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The History of Moonshine

Updated on October 3, 2012
blackberry Moonshine
blackberry Moonshine | Source

Moonshine and Popcorn Sutton

When most people think of moonshine, they automatically associate the word with Appalachia. The Appalachian Mountains, however, aren’t the only region where moonshine is made. My first exposure with moonshine happened right here in South Georgia, when I was a child. I’m not sure exactly how old I was, but I had to have been younger than six. My grandfather died when I was six years old, and Papa was still living at the time. My mom, my aunt, and I were taking a trek through the woods on my grandparents’ farm, when we came upon a strange metal contraption situated next to the creek. Of course, I had no idea what the thing was, but my mom identified it as a moonshine still. We returned to the old farmhouse and informed my grandfather about the still. A man of few words, Papa got up quietly from his rocking chair, went outside to get his ax, and proceeded to “bust up” the moonshine still. We knew it wasn’t his – he specialized in making blackberry wine.

Straight Moonshine is usually as clear as tap water.
Straight Moonshine is usually as clear as tap water. | Source
apple pie Moonshine
apple pie Moonshine | Source

What is Moonshine?

Moonshine, also called “mountain dew” and “white lightning,” is a liquor distilled from corn, illegally. Making alcoholic beverages from grain is an old practice that became widespread in Europe during the middle ages, especially during the Little Ice Age, when cold temperatures made wine vineyards fail. Grapes were hard to come by at the time, so many imbibers of alcohol turned to grain spirits. When European immigrants settled in what is now the U.S., they brought their distilling knowledge with them. The earliest American moonshine was usually made with barley or rye, but over the years, corn became the grain of choice.

A typical moonshine recipe contains ground corn, yeast, sugar, and water. The moonshine stills are metal affairs, usually made of copper, consisting of a furnace, a still, a thump keg, a worm box, a tap, and a filter bucket. To make moonshine, ground corn is soaked in hot water, along with malt or sugar. Yeast is added in order to ferment the “mash.” The still is then heated to cause the alcohol to evaporate, forcing it through a tube and into the thump keg. In the thump keg, the liquid is reheated, which gets rid of any solids. The alcohol evaporates once again and travels through a coil inside the worm box. The worm box contains cold water, which turns the evaporation into a liquid. The liquid can then be released via the tap.

Typically, moonshine isn’t aged like legal spirits. Moonshiners like to dispose of their product as soon as possible to avoid detection. As a result, moonshine is perfectly clear, lacking the amber coloration that aging provides. That’s why it’s often called “white lightning.”

War and moonshine

The Revolutionary War was expensive, especially for a fledgling nation like the Unites States. The government decided that placing a tax on liquors would provide the funds to help pay for the war. As you can imagine, this didn’t set well with the citizenry. After all, they had just escaped paying taxes to England, and most weren’t about to pay taxes on liquor to the new government. The solution was to continue with their practice of making their own spirits and not worry about the new taxes that had been imposed. Struggling farmers quickly discovered that turning corn into moonshine was much more profitable than their corn would have been for other purposes.

During the U.S. Civil War, the government once again found itself needing revenue to pay for yet another war. Government agents, known as “revenuers,” began to crack down on moonshiners in hope of collecting the taxes due, which they soon discovered was not an easy task. Most of the moonshiners were clannish, and they protected each other. Also, many makers of moonshine lived in remote, isolated areas, so finding the stills wasn’t easy. And even when the agents had a good idea of the location of a still, they were often met with armed opposition. Such battles often ended in bloodshed.

Moonshine and Prohibition

In October of 1919, Congress passed the Volstead Act, establishing the prohibition of alcoholic beverages in the U.S. Americans, for the most part, weren’t about to give up their spirits easily. In many big cities, organized crime took over the business of supplying spirits to the public, and the “speakeasy” was born. In remote rural areas, moonshining was the answer to Prohibition. It’s estimated that during this period, one in three citizens of Appalachia was producing moonshine, and even then, they had a difficult time keeping up with the demand.

On February 17, 1933, the Blaine Act was passed, which officially ended Prohibition. This almost put moonshiners out of business. Legal whiskey could now be made on a large commercial scale, so it was easy to obtain, and drinkers didn’t have to worry about going afoul of the law. Also, legal whiskey became relatively inexpensive, so there was no real reason for folks to buy moonshine.

