‘Shine On: Humorist Hillbilly Savant on Moonshine and Culture #totc


 Black-and-white photograph of policeman standing alongside wrecked car and cases of moonshine liquor. Courtesy of the Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D. C.

Black-and-white photograph of policeman standing alongside wrecked car and cases of moonshine liquor. Courtesy of the Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D. C.

“Write drunk, edit sober.” –Ernest Hemingway

As a licensed, board-certified hillbilly, it should come as no surprise that I have more than a passing familiarity with that quintessential mountain creation, moonshine. I cannot be cremated when I pass away for the fact that my liver will burn for decades like an underground coal fire. There is, even as I write this, a jar of untaxed whiskey in my refrigerator. There is also a jug of raw milk, which is a topic unto itself.  I find it interesting, though, that I had an easier time procuring a jar of almost pure alcohol than I did a gallon of real milk. That has to say something about the age we live in, but I’m not quite sure what.

Moonshine has been lubricating the Appalachian Mountains since the first Scots-Irish settlers brought their distilling prowess from whichever country they were thrown out of last and put down stakes in the hills. It should come as no surprise that the apparatus for making ‘shine resembles the pot stills of Ireland. My hooch-happy Gaelic ancestry were likely cooking up a batch of tonic before they were finished unloading their wagons. But these proto-hillbillies weren’t the only ones producing DIY party fuel. America is a nation of those culled from some of the greatest imbibing stocks on Earth. Of the original settlers, only the Puritans were teetotalers. And they managed to keep the dour Pilgrims and their goofy buckled hats pretty much confined to the miserable northeast where they wouldn’t disturb the rest of us while the rest of the fledgling nation put down copious amounts of laughing water, until the Baptists landed on the sunny South with both feet. Americans made booze out of whatever they had at hand. Corn, wheat, rye, rice; if it had been around at the time, they could have made a decent cocktail out of a bowl of Chex Party Mix. They may not have yet figured out the causes of basic illnesses and infections, but they understood the fermentation process intimately. A society must have priorities.

Note to Hipsters in the Modern Craft Distillery Movement: Do NOT attempt to make alcohol from a bowl of Chex Party Mix. The first time I have to read some breathlessly-written piece about a Brooklyn start-up producing Party Mixtinis, and how the nose is resplendent with Worcestershire sauce and a faint perfume of garlic powder, someone is getting rabbit punched. I’m serious.

Image of Agents destroying a still in San Francisco during Prohibition. Via WIkimedia Commons.

Image of Agents destroying a still in San Francisco during Prohibition. Via WIkimedia Commons.

It is notable that our Founding Fathers were all a bunch of old soaks. The native Virginians, George Washington (who had his own distillery on his property) and Thomas Jefferson (who made possible virtually all American viticulture), were intimate friends of John Barleycorn. Samuel Adams needs no introduction. Benjamin Franklin was a tippler of no small reputation, and though he probably didn’t say that “beer (or wine, depending on which T-shirt you read) is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy,” if he were here, he’d probably cop to it anyway. “Sounds like something I’d say when I’ve got a load on,” he’d slur, shrugging his shoulders and ordering another round for the table. I’ve got the feeling that Franklin was a fun drunk, kind of like your bachelor uncle who had a tattoo before it was cliché and dated women who never seemed to be wearing enough clothes.

