The story of moonshine is, in many ways, the history of America.
While many Americans are just learning about the history of moonshine today through the increasing popularity of craft distilling or TV shows like Discovery Channel's "Moonshiners," moonshine holds a rich and proud history in America.
The skills and traditions of moonshiners continue today, passed down from father to son, from generation to generation. Moonshine is, and always will be, a unique part of America's proud history.
Whiskey and Colonial America
Moonshining in America dates back to the early 1600s. Moonshine legend has it that American colonist and Englishman George Thorpe was the first to distill corn whiskey in the United States in the fall of 1620 in what is now Gloucester County, Virginia. Thorpe is said to have brewed a simple beer from corn he obtained from the native Powhatan Indians. Thorpe then distilled this mash, creating the first whiskey from corn, the base of which forms moonshine and, when aged in American oak, bourbon.
Thorpe was not the first person to make whiskey, of course. Whiskey enjoys an even more extended history than moonshine, dating back many hundreds of years. Early American settlers were likely versed in the Scotch Irish traditions of whiskey making. But what they found here was a new ingredient than they had available at home – corn – which would come to launch liquor distillation and moonshine in America.
The taxation of distilled spirits has played a substantial role in the history of moonshine that continues today. In the early 1760s, after a series of victories by the British Empire that protected the American Colonies from the French military threat of the French and Indian War, Britain determined America should contribute to the costs of its defense and began levying onerous taxes on the American Colonies, including tariffs on distilled whiskey. This would ultimately lead to the Boston Tea Party, "no taxation without representation," and the American Declaration of Independence from British rule.
Distilled whiskey played a prominent role in the new America. Beer, cider, and whiskey were consumed in higher quantities than water as the fermentation process made them a safer drinking source than contaminated water.
Finding itself struggling to pay for the expenses of defeating the British Empire in the American Revolution, Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton and President George Washington soon turned to the taxation of whiskey to fund government programs. In 1791, farmers who had turned their extra corn and grain into good whiskey suddenly faced new excise taxes on their whiskey products.
This new tax went over about as well as you would expect, with farmers continuing to distill whiskey while evading the federal tax collectors, or "Revenuers." By 1794 the "Whiskey Rebellion" reached its climax when 500 armed rebels attacked the home of the tax inspector general in protest of the whiskey taxes. President Washington responded by quashing the rebellion with 13,000 militia collected from several of the most prominent early states.
Though Washington won the battle, the collection of the whiskey tax remained problematic. The whiskey tax was finally repealed when Thomas Jefferson's new Republican Party defeated former treasury secretary Alexander Hamilton's Federalist Party in 1801.
In 1920, the National Prohibition Act, also known as the Volstead Act, was signed into law by President Woodrow Wilson. The law was the climax to many years of temperance movements, culminating in enacting the 18th Amendment to the United States Constitution, which established the national Prohibition of alcohol in the United States. The 18th Amendment's purposes were:
to prohibit intoxicating beverages (any beverage containing more than 0.5% alcohol by volume; moonshine can run 40% to as high as 80% ABV);
to regulate the manufacture, sale, or transport of intoxicating liquor (but not consumption); and
to ensure an ample supply of alcohol and promote its use in scientific research and the development of fuel, dye, and other lawful industries and practices, such as religious rituals.
The Amendment provided that "no person shall manufacture, sell, barter, transport, import, export, deliver, or furnish any intoxicating liquor except as authorized by this act."
With their freedom to distill and consume whiskey again threatened as it had been by the British Empire and then their American government, whiskey-drinking, and moonshining, Americans again rebelled against the outlaw of "intoxicating liquors." The Roaring Twenties, speakeasies, and classic era of mobs and gangsters soon followed. Ironically, Prohibition helped increase moonshine production – through Prohibition could change the law, it could not change a person's propensity toward drinking.
It was also during this time that many of the common stereotypes of moonshine and whiskey were solidified. The production of whiskey underground led to a general decrease in quality and sanitation practices that often produced substandard and downright dangerous moonshine. Many of these stereotypes still survive today.