Popcorn Sutton

Perhaps the most famous moonshiner of all time is Popcorn Sutton. Marvin “Popcorn” Sutton was born in 1946, in the mountains of North Carolina. After Marvin’s birth, his family moved to Cocke County, Tennessee, located in the Smoky Mountains. Sutton, of Scots-Irish descent, learned moonshining from his father and considered it to be an important part of his heritage. His moonshine was so prized that it was often used as “legal tender,” so to speak, although the moonshine wasn’t legal, of course.

Popcorn Sutton had several skirmishes with the law, and he even wrote a book about his experiences and about how to make moonshine. The book, Me and My Likker, was published in 1999. Sutton was “busted” by ATF agents in January of 2009 and sentenced to serving eighteen months in prison. Popcorn Sutton was suffering from cancer at the time, and faced with the prospect of spending time in a federal prison, he committed suicide in March of that same year. His body was discovered by his wife, Pam. Apparently, the cause of death was intentional carbon monoxide poisoning.

The legend of Popcorn Sutton lives on, and so does his famous moonshine. Country music star Hank Williams, Jr. formed a partnership with Pam Sutton and J & M Concepts in 2010 to legally produce Sutton’s moonshine. The moonshine stills used were designed by Popcorn Sutton himself, and his old family recipe is used, too. Currently, “Popcorn Sutton’s Tennessee White Whiskey” is available in Tennessee bars, but there are plans to make it available throughout the southeastern U.S.

Popcorn Sutton and his moonshine:

Moonshine Today

There are still people who make moonshine, especially in the Appalachian Mountains and in the South. My husband is from North Carolina, and he has an old friend there who still makes ‘shine. Brooks has a thriving business, with numerous regular customers. A few people here in South Georgia still make moonshine, too, although on a small scale. I’m not much of a drinker, but hubby and some of his pals swear there’s nothing like good homemade moonshine. I must admit, the moonshine I’ve tasted was very smooth, and it’s as clear as tap water. I can’t drink it straight, however; I prefer my moonshine to be mixed with fruit juice or fruit punch.

Moonshining today is usually considered a family tradition, and most moonshiners fear that the art will be lost if they don’t pass it down to the next generation. Fathers are teaching their sons how to make moonshine, although the practice is still illegal. Moonshiners need a remote spot for their moonshine still, and they need a location that’s near clear, cold water. Mountain streams deep in the woods are ideal venues. Modern moonshiners, just like their older counterparts, have to be ever vigilant of revenuers. They’re usually extremely secretive about the location of their moonshine still, and they’re also careful about who they sell to. Making moonshine, however, is deeply ingrained in these people, and for them, it’s a way of life. It isn’t so much about making extra money – it’s more about carrying on an age-old family tradition.

Moonshine still discovered by law enforcement:

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    • vespawoolf profile image

      vespawoolf 5 years ago from Peru, South America

      What a fascinating history! I learned so much...very interesting family information, too. Now I feel like setting up my own still! : ) I love your moonshine photo, as well.

    • habee profile image
      Author

      Holle Abee 5 years ago from Georgia

      Thanks, tapas!

    • tapasrecipe profile image

      tapasrecipe 5 years ago from Spanish tapas land

      awesome, something i always wanted to know more about

    • habee profile image
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      Holle Abee 5 years ago from Georgia

      Lol, Bud - I don't think the art of making moonshine will be lost any time soon!

    • habee profile image
      Author

      Holle Abee 5 years ago from Georgia

      Cookies, I love the Appalachian Mountains, and Maggie Valley is beautiful! My hubby is from North Carolina, and he took me to MV not long after we got married.

    • habee profile image
      Author

      Holle Abee 5 years ago from Georgia

      Wesman, I knew they were selling it legally in Tennessee, but I didn't know Popcorn's legal moonshine had made it to Texas.

    • Budman610 profile image

      Budman610 5 years ago from Ohio

      There's still a lot of moonshine being made in the Kentucky Hills!

