By Ron Soodalter
“I’ve been a moonshiner goin’ on seventeen year.
I spent all my money on whiskey and beer.
I’ll go to some holler and set up my still,
And sell you a gallon for a two-dollar bill.”
“The Kentucky Moonshiner” (traditional)
Americans have been making their own liquor for well over two centuries, and while certain parts of the country have developed a reputation for “privately distilling” a superior product, Kentucky arguably claims first place. The product—generally a colorless or cloudy concoction—goes by several names, including moonshine, white lightning, pop-skull, mountain dew, hooch, home brew, rotgut, bootleg and, probably owing to the kick, Kentucky mule. It is universally illegal and legendarily strong. In the words of one old-timey song:
“One drop will make a rabbit whip a fool dog,
And a taste will make a rabbit whip a wild hog;
It’ll make a toad spit in a black snake’s face,
And make a hard shell preacher fall from grace.”
“Kentucky Bootlegger” (traditional)
The typical image of the home distiller, or “moonshiner,” is an old one and plays upon stereotypes. In the past, newspaper and magazine cartoons depicted him as a barefoot mountain man or hillbilly, with patches on his clothes, a battered straw hat, a corncob pipe in his mouth and a jug of his product swinging from his finger. In point of fact, the distilling of alcohol was originally practiced in the late 1700s by legitimate, hard-working farmers—including no less a luminary than George Washington—both to provide liquor for the home and as an accepted way to enhance their income. Inevitably, there also were those who made it their sole occupation, but until laws were passed criminalizing the practice, it was considered a respected craft, and the makers of fine whiskey were artisans in their own right. Even now, with dozens of federal and state laws forbidding the fermentation and sale of illicit alcohol, the moonshiner is generally looked upon at worst as a harmless outlaw and at best as a folk hero. As one chronicler of moonshining in Kentucky wrote, “He is a sort of illegal pet, carefully protected from extermination by both the law and society, but hunted with just enough diligence to make him constantly aware that he is a criminal.”
Creating a Culture of Moonshiners
Man has been using a distilling system, or “still,” since the dawn of civilization. Its origins have been claimed by Egypt, China, India, Scotland and Ireland. Although a latecomer in establishing a tradition of fermenting home brew, America entered the field with a vengeance. The rugged pioneers who peopled the Southern mountains throughout the 18th century derived largely from Scots/Irish stock. These tough, independent settlers brought their customs, trades and skills with them to “Kaintuckee,” and among their cultural baggage was the centuries-old ability to distill whiskey, and, from long exposure to English domination, a deep resentment of authority. Hewing out a life on the
frontier, they fought the Indians and the British as they struggled to make a living off their small hill farms, and through it all, they made their whiskey.
After the Revolution, legal whiskey making continued until a single law made outlaws of thousands of heretofore honest farmers and distillers. In 1791, President George Washington’s Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, levied a tax on distilled spirits. It would be, as Hamilton saw it, a “luxury tax. ” For some Americans, however, whiskey wasn’t a luxury; it was their livelihood. In addition to providing farmers with supplemental income, whiskey took the form of currency. In the absence of cash, it provided a recognized method of trade and of payment for work. And with grain markets often several miles away, allocating at least some of his crop for distilling purposes saved the farmer a grueling trip over rough roads.
Taxation was one of the issues at the heart of America’s bid for freedom. And for the farmers who made their own whiskey, being taxed by the new federal government was no easier to swallow than a British levy. To make matters worse, the original Whiskey Act of 1791 was the first duty levied on Americans for a homegrown product. This was not a tax on goods imported from Europe; this was a duty imposed on Americans for an American commodity.
Aside from the added expense, the new tax law presented several problems for the farmer and his still. The tax had to be paid in cash, and these farmers generally were cash-poor. Further, the law stipulated that all stills be registered and subpoenas be answered at federal court, often a journey of hundreds of miles. And unrelated to the manufacture of spirits, many settlers eking out a living in the wilderness wondered why their new government was so quick to levy taxes, and so slow to provide vital protection from Indian attacks.
Westerners railed at what they saw as an iniquitous system. Inevitably, there were outbreaks of violence. The handiest targets were the federally appointed “officers of inspection”—revenue supervisors and inspectors, many of whom were manhandled and a few tarred and feathered. Distillers’ resistance to the law burned throughout Appalachia, from western Pennsylvania to the mountains of Georgia. It became known as the Whiskey Rebellion, and over a two-year period, it shut down the government’s efforts to collect liquor taxes. After the rebellion was put down, the federal government began prosecuting distillers, including those in Kentucky, for illegally manufacturing spirits. Between 1794 and 1800, the courts brought 177 cases against moonshiners from 21 Kentucky counties. Nonetheless, resistance to the tax law engendered a tradition that survives to the present day of making moonshine whiskey without bothering to tell the government. The sentiment is nicely expressed in the old song, “Copper Kettle”:
“My daddy, he made whiskey,
My grand-daddy did, too;
We ain’t paid no whiskey tax
Since seventeen ninety-two … ”
From early on, Kentucky earned a reputation as the illicit alcohol distilling capital of the nation. In 1877, the New York Evening Post went so far as to claim, “Nelson County, Ky., is the home of the moonshiner, the manufacturer of illicit whiskey.” More than most other states, Kentucky offered ideal conditions for the distillation of spirits. Kentucky corn proved to generate greater yields of whiskey than rye; the water from the state’s cold limestone springs enhanced the quality of the product; and the Ohio River served as a downstream highway for the
movement of whiskey to buyers. These qualities, combined with the settlers’ traditional skills and inbred disregard for the law, made of Kentucky what one historian calls “a self-perpetuating moonshining subculture.”