Prohibition is a fascinating period of American history. Ordinary, otherwise law-abiding, American citizens drove underground merely because they enjoyed corn's fermented and distilled fruits. The creation of a whole subculture of citizens giving money to bootlegging gangsters like Al Capone to help fund their criminal activities. The formation of speakeasies, special secret clubs intricately designed to hide the alcohol consumption taking place within, often with ordinary folks drinking next to high-powered politicians that helped keep the law in place.
It was just a fantastic time in American history.
The years 1920-1933 saw a rapid growth in bootlegging and the creation of large, intricate moonshining networks. Prohibition forced moonshiners to the hills to produce liquor and whiskey drinkers underground to consume it.
During the lead-up to and enactment of Prohibition, the culture and history of moonshining took hold in the United States, particularly in the South and Appalachia. Prohibition created an increased demand for moonshiners' supplies, driven by the growth of underground drinking in major metropolitan cities like New York and Chicago. Though Prohibition was finally repealed on December 5, 1933, by the 21st Amendment, it helped cement the traditions and folklore of America and moonshiners.
In 1941 Lloyd Seay won the National Stock Car Championship in a Ford coupe he had driven just twelve hours before on a moonshine bootlegging run. A day later, Lloyd Seay was shot and killed by his cousin in an argument over sugar – a primary ingredient of moonshine.
Car culture had begun to take hold in America by the 1940s, and the American muscle car came with it. Moonshiners of the 1940s had every bit the need to outrun the Revenuers, as did their early American predecessors but had a little more horsepower available to them.
To evade the tax collectors and the law, bootleggers souped up the engines and suspensions of their cars while leaving the exteriors unchanged as a means to escape and outrun. Police should they happen upon a moonshine run. Moonshine runners became skilled drivers, valued on their abilities to outrun and outsmart the law. Bootleggers began to hold informal races of their moonshine running cars which, moonshine legend has it, led to the organization of these races into auto racing and, eventually, stock car racing.
One famous moonshine runner named Junior Johnson is one of the legends of early NASCAR. It is said that he quit illegal moonshining in 1960 after winning the Daytona 500. But today, ol' Junior has gone legal, selling Junior Johnson's Midnight Moon Carolina Moonshine 80 proof corn-based liquor.
No history of moonshine is complete without mentioning immortal moonshiner Marvin "Popcorn" Sutton, the most famous modern moonshiner.
Popcorn came from a long line of moonshiners and made a lifelong career of his trade. Sutton's legend increased in the 2000s with television and documentary appearances, including 2002's documentary The Last One Popcorn Sutton Documentary, as well as recognition from his self-published autobiography and moonshine production guide Me and my Likker.
Popcorn's legendary run ended in 2009 when, facing 18 months in federal prison, Sutton chose to end his life and his moonshining career. His self-authored tombstone reads "Popcorn Said Fuck You."
Moonshining: An American Tradition
Illegal moonshining has waned somewhat from its peak in the 1960s and 1970s. But today, a growing number of legit, legal moonshines are coming on to the market, many from well-known legendary moonshiners like Tim Smith of the Discovery Channels' "Moonshiners" and even a 'shine supposedly based on Popcorn Sutton's recipe and affiliated with Hank Williams Jr.
The rise illegal moonshine results of government taxation of the moonshine whiskey, which comes in at as much as $15.50 in tax alone for a gallon. The rapid rise of craft breweries and homebrewing beer has also given rise to a new generation of micro distillers. It's also paved the way for a growing interest in home distilling, despite the illegality of distilling liquor without a federal license, even for personal consumption.
Though it is illegal to distill liquor without a permit, it is still legal to own a whiskey still or moonshine still. You can easily find a moonshine still for sale online via marketplaces like Amazon, eBay, and many still makers providing everything from copper stills to pot stills to stainless steel stills to whiskey still kits.
The Future of Moonshine
Though technology has likely ended the golden era of moonshiners making 'shine under cover of the hills by moonlight for good, the traditions of moonshining will live on forever as a fundamental metaphor of American culture.
The recent rise in popularity and interest in moonshine and craft distilling will increase the recognition and appreciation of moonshine, both as a spirit and a uniquely American cultural phenomenon. Tens of thousands of Americans will continue to practice the craft of distilling, and efforts to remove penalties for home distilling have already made their way through several state legislatures. If the history of moonshine shows us anything, though, it's that whiskey will always find a way.