A Quick History of Moonshine

There are few better ways to immortalize one’s name than to put it on alcohol. John Jameson knew this. So did the brewers and propagators of tequila and cognac. Moonshine, of course, is not named for a place, but it may as well be. The vast majority of Americas moonshine is and has always been produced in one region: Southern Appalachia.

In tonight’s episode of Smoky Mountain Money, several members of the cast celebrate a successful day of ginseng hunting with a few swigs of “white whiskey.” And while this act at one point may have been mostly a regionalism, today, moonshine enjoys broad popularity across the U.S.

For most, moonshine is un-aged, highly alcoholic whiskey flavored with sugar, molasses, and occasionally fruits like peaches. But for some, the drink embodies a proud cultural heritage of toughness and rebelliousness. Particularly in Appalachia, battles over moonshine are part of the long, complex history of tension between Appalachians and the federal government over issues like taxes, and, in the minds of many Appalachians, Northern culture and the role of government.

Like many stories of American revolution and strife, the story begins and ends with conflict over taxes and regulation. Since the 19th century, moonshiners particularly in Southern states have sought to avoid paying the government’s alcohol taxes, which would take a healthy bite out of white whiskey’s profit margins. Because moonshine has a high alcohol content and doesn’t have to sit in a barrel for years, it can turn a profit quicker than whiskey. Long before they were even called bootleggers, moonshining entrepreneurs lived in and around cities and in the mountainous areas of the Southeast. According to a research paper published by the University of Minnesota, the first major crackdown against moonshiners occurred during post-Civil War reconstruction when the the federal government began arresting moonshiners for avoiding liquor taxes. This simply pushed the business into the friendlier, less-reachable parts of rural Appalachia. Few sought them out in the mountainous caverns where many set up shop: these places far removed from main roads and thoroughfares. Similar operations continued in the Appalachia through Prohibition; demand increased substantially as it became harder for residents particularly in small towns and rural areas to get their hands on liquor.

This eventually ended. Development encroached on Appalachia, making it harder to conceal stills. Law enforcement got better technology and more resources for fighting moonshining.

But the biggest killer of illegal moonshine was the free market. In the last several decades, legit brands selling un-aged whiskey have emerged as an alternative to the tax-free, regulation-free bootlegging originalists that invented moonshine. While moonshine purists may not be pleased by the government endorsed hooch, many of the originalists weren’t necessarily ideological rebels. Some were simply exploiting a hole in the market.

Its this constituency that would be both envy and identify with today’s legitimate moonshiners. First, the regulations that made it illegal to open distilleries in certain states is ending. Time reports that several large moonshine distilleries have taken advantage of post-recession efforts to relax regulations on distilleries. Second, white whiskey’s popularity and availability is rising because moonshiners exploited the microbrew craze to bring the drink to the curious masses. According to Vice, brands like Ole Smoky Midnight Moon sold hundreds of thousands of cases last year.

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