A Cottage Industry Becomes Big Business
Moonshining in Kentucky, as elsewhere in the country, was primarily a family affair until the passage of the 1919 National Prohibition Act and the resultant 18th Amendment. With the advent of Prohibition, the demand for illegal alcohol skyrocketed, and suddenly home distillers were being called upon to supply not only their regular customers, but also those who previously had bought their liquor legally. Moonshining flourished. Writes one historian, “Never again has so much moonshine been produced by so few …” But many opportunists across the South, seeing fast and easy profits, jumped into the distilling business. They cut corners and turned out a product referred to as “Jake” that was often substandard and, in some cases, resulted in blindness, paralysis and death. As one popular blues piece of the period bemoaned,
“I can’t eat, I can’t walk,
Been drinkin’ mean Jake, Lord,
Now I can’t walk …”
“Jake Walk Blues” (traditional)
In the seven years following the passage of the Prohibition Act, 50,000 people reportedly died from the consumption of bad whiskey. In general, however, Kentucky’s moonshiners managed to keep their product pure, and the state’s reputation for producing top-grade corn liquor grew.
Prohibition brought another significant change to the process of
moonshining. Instead of simply
loading some casually distilled barrels of ’shine onto a flatboat or wagon for local sale, moonshiners were working nonstop to meet the demand, and they adopted a new method of distribution to accommodate an ever-widening market. Souped-up cars became the general mode of delivery, and a new folk hero was added to the lore of the moonshiner—the transporter, or moonshine runner.
From Whiskey Running to Stock Car Racing
During Prohibition, revenue agents patrolled the roads most commonly used by drivers hauling loads of moonshine to bars and speakeasies. As folk singer Frank Profitt intoned nearly 75 years ago,
“It’s a low down man riding ’round in a car,
Picking on the man with the old fruit jar.”
“Beaver Dam Road” (traditional)
It became increasingly important for the moonshine runners to drive cars that were faster than the police vehicles pursuing them. The cars required a difficult balance—between the load capacity to carry up to 100 gallons of whiskey and the ability to quickly hit and maintain high speeds and negotiate curvy, bumpy country roads. As Robert Glenn “Junior” Johnson, champion stock car driver and former moonshine runner, put it, “Moonshiners put more time, energy, thought and love into their cars than any racer ever will. Lose on the track and you go home. Lose with a load of whiskey and you go to jail.”
In their off-hours, runners would get together and race against one another. During the 1940s, the sport became popular, and the drivers eventually took their muscle cars to the dirt track. The rest, as they say, is history. In December 1947, a group of drivers and mechanics met in Daytona Beach, Fla., and established formal rules for racing, thereby creating the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing—NASCAR. Moonshine runners had gone legit.
Moonshine in the Media
“There was thunder, thunder, over Thunder Road,
Thunder was his engine, and white lightning was his load;
And there was moonshine, moonshine, to quench the Devil’s thirst –
The law, they swore they’d get him, but the Devil got him first.”
“The Ballad of Thunder Road”
The romantic aspects of moonshining have not been neglected by pop culture merchants. The Dukes of Hazzard graced the TV screen for years, followed by a popular movie of the same name. A biopic was released on the career of Junior Johnson, and Burt Reynolds portrayed a moonshine runner in one of his films. And in 1958, Robert Mitchum co-wrote, produced, starred in, composed the theme song for, and reputedly directed Thunder Road, a film about a Kentucky boy who “hauls the loads” of moonshine his father distills. Various singers, such as Joan Baez, the Clancy Brothers, The New Lost City Ramblers, Bob Dylan, Tim Hardin, Waylon Jennings, The Big Bopper (J.P. Richardson Jr.) and even the Rolling Stones have recorded both period and contemporary songs about moonshining. Popular singer Gillian Welch sings a plaintive folk song, the last verse of which reflects the old moonshiner’s remorse:
“Go tell all your children, that hell ain’t no dream
Old Satan, he lives in my whiskey machine
Oh, in my time of dyin’, I know where I’m bound
When I die, tear my stillhouse down.”
But for one of the finest, no-frills examples of folk philosophy found in American traditional music and lore, we must go to the 19th century folk ballad, “The Kentucky Moonshiner.” It reduces life to its most pragmatic common denominators:
“It’s cornbread when I’m hungry, corn whiskey when I’m dry;
Greenbacks when I’m hard up, and religion
when I die.
The whole world’s a bottle, and life’s but a dram;
When a bottle gets empty, it ain’t worth a damn.”
I’ll drink to that!
* Title quote—from the old folk verse,
“If moonshine don’t kill me, I’ll live till I die.”
Photos courtesy of the Kentucky Historical Society