I’ve been a moonshiner
For seventeen long years
And I spent all my money
On whiskey and beer
And I go to some hollow
And set up my still
If whiskey don’t kill me
Lord, I don’t know what will
It was NOT easy to find the subjects of this interview. No matter how popular reality TV may be, no one is keen to admit they are participating in what remains very illegal activity punishable by stiff penalties including $250,000+ fines or jail time. The flip side of our subjects’ fear is their need to continue a deep tradition. To share that their family recipe is not legend or folklore but truth and tradition derived from generations of inherited knowledge — Something that can only be proven with a swig from the bottle.
So, After much research and under clause of anonymity as well as a promise that we would not hold anyone responsible for possible… adverse effects… We were invited over 3 weeks, to cross 3 states and view the sites, sip from the stills, and hear the stories of the real Moonshiners. A little of this, we share with you now:
The whiskey-soaked days of youth are long left behind. Yet, with the allure of fermenting, brewing and otherwise home-processing what we used to only buy at the store, we have had our eyes on distilling spirits. Coming into the Appalachians and Smoky Mountain hills from Portland, home of distillery row, we had learned a lot of the rudimentary processes of moonshining as well as legal distillation (note: not a huge difference, technique-wise).
Once we infiltrated the hills and gained the trust of our first Moonshiner, Roy, the fascinating fun began.
We were first educated on how to judge a “proper” ‘shine: We were given strict instruction on how to vet the firewater we would sample during our intense research so as not to become victim to the ill-conceived distillations that have been known to make a person horribly hungover at best, and blind or dead at worst. We learned how to perform an age-old system of checks: initial visual inspection, shake proof test, flame test, and flavor gauge.
Like many other substances, once upon a time it made sense somewhere, by someone, to ban its manufacture and distribution due to the “dangers” of alcohol. Yet as history has shown us, the ultimate free will of man cannot be entirely controlled and extinguished (largely a philosophical topic for another day.) Firewater has long been used as an antiseptic, a purifier, cleanser, a fuel, and a social lubricant. Much like other magical and healing natural substances, it was demonized by those intent on monopolizing its power in the name of control or greed. “I worry you’ll go blind!” some friends and relatives warned.
This however, (though it may have occurred in history and can be a by-product of drinking methanol if you don’t know what you are doing), was also a fabrication spread to stop individuals from distilling.
As a friend recently pointed out, it is noted in Bill Bryson’s book “1927: One Summer in America” that: “To render industrial alcohol disagreeable for drinking, the government took to ‘denaturing’ it by dosing it with poisons such as strychnine and mercury which had the power to blind, cripple or kill those who drank it. …Figures vary wildly on just how many people died wretchedly from drinking denatured alcohol.”
So in effect, government spins propaganda leading some to believe that only the chosen few should be trusted with the safety of your health and what you put into your own body.
So, trusting in common sense and hundreds of years of history, we decided to take our chances… As they say here, we got to drinkin’.
All that we sampled looked like what they’re selling in the liquor store as “moonshine” these days, but there’s a better story behind the no-label jugs and clear mason jars. First of all, real moonshine is generally made under cover of night, by the light of the moon, or in a secret underground location. Second, much (but not all) of what is commercially produced and labelled as “Moonshine” is actually just cleverly packaged vodka. Real moonshine is made from a few specific ingredients and does NOT taste like plain ol’ vodka. We did do a commercial tasting of Moonshine at the Limestone distillery (Home of the Climax Moonshine made by Tim of the Discovery Channel’s “Moonshiners” who has recently gone legit). With the help of the very knowledgable Meredith, we were guided through the process and many flavors of a legally run “moonshining” operation. We LOVED the Pumpkin Pie ‘shine from Limestone Distillery, and purchased more than one bottle — YUM.
The first nip of moonshine we had was genuine, first-run, clear whiskey moonshine made with pure corn, barley and some special, secret ingredients (no added sugar). We were told it would be the best that would ever touch our lips — and as our moonshine tour continued over a period of weeks, we found that to be 100% accurate. This white lightning tasted like a fine Italian grappa. Incredibly smooth, with a nose of earth and licorice, the sip evolved rapidly with a clean but nutty finish of hay, amaretto, and white chocolate. We were surprised by the nuances of such a simply made hillbilly pop!
Many other ‘shiners we met from Virginia make their white dog from a mix of corn and sugar (which once upon a time was a dead giveaway to the authorities, after it was noted that a particular county was importing more sugar than the rest of the entire state.)
Moderation in mind – the stuff we had actually clears your head!
“This stuff will clear you right up! We’ve pulled it out at 6 AM in the woods, around the still,” Roy says. “Take a little nip, pass it around, keep the conversation up, work the still.”
In the Eastern hills of Tennessee the fables and handed-down tales of bootleg liquor go back long before the founding of the nation.
“The original hill people weren’t being chased into the woods by Uncle Sam – they were being chased by the king’s men,” our source shared with us. (Since there actually was no Uncle Sam yet)
They ran their copper coils intent on brewing this corn lightning – as a medicine above all. A cure-all from the days before pharmacological giants and liquor conglomerates.
“They didn’t have any other way of life,” he adds.
The Kentucky moonshiner is from a just-below the surface culture. Cross one county line and you’re in the Bible Belt, a stone’s throw and you are in the heart of the Whiskey Belt. We were told that a group of guys get together to create their own family brand of moonshine, careful not to cross the line into that Bible Belt where their craft would be wholly unappreciated if discovered.
But, it’s not the 1920s, and these days you would likely get away with it provided you know what you’re doing, keep it among friends, and don’t try to sell it.
Most of the ‘shines we sampled were crystal clear, no flavor additives, with a bit of a bite on the back-end, never sour or bitter. The ones with added flavor weren’t our favorites, but displayed the versatility and creativity of these underground sugarwhiskey scientists.
We’re excited to continue our research into the some of the more – underground – arenas of farming and self-sufficiency. It opens up a whole new way of looking at history through the people who didn’t approve and sell the textbook mass media version.
Our last night in Moonshine Country was spent around the fire, with a variety of homemade horsey, fruit wines, and friends. Next morning we awoke to rolling hills and crisp, November country skies – not one hint of a hangover – and our vision fully intact.
For some audio inspiration – check out the track from Dave’s Portland band – “Whiskey Fix” by The Old States on their 2012 release
-Dave and Kristina-