It could be said that the whole of the Enlightenment came from the prescience endowed by alcohol, that moment of intellectual facility that comes just after the comfortable buzz but before waking up in the neighbor’s watering trough wondering where the hell your pants may have gotten off to. There is one theory that the Enlightenment was a product of the discovery of caffeine, which roused the level of cerebral discourse from out of the Dark Ages. But thinking isn’t doing. The Renaissance wasn’t just an idea, discussed and dissected by a bunch of jittery academics over a few venti mocha lattes, it was a movement made manifest largely by besotted bon vivants who staggered boldly forward and actually did great things. If you question my theory, just look at the arts. Shakespeare wrote some of the greatest plays in the history of English literature with a quill in one hand and a mug of ale in the other; coffeehounds managed to produce way too many episodes of the astonishingly unfunny Friends, which used a coffeehouse as one of its central location. Most of the great Renaissance painting seemed to come from the “paint a stroke, do a shot” school (“All right, Mike, Sistine Chapel is looking pretty good. How about we go double or nothing; if I can bounce this gold piece into that goblet, you have to chug a chalice of wine and paint two more fat, naked little cherubs”). Modern Art, sober and self-serious beyond normal human tolerance, hasn’t produced but a mere handful of works that couldn’t have been created by a moderately precocious second grade art class. I’m looking at you, Abstract Expressionists.

I submit that a man can achieve more with a proper snootful than he ever could wired-up on caffeine. Drunkards are men of action, the American Revolution was fomented by men whose blood alcohol content was sufficient to sterilize medical equipment; the “coffee achiever” often accomplishes no more than sitting around whatever Starbucks they were assigned to when they received their liberal arts degrees, thinking deep thoughts and taking turns serving as the pivot man in the ongoing intellectual circle-jerk that infests most coffeehouses, sniffy little cafes, and wherever else the over-educated gather.

Photo courtesy National Cancer Institute, via Wikimedia Commons.

Photo courtesy National Cancer Institute, via Wikimedia Commons.

In the interest of full disclosure, I will admit that I myself am a philosophical drunk; get a few good belts in me, the Universe suddenly makes perfect sense and I’d be glad to explain it to you at length. I become an instant expert on everything. This is partially why I choose to imbibe alone, I wouldn’t inflict my stewed worldviews upon any innocent human, and why I can say without fear of contradiction that my parakeet knows more about M-theory than any other bird on the face of the Earth. I will also say that I tend to get more done with one foot in the bucket than I do dead sober, even if it may take me several days in the aftermath to figure out exactly what I achieved while pie-eyed. I once dried up after a “liquid vacation” to discover that I had written an entire musical, book and lyrics, and had begun working on the score before I figured out that orchestration was one of the key pieces missing from my incomplete degree in music.

Rambling back around to the point.

Moonshine is as much an act of rebellion and a statement of individual freedom as it is about the whiskey itself. The first moonshiners were mostly farmers, who felt that making their own joy juice was covered under the “pursuit of happiness” clause. When the government tried to tax their efforts, they politely told the Federals to go piss up a rope. They also felt that it was within their rights to sell their product as a private transaction to any consenting adult, the law be damned. If the concept of liberty means anything at all, it means that a man’s liver is his own to abuse however he sees fit. And I’ll fight the man who says different.

For over 200 years law enforcement agents have been dutifully attempting to quash the unregulated production of silly sauce. They quickly eradicated the low-hanging fruit, the poor soul who didn’t think he was doing anything wrong by making a little whiskey on the side and didn’t see the need to hide it. Little by little, they sniffed out the cagier freelance distillers, ridding the flatlands of the scourge of relatively inexpensive, high octane liquor. It was only when they came to the mountains that they met real and lasting resistance. Moonshine was considered a cultural birthright, an honorable trade and a lucrative business in a place where making any money was a task in itself. The mountaineer, who knew the hills and hollers like his mother’s face, had the advantage. This was his ground.

February 13, 1922. Washington, D.C. "Unidentified woman." Holding a "tipping cane" also known as a "cane flask" during Prohibition.

February 13, 1922. Washington, D.C. “Unidentified woman.” Holding a “tipping cane” also known as a “cane flask” during Prohibition.

With the passage of the 19th Amendment banning alcohol, one of the dumbest moments in the history of a nation composed of prodigious elbow-benders, white lightning found a new audience outside of the hills. Yankee bootleggers and gangsters bought as much product as the moonshiners could make. But ‘shine was never intended to be a large-scale production.  Most makers used small, easily hidden stills and made enough only for a limited clientele. More ambitious types ran into a problem when they tried to ramp up their production. While the revenuers might not have been able to get to the stills in their mountain strongholds, they could disrupt the supply of raw materials. ‘Shine can’t be made with corn and water alone; it requires sugar and yeast, two things even the most self-sufficient mountaineer could not produce on his own. The strength of the mountains—their limited access—was also their weakness.

