A Shining History
Many of you may have noticed a new section popping up in your local liquor stores entitled Moonshine, but rest assured that this is far from a novel spirit. The history of the peculiar beverage can be traced back centuries to the Scots-Irish whose culture is highlighted by dancing, fiddling, and certainly a little imbibing. During the 17th century, this people were banished from the lowlands of Scotland to Ulster, Ireland. At first things were alright, but soon due to drought and religious persecution, the Scots-Irish boarded ships and brought their culture and customs to the Appalachian Mountains in America. This, my friends, was the 18th century beginning of a great American spirit.
The first surge in popularity of this crystal clear whiskey (see previous blog post for more fun facts) was due to the 1920 National Prohibition Act. While many states were nestled into bar stools crying into an empty lowball glass, Appalachian states such as Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina, Kentucky, and Tennessee were laughing on their front porch swings, swigging from jugs containing the purest of pure. Before long, and as with any coveted item where big money is involved, the vultures came out of the woodwork to capitalize on the profitable liquid. This influx of profits into the region made everyone and their pappy moonshiners. Stills (the apparatus created to develop the highly distilled product) began popping up in multitude, dotting the mountainsides with little burning flames. If you’d like a little more information about the functionality of the Moonshine still, as well as a little background on the infamous “XXX” seen on whiskey jugs in the Appalachia, you can find some interesting history here: Moonshine Heritage.
Although lucrative, Moonshining was risky business. The best at their craft often times had to pay large sums to local law enforcement and politicians. Even as pockets were being padded, the average whiskey maker/moonraker had to work by night to avoid discovery and arrest. This lead to the coined phrase “Moonshine” as often times the only light to work under was that of the moon itself. This risk also produced one of the mainstream sports in the American South today… Nascar. After the final product was packaged, the only way to transport this pricey commodity to major cities such as Atlanta was by car. Departing the counties where local politicians were in the pockets of the lead liquor producers tended to present problems in delivery costing thousands in losses as the drivers (aka runners aka bootleggers) were pulled over and carted off to jail. This began the competitions for the fastest drivers and after the end of prohibition, lead to the Nascar races we see today. Oh what a glorious history to be told. Shine of the moon worth that of gold. After the end of prohibition, the glory days of moonshine were thought to be over and although families continued to secretly brew their potent poisons, it was more for local, smaller profits and carefree consumption.
The more recent interest in the product was sparked due to the reality television obsession of highlighting sub-cultures within the American population. As you may guess, the Appalachian people (along with the swamp cultures of Louisiana) were among the first to gain a following. The Discovery Channel’s Moonshiners was the initial television show to follow the lives of some of the people behind the corn-mash fermented liquor. Within this show, clips of the infamous 2002 documentary film “Marvin ‘Popcorn’ Sutton” were utilized to enhance the storyline. If you want even more history about the trade, I would definitely recommend checking out the old geezer (Poporn) in action.
Reader’s Warning/PSA/Spoiler Alert: His exposure landed him jail where he committed suicide to avoid slow death from cancer.
Apart from televised shenanigans, the biggest influence that pushed ‘Shine’ into the spotlight was the beginning of the recession in 2008. With hard times casting foreboding storm clouds over many states, the Appalachia loosened distilling laws and released a potent shot of white lightening to brighten the skies. For those that didn’t pick up on my clever metaphor, basically states were attempting to profit off any untapped resource hence why Mary Jane is dancing out West and Moonshine is now taxable. To read some fancy facts about the matter, check out this Time News’ article (active link). Although the proof found on the market is nearly half that of the real deal that comes from Mary Ann’s uncle up the ‘holler’, it’s legal and proven safe. No need to burn the liquor to test for brain damaging impurities. Now, all you need is a mason jar, a couple of ice cubes, and a full-proof recipe for infusing (see previous blog post) and you’ll be sitting pretty on your front porch as well.