    • cookies4breakfast profile image

      cookies4breakfast 5 years ago from coastal North Carolina

      Interesting post! Even though I'm from Maggie Valley, I've only sampled moonshine once....and that's enough for me. I think I still have damage from the one sip--lol. By the way, there's a Popcorn Sutton festival of some sort in Maggie Valley on August 3rd and 4th.

    • Wesman Todd Shaw profile image

      Wesman Todd Shaw 5 years ago from Kaufman, Texas

      Hey habee, I'm told that one of popcorn's recipe's is legal and even sold here in Texas now.

      I've been meaning to investigate that. He's sure a great subject for web pages!

    • habee profile image
      Author

      Holle Abee 5 years ago from Georgia

      Thanks, Nare. I appreciate the comment!

    • Nare Anthony profile image

      Nare Gevorgyan 5 years ago

      Sooo interesting! I was wondering if I should write about this, but you have already made a great job!

    • habee profile image
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      Holle Abee 5 years ago from Georgia

      Scotties, I've never learned how to make moonshine, either. Actually, I've never really wanted to since I'm not much of a drinker.

    • habee profile image
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      Holle Abee 5 years ago from Georgia

      Kailash, thanks for stopping by, and I hope you get lots of money for your fenny!

    • habee profile image
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      Holle Abee 5 years ago from Georgia

      Merchant, many thanks for visiting!

    • habee profile image
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      Holle Abee 5 years ago from Georgia

      Dom, that Fenny stuff sounds like it would be tasty!

    • habee profile image
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      Holle Abee 5 years ago from Georgia

      eeeewwwwww, tl. That must have been a terrible experience! Diaper-flavored moonshine...yuck!

    • habee profile image
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      Holle Abee 5 years ago from Georgia

      Zoey, we always called a concoction like you describe "hunch punch." We made lots of in college.

    • habee profile image
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      Holle Abee 5 years ago from Georgia

      Lol, rebecca. I have to mix mine with fruit juice just to get it down.

    • habee profile image
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      Holle Abee 5 years ago from Georgia

      Hi, Mary. Do you like moonshine?

    • habee profile image
      Author

      Holle Abee 5 years ago from Georgia

      Moira, thanks for reading about the history of moonshine. As they say, necessity is the mother of invention! lol

    • habee profile image
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      Holle Abee 5 years ago from Georgia

      Leroy, now you have me curious about making moonshine from sweet taters. lol

    • habee profile image
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      Holle Abee 5 years ago from Georgia

      Malometer - tater mash 'shine? Does it taste like vodka??

    • habee profile image
      Author

      Holle Abee 5 years ago from Georgia

      Wesman, I'm so glad you stopped by to read about the history of moonshine. I swear, I've known several Popcorn Sutton type folks around these parts. You prolly have, too!

    • habee profile image
      Author

      Holle Abee 5 years ago from Georgia

      Suhana, thanks for stopping by. Nothing like some moonshine to start your day off right! lol

    • ScottiesRock profile image

      ScottiesRock 5 years ago from Eastern PA

      Wow great information on Moonshine. I know a guy who makes his own. I have not tried it yet.

    • profile image

      kailash chouhan 5 years ago

      hi every one iam kailash i like history of wine becoz any one needs wine for celebrate but i have collect wines nd history of india wine i have one bottle cashew fenny made in goa madoma queen 1933 is a different nd antique bottle plz any one wants this wine bottle plz contact me kailash chouhan from india 08890345964

    • profile image

      kailash 5 years ago

      hi i have cashew fenny wine bottle 1933 is a dffrent antique wine bottle

    • merchantdoctor profile image

      merchantdoctor 5 years ago from Reno

      Great read really enjoyed the narrative and succinct history of the shine. Thanks habee.

    • dommcg profile image

      dommcg 5 years ago

      When i was in Goa, India they had a local moonshine made from Cashew nuts called Fenny. I brought some home and it wiped most of my mates out (not permanently thankfully) if any of you head that way and are brave enough i'd suggest giving it a go.