The urban bootleggers turned to other sources, often of poor quality, which is in part where the modern idea of the cocktail was born. By mixing flavors, it masked the taste of bathtub gin and rotgut hooch. It also masked the taste of alcohol to please the tastes of the new generation of somewhat liberated flappers, ladies who flouted society’s conventions with their scandalously short skirts (you can see almost her entire knee!) and loose morals (she kissed a man with absolutely no intention of marrying him!). The fairer members of the Lost Generation  were drawn to speakeasies and blind tigers by their forbidden allure, giving rise to the “girl drinks” that have still not been successfully eradicated. ‘Shine had no place in this world, and with the repeal of Prohibition, slowly disappeared back into the Appalachians.

The mountains remain, even in the 21st century, the last bastion of the true moonshiner. They are still hard people in a hard land, and there are hollers even now where the heartiest fear to tread. Go up there without a specific invitation, and you likely won’t come back. My Uncle Bob, a part-time tripper (moonshine runner) and a hulking slab of a man who could count the number of things he was scared of on the fingers of one hand and still have enough digits left over to dial a telephone, wouldn’t go up into those hollers. Though I know stills exist, and have in my 45 years tasted extensively of their output, I’ve never seen one in production.


The gentleman moonshiner has all but disappeared. Later generations thought nothing of distilling the whiskey through old car radiators or discarded lead bathroom pipes, before getting out of the business altogether for the quicker buck of making meth or trafficking oxycontin. There are very few reputable sources left, and finding them takes work. Getting quality ‘shine was no longer a matter of knowing someone, it was knowing the right someone. And even now, as always, it goes through intermediaries. I know people who know people.

Legal moonshine, that slicked-up product that has been taxed six ways from Sunday, OSHA inspected (let’s make sure that Ray Bob is wearing a hairnet on his beard when he stirs the mash), and USDA certified is completely antithetical to the whole point of the thing. Gussying it up for the cocktail set and feigning legitimacy (or worse, attempting comedy by calling it “corn likker” and putting a cartoon hillbilly on the label) misses the beating heart of it. Real untaxed whiskey, and those who produce it, will have none of that. Legal moonshine, an oxymoron in itself, is a commercial product no different from any other mass marketed piece of someone else’s stolen culture. Real  ‘shine is Our Thing, a gentlemen’s agreement, a legacy and lament for a bygone day that will not come again. Like so many things in the mountains, it is Nobody Else’s Damned Business.

Far be it from me to be a wet blanket. Let the neo-belles of the New New South sip their Cherry Pie at the post-game mixer, and strut proudly the next morning during their requisite Walk of Shame in a shameless age. And I will not stand between any Son of the South and his choice of intoxicant. For my sociable drinking, on the rare occasions when I feel sociable, I prefer beer or a wheated bourbon (Old Fitzgerald Very Special, neat. And my birthday is in August, dumplings). The jar of untaxed whiskey only comes out when I am feeling that peculiar melancholy we mountain folk get when the remembrance of our losses resonates through us like a thunderclap and sets a black cloud overhead, when the only remedy to the darkness is a shot of white lightning.

I raise a glass for my grandparents, my parents, and the innumerable friends who have all gone to Glory ahead of me. I drink a farewell  to the abandoned shops and tracks left behind by the railroad to which my father gave the last 30 years of his life. I remember the now-extinct Clifton Forge High School, home of the Mountaineers, where some of the fondest memories of my youth now haunt the empty hallways. I drink for the lost loves, friends grown apart, forgotten faces, and the unfortunate victims of my youthful bastardry who may now drink to or because of me. But mostly, I partake of the white dog for my own reasons. And those are Nobody Else’s Damned Business.


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