You know those old coffee mugs with a bumpkin moonshiner on one side and a smoking still on the other? It might be time to put those away. Same goes for your salt and pepper shakers shaped like moonshine jugs and also that t-shirt of Granny Clampett holding her “roomatiz medicine.”
While relics like these have their kitsch appeal, they’re anything but accurate. You might say they reflect true moonshining as well as The Apprentice reflects true office culture.
But don’t worry. You won’t miss your tchotchkes one bit after you pick up the new book Corn from a Jar: Moonshining in the Great Smoky Mountains ($5.99 on iTunes or $9.99 from the publisher). In it, author Daniel S. Pierce separates moonshining fiction from fact, and as it turns out, the true story behind moonshining is a hundred times more interesting that those old stereotypes.
Dan was kind enough to sit down for an interview with me recently. You might be surprised by what he had to say. Turns out, there’s real savvy underlying moonshining operations and the distilling traditional goes back further than I ever imagined.
TR: Hi, Dan. Thanks so much for taking time to talk. Now, for nearly two centuries, moonshiners have been front and center in popular media. Newspapers, books, movies, and television have built a lore around them. Why do you think there’s such enduring interest?
DP: I think a lot of the current interest is related to nostalgia for a simpler–although mythological–past, much like the on-going interest in Andy Griffith reruns, which feature lots of moonshiners. [Famous moonshiners] like Popcorn Sutton, Jim Tom Hedrick, and Tickle are fascinating people and, like it or not, they confirm lots of Appalachian stereotypes–at least their popular images do.
TR: There are a lot of different portrayals–bumpkin, outlaw, free spirited mountaineer–and each is flawed, but I’m curious, have any recent media portrayals done right by moonshiners? Is anybody getting it right?
DP: In popular culture, I think folks are primarily playing on stereotypes, both negative and positive. I’d like to think I came close to getting it right in Corn From a Jar. My goal was to humanize the moonshiner and get to the context of why they did or do what they did or do.
TR: So let’s talk about what these popular portrayals miss. What’s the side of moonshining that most of us never see?
DP: I think there are three things that folks miss.
1. The intelligence and creativity of many moonshiners. The stereotype depicts them as ignorant hicks, but so many of them were or are very sharp cookies. I’ve often said about Junior Johnson that he probably never read a book on physics, but he could probably write one.
2. The evolution of moonshining from a craft in the antebellum period to an industrial enterprise in the Prohibition era and back to a craft in the present day. One way to describe this is the small-pot and malt mash liquor era to an era when liquor was made as quickly as possible in huge steamer stills with distilling sugar, a little corn thrown in, and probably some adulterant to give it a kick and then a return to smaller stills and a real-corn product. Truth be told, much of the liquor made in the 20th century was pretty vile.
3. The entrepreneurial nature of many moonshiners. We’ll never know what capital accumulated from moonshining financed. I do know that lots of race tracks were built and stock car races promoted using money made from illegal liquor businesses. I’m pretty sure lots of other legitimate enterprises were financed that way as well, but there’s no paper trail and folks are definitely not advertising the fact.
TR: That speaks to moonshine’s economic history, which is a real thrust in your book. White lightning played a central roll in the Great Smoky Mountains. It wasn’t just a source of income for the shiners but also served their larger communities. Can you say more about that?
DP: Absolutely, proceeds from moonshine also kept many country stores alive through sales of sugar, canning jars, yeast, and low-smoke fuels like coke. There’s good evidence that tithes and offerings from moonshiners built many-a-church in the region and mechanics and metal workers benefitted from the business.
TR: That’s enthralling. I also love this stat from your book – “While Western North Carolina held only 14% of the population of the state in 1840, it produced 31% of the state’s whiskey.” How did distilling end up so concentrated in the mountains?
DP: Before the Civil War, the prevalence of liquor makers in the region was primarily a product of ethnic heritage. The Scots-Irish of the southern Appalachian region brought a long history of whiskey making with them. After the war, it had as much to do with the ability to hide a still as it did heritage.
TR: So it was really a part of the local culture. How far back does the distilling tradition go?
DP: The Romans reported spirit making in the British Isles nearly 2000 years ago, so it goes way back.
TR: Wow. There’s so much good stuff packed into this little book. If you could pick one thing for readers to take-away on moonshining history, what would it be?
DP: I’d say the humanity of people making moonshine who were generally looking for ways to support their families, hold on to their farms, and stay out of the mills and mines.
TR: While I have you, I wanted to hit on one other topic–the legality of making moonshine at home. If Google results are to be believed, it is still illegal to make hard liquor in most states, even when it’s for personal use. And Federally, if I wanted a home still, I’d have to go through a Byzantine permitting process and pay taxes on what I produced. Is that right?
DP: Basically. It’s a violation of federal law to make any amount of distilled spirits without the proper permits and giving the government its cut of the proceeds. You can own a still in many states; you just can’t make any liquor in it.
TR: Now why do they come down so hard on hard spirits? I mean, I can make beer and wine at home, right?
DP: I think it’s a combination of long traditions of liquor prohibition plus the higher alcohol content plus the tax revenue the government gains from liquor.
TR: Well, I’m still holding out for the day when I can set up a still in my back yard. Think it’ll ever happen?
DP: Sorry. Don’t see that changing anytime soon.