Still Shinin’: Moonshine gets its day in the sun
Like a streak of fire poured down your throat, moonshine burns with flames of storied American tradition and ambition. For hundreds of years, moonshine has vexed the long arm of the law, especially throughout Appalachia, yet today you’re likely to find several national brands on your liquor store shelves. So is moonshine really moonshine if it is legal?
Moonshine and whiskey start out in much the same way. As noted in the September 2017 issue of Mirror, present-day whiskey is defined as a spirit distilled from fermented grain mash like corn, wheat, rye, or barley, that then has to be aged in oak barrels. Early whiskey, however, was consumed un-aged and straight from the still. It was a blast of clear, straight-up alcohol, which is now more often associated with the style of moonshine. It doesn’t have to stay that way, however. Many shine recipes call for fruits and spices to develop interesting flavor combinations.
Based on the original meaning behind the term, legal moonshine is indeed an oxymoron. Used to describe the clandestine operations of English smugglers beginning around the 16th century, the evolution of the word “moonshine” isn’t too much of a logical leap. Today, we mostly understand it to mean any type of homemade high proof fermented spirit created “underground” and outside of government regulation. However, others would argue it is a simply a style of liquor like vodka and gin at this point, able to be bottled and sold legitimately.
Forbidden or not, moonshine is known by a host of other names, including white lightning, white likker, mule kick, mountain dew, home brew, corn liquor, firewater, rotgut, and panther piss. (Those last two may not be so endearing.)
Another favorite term has long been attributed to Alaska’s Hoochino Indians. They were well-known to settlers for their liquor distilled from a mash of molasses or sugar, flour, potatoes and yeast. By the end of the 19th century, the spirit was simply known as “hooch.”
Whiskey was born out of Scottish malted barley, and moonshining was born out of Irish taxes. According to journalist Jaime Joyce in her book “Moonshine: A Cultural History of America’s Famous Liquor,” the Irish government’s 1622 whiskey tax wasn’t very popular. Many chose to distill their whiskey in secret, back in the shadows away from the thieving light of the law.
“To many people, it made little sense to pay money to the government for a beverage produced for personal use only, made from grain sown and nurtured on one’s own land,” Joyce writes. “Makers with no intention of paying the tax became some of the world’s first moonshiners.”
At the same time, whiskey was making its way across the Atlantic with Scottish and Irish settlers. The liquor threw down roots in Pennsylvania, then spread through the mountains of Virginia and West Virginia, across to Kentucky and Tennessee, and spilling down into the Carolinas.
During the Revolutionary War, President George Washington imposed a tax on whiskey to help pay off war debt, a move that went over in America just about as well as it did in Ireland. From 1791-1794, American farmers pushed back against the law, often violently, culminating their efforts with a 500-man raid on a Pennsylvania tax inspector’s house. Washington answered by leading a group of 13,000 militiamen to quash the uprising. But the protestors had gone home by the time he arrived and the rebellion fizzled. Bootlegging and arrests continued as normal, and President Thomas Jefferson repealed the tax in 1801.
Then came Prohibition. As the movement progressed through the South in the late 1800s, moonshiners and bootleggers reaped huge rewards – and ran huge risks. By the time the 18th Amendment went into effect in 1920, there was already a huge demand for illegal liquor. The amendment was repealed in 1933, but stills from the era and recipes as old as the nation itself remain in operation to this day, both legally and illegally.
The Ohio Valley region is no stranger to shine running. New Straitsville, Ohio, in fact was once known as the moonshine capital of the Midwest – if not the world. After a mine fire destroyed the town’s livelihood, many men turned to moonshine to get by. Today, their efforts are celebrated with the annual Moonshine Festival, held over Memorial Day weekend. Complete with a pageant, amusement rides, food, music, events and (legal) moonshine-making demonstrations, the festival highlights the history and process of crafting moonshine in Appalachia.
The 48th annual Moonshine Festival will be held May 24-28. Don’t miss your chance to rebel a little and celebrate this nation’s history with a little feisty white lightning.