The surprising story of Moonshine
What do Mountain Dew, Nascar, and moonshine have in common? Find out more about the legendary bootleggers of the Prohibition Era and how they shaped the history of the South, and meet the distilleries that carry on the tradition today!
Moonshine runner’s mountain hideout
At its best, moonshine is a clear, unaged whiskey. The corn based spirit often has a high alcohol content and potent smell. The name moonshine is really a slang term referring to a strong, illegally made alcohol.
Brought to America in the 18th century primarily by Irish and Scottish immigrants, moonshine was often homemade, and is often associated with Southern culture. As popularity increased for the drink, and government focused on its taxation, distillers hid in the cover of night to create and sell their liquor. It’s this undercover of night imagery that most likely gave the high proofed liquor its name, moonshine.
When the government banned all manufacture, transportation, and sale of liquors, ushering in the Prohibition Era (1920 to 1933), the moonlight manufacturing, bootlegging, speakeasies and gang violence only increased. Enforcing the law was hard. The public was rewarded for turning in the bootleggers and directing the police to stills which were destroyed.
America’s first legal moonshine distillery opened in 2005. Today, we are proud to partner with the ARKANSAS DISTILLERS GUILD in celebrating an age-old craft whose history runs so deep in our region’s culture.
Did you know…
- There are no rules to make moonshine.
Anything goes! Moonshine can be made from corn, malted barley, rye, wheat, or other grain that can provide soluble sugar. It doesn’t need to be aged or distilled any number of times. And additions like fruit, herbs and spices can be added to create a truly unique alcohol each time. The most basic moonshine only has four ingredients: cornmeal, sugar, water and yeast.
- Moonshine is clear because it’s not aged.
Because moonshine is not aged – resting for a period of time, often in an oak barrel – it does not take on the aromas or flavors, and color, of the wood.
- George Washington owned a distillery.
He began commercial distilling in 1797 at the urging of his Scottish farm manager, James Anderson. Construction began that October of a stone still house large enough for 5 stills. The river rock foundation was brought from Potomac Falls, and the walls from sandstone quarried at Mount Vernon. The most common beverage produced there was whiskey – 60% rye, 35% corn, 5% malted barley.
- Moonshine fueled NASCAR.
In the 1940’s, soldiers were returning home from war – many with new mechanical skills. In the hopes of outrunning cops, these mechanically skilled bootleggers modified car and truck engines and suspensions to make their vehicles move faster. The souped-up cars were called moonshine runners. These savvy bootleggers then spent their days off racing each other in the modified cars – the foundation of NASCAR. In fact, initial funds to start NASCAR were provided by a bootlegger.
- Moonshine is often labeled with an XXX.
Moonshiners used to draw X’s on their bottles to represent how many times the liquor had been distilled. The more X’s, the more concentrated the moonshine which would be quite strong. Remember seeing XXX on bottles in old cartoons?
- Mountain Dew was created to be a moonshine mixer.
Mountain Dew is one of many slang terms for moonshine. It’s a nod back to the original intended manufacturing of the soda – as a mixer with moonshine and other spirits. In fact, the original mascot for Mountain Dew advertisements was Willie the Hillbilly, a distinct image to reference the intent.
- Moonshine wasn’t just for drinking.
Original Appalachian settlers lived in very harsh conditions. The manufacture of moonshine meant money, but it wasn’t created just to get people drunk. Moonshine had several practical applications including disinfectant, solvent, tranquilizer and anesthetic. It was also traded for money, seeds, livestock and more.