    • tlpoague profile image

      Tammy 5 years ago from USA

      Fascinating hub! I knew of a guy that made his own shine for personal use. I never could drink homemade spirits, so I have never been much of a drinker. I guess I could blame part of that on a story my grandma once told me. She had gone to a social party where the spirits were still served out of a barrel. Everyone would dip their cups in the barrel and wander around the room. My grandpa wanted a cup, so grandma went to get him one. She looked in the bottom of the barrel as she was dipping his drink. There floating on the bottom was a dirty diaper. She was horrifid because they had drank a few cups before realizing it was tainted. She said they never drank alcohol again. It cured them for life. That image stuck with me every time I seen family drinking.

      I enjoyed reading the history of moonshine. It will be a lost art before long if the laws continue to provoke it. Thanks for sharing this interesting information.

    • Wesman Todd Shaw profile image

      Wesman Todd Shaw 5 years ago from Kaufman, Texas

      There's no doubt in my mind, Ma'am, why you're so successful here at Hubpages - it's because you're just plain good.

      I really like your "Appalachia" theme!

      Steve Earl's "Copperhead Road" comes to mind here musically.

      They say that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Here locally in Kaufman County Texas there is part of one of the state's biggest lakes, and it's a man made lake called Cedar Creek Lake. All of my grandparents grew up here locally, and one of my grandfathers told me that where Cedar Creek Lake is was once nothing but moonshiner territory, and that you could always see blue smoke coming from the bottoms when they were making moonshine.

      Of course the pseudo ephedrine has been put behind the counter, and the product that was made more recently in the same area by the descendants of the moonshiners here...is now brought up from Mexico in a more pure and cleaner form.

      Of course the "crime" of such things was always the failure of the "do it yourselfer's" to pay taxes.....

    • suhana16 profile image

      suhana16 5 years ago from Delhi

      Great. A great start of morning with reading your lovely hub. I love to try this :)

    • zoey24 profile image

      zoey24 5 years ago from South England

      Interesting article, we always called Moonshine the drink that contained lots of different alcohol, so a punch really with any left over alcohol laying about lol. Voted up :)

    • rebeccamealey profile image

      Rebecca Mealey 5 years ago from Northeastern Georgia, USA

      I tasted some once down near Savannah GA....it was like dead rats in the mouth!Phew! Very interesting reading!

    • mary615 profile image

      Mary Hyatt 5 years ago from Florida

      Thanks for the good info. When I was a kid, there was a guy in S.C. that made shine. He went around in his old beat up truck and sold it. My Dad was always glad to see him. I voted this UP, etc.

    • moiragallaga profile image

      Moira Garcia Gallaga 5 years ago from Lisbon, Portugal

      This is a very informative and interesting article Habee. My only knowledge about moonshine is that it is a homemade alcoholic drink that's considered illegal. I found the references to moonshine and the Revolutionary and civil War very enlightening. I wasn't aware that moonshine's origins went that far back, I thought it only came about in response to prohibition. Thanks for sharing this Habee.

    • leroy64 profile image

      Brian L. Powell 5 years ago from Dallas, Texas (Oak Cliff)

      I like this article. I was visiting relatives in Alabama when I picked up the local newspaper. The lead story was about the number of local stills they had busted up and the apparent ease of obtaining shine.

      FYI - You can use potatoes to make a European version of moonshine, or vodka (legal version). I wonder if anyone has used yams?

    • molometer profile image

      molometer 5 years ago

      What a brilliant hub, Gonna make me some 'shine.

      We have the original brew in Ireland called Potchine made from a potato mash.

    • habee profile image
      Author

      Holle Abee 5 years ago from Georgia

      Well, howdy there, fellow Georgia girl! Nice to meet you! My parents weren't drinkers, either, but I have had a little moonshine. lol

    • Melissa McClain profile image

      Melissa McClain 5 years ago from Atlanta, GA

      I learned something new today! Being from Georgia I've seen (and ever so briefly tasted) moonshine but had no clue how it was made. My family were teetotalers so there was never any alcohol around our house.

    • habee profile image
      Author

      Holle Abee 5 years ago from Georgia

      Many thanks, Sis! Believe it or not, our country is still dry as far as liquor is concerned. We can buy beer and wine, and we can buy liquor by the drink. If we want a bottle, we have to drive to the next county.

    • habee profile image
      Author

      Holle Abee 5 years ago from Georgia

      Peter, glad you can make such a product. It sounds like quality! Sometimes when Appalachian moonshiners couldn't get corn, they'd use all sugar instead. Don't drink too much of that hooch for Christmas!

