Today, moonshine stills aren’t easily found around the mountains. Development into once rural areas has driven most of the distillers away. The 1980s saw a steep decline in the number of hidden stills discovered by law enforcement around the Blue Ridge Mountains.
In 2010, Asheville saw the introduction of its first legal moonshine distillery, Troy & Sons. Started by Troy Ball, the nation’s first female corn whiskey/moonshine distiller, she sought out to find the best corn in the region, which led her to a discovery at the McEntire farm, located 45 minutes outside of Asheville.
There she found Crooked Creek Corn, a white corn thought to be extinct in the region. However, the McEntires had been growing this heirloom corn for 120 years and tests confirm that this corn is pure, non-genetically modified and 100% all-American. Combine that with the pure mountain water and you have the best ingredients for the perfect moonshine recipe.
The History of Corn Whiskey in the Mountains
Moonshine in the Blue Ridge Mountains has seen a tumultuous past. Brought to the Asheville area by Scot-Irish settlers, corn whiskey was considered the same as a cash crop in the region and was vital to keeping people fed and with a roof over their heads. Around the end of the 1700s, George Washington placed a tax on alcohol, fueling the Whiskey Rebellion by farmers who lived in remote areas where it was difficult to get their grains to market. The tax was repealed in 1803, but only for a short while.
Revenuers would destroy still and then poor out the "rot gut." Image source.The Civil War era ushered in another tax on whiskey to help fund the Union army. However once the war ended, the tax remained as part of an effort to rebuild the nation. During this time the Revenue Bureau of the Treasury Department created a new police agency whose purpose was to seek out and destroy the stills of farmers not in compliance with the new tax.
This drove distillers to hide their stills in remote mountain regions. Farmer’s began producing corn whiskey at night under the cloak of darkness to prevent discovery. This is where the term moonshine began to come into play. This battle between the “revenuers” and the “moonshiners” would rage on for over a hundred years.
North Carolina Senator Zebulon Vance campaigned against the revenue laws in 1876, terming the revenue agents as “red-legged grasshoppers.” Because of the revenuers, Vance complained, “The time has come when an honest man can’t take an honest drink without having a gang of revenue officers against him.”
Moonshine in the 1900s
A moonshining legend in the mountains, Marvin "Popcorn" Sutton came from a long line of whiskey makers. Image source.In 1919, the revenuers fell under a new authority, the Bureau of Prohibition. They were in charge of enforcing the Volstead Act, also known as the National Prohibition Act, which banned the sale of alcoholic beverages having an alcohol content of greater than 2.75%. During this time, bootlegging and illegal alcohol sales skyrocketed, reaping $3 billion annually in untaxed spirits. Prohibition ended in 1933, but the heyday of moonshine had yet to arrive.
Moonshine & NASCAR
In the 1960s moonshine runners had gotten smart about avoiding capture. To outrun police, cars had to be fast and strong. The roots of NASCAR can be traced back to the days of running 'shine where people like Jimmy Johnson, a six-time National Championship winner, had been outrunning the law since he was 16. "On the race track, you're a-runnin' to beat someone," Johnson drawls. "Out on the highway, you're a-runnin' for your life."
Like many other runners of the time, Johnson’s cars were more powerful than those on the race tack. The engines were bored and stoked, supercharged and turbocharged. Suspensions were heavily modified to carry the extra weight in the trunk. By comparison, the revenuers' cars were anemic and called “mechanical miscarriages” by the agents that drove them. Most shiners were caught on-foot, not on the highways.
How is Moonshine Made?
The basic ingredients: Corn meal, sugar, water, yeast, malt.
The basic process:
Image courtesy of the Appalachian Cultural Museum, Appalachian State University, Boone, NC
Mix all ingredients together in a large container. After mixing, move the mixture, called "mash," into a still and leave it to ferment. How quickly this process occurs depends on the warmth of the mash.
Heat the mash to the point of vaporization at 173 degrees. The mash will produce a clear liquid, often the color of dark beer. You must watch this process with careful attention as the mash should never reach the boiling point.
Trap vapor using a tube or coil. The vapor will be transferred into a second, empty container. The resulting condensation is the moonshine. It is then ready to drink or sell.
Keep mash in container. It is now called "slop." Add more sugar, water, malt, and corn meal and repeat the process.
Repeat the process up to eight times before replacing the mash.
With legal moonshine now available, bartenders are open to all new possibilities. Here are a couple of recipes from Asheville mixologists for you to try.