name of Popcorn Sutton, and all the men who rebelled against the government, no whisky lover should forget that Moonshine remains, till date, an American classic. If one has to stay loyal to the traditions, one should either encourage small moonshine distilleries to produce more or craft moonshine at home.