    • habee profile image
      Author

      Holle Abee 5 years ago from Georgia

      drbj, thanks so much! Have you ever tasted 'shine?

    • Angela Blair profile image

      Angela Blair 5 years ago from Central Texas

      Ah, brought back old memories! Although I've never been privvy to moonshinin' I've certainly done my share of testing it as a kid. Our little county was dry up until a couple of years ago and bootleggers did a grand business in 'shine! Well researched and superbly written HUB -- thanks for the read. Best, Sis

    • The Old Firm profile image

      The Old Firm 5 years ago from Waikato/Bay Of Plenty, New Zealand

      Hi Girl, I make a form of Moonshine in my garage at the moment (time to put down another wash, I'm down to my last couple of bottles!) I use sugar and a proprietary yeast to make the wash and run it through a home-made still using an altered 50ltr stainless beer keg with small reflux tower, made from a stainless thermos flask (any stainless, copper, brass or glass tube will do) and about 12ft of 1/2in copper tube as a condenser; chuck away the first couple of ounces which contain most of the low alcohols and poisons and run the rest through carbon filters to clean. I usually leave the spirit in a flagon with finishing carbon for a few days, giving it a shake occasionally to really clean it up. I then break it down with water from the 70% or so it is to 40%, using a spirits hydrometer; and Bob's your uncle.

      All quite legal here in NZ, just can't sell it, barter it, or gift it. I could make it using baker's yeast if I had to, as long as the wash wasn't much stronger than 2lb sugar to the litre. (3.6 litres = 1 US gallon,4.5ltr = 1 Imperial gallon)

      DON'T USE LEAD OR LEAD SOLDER AT ANY POINT, IT WILL POISON THE SPIRIT AND CAN'T BE FILTERED.

      A few years ago stilling WAS illegal here and in this town a hundred years back the locals voted it "dry" in protest of a publican raising the price of his beer a penny a glass, so the habit of making "Hokonui" in the hills caught on. (And beer at home, which was OK) We went "wet" again after The Great War, but the beer making habit stuck. I can't comment and the stilling, which was illegal up until the early nineties.

      Cheers'

      Peter.

    • drbj profile image

      drbj and sherry 5 years ago from south Florida

      During Prohibition, moonshiners were the competitors of racketeers like Capone and Luciano and the rest. Thanks, Holle, for this in-depth and very interesting read about white lightning.

    • habee profile image
      Author

      Holle Abee 5 years ago from Georgia

      peepingtomb, that's messed up! I totally agree with you.

      Turtle, thanks for your kind words!

    • TurtleDog profile image

      TurtleDog 5 years ago

      Great article! Thanks for the post. I saw the documentary "The Last One" with Popcorn Sutton and loved it. Nice job too on the easy to understand explanation on how 'white lightning' is made.

    • peepingtomb profile image

      peepingtomb 5 years ago

      As a beer brewer and wine maker I've never quite understood why it is illegal to MAKE liquor. Making it illegal to SELL liquor without a license I can understand. Still, I hope to someday make a hooch of some sort. Great hub!

    • habee profile image
      Author

      Holle Abee 5 years ago from Georgia

      Jack, moonshine still runs in South GA, too!

    • habee profile image
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      Holle Abee 5 years ago from Georgia

      Thanks, Dusty. Great to see you! I'll check out the video.

    • stclairjack profile image

      stclairjack 5 years ago from middle of freekin nowhere,... the sticks

      hill folk aint never been too keen on obeyin' laws they find to be less than sensible,.... the shine still runs in plenty of hills an' hollers,... i can assure you of that.

      voted up.

    • 50 Caliber profile image

      50 Caliber 5 years ago from Arizona

      Holle, a great hub on sour mash stills. I've hear tell of stills out west in old abandoned mine shafts, couldn't swear to it though, you know how rumors are. One rumor is that a feller went 100% stainless steel with welded connections and a propane burner with pressure regulators to make the big bang a non-issue. All that is pure superstition I'd imagine, but one can never tell stranger things happen, this just needs Steve Earls stamp of copper head road and I voted it up,

      Peace, dust

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ttitN75ESvY