Last month, I joined Max Watman and Bill Owens for the annual meetings of the American Distilling Institute. This year's theme — whiskey and moonshine — was something each of us know a little bit about. The three of us formed a panel to talk about our respective moonshine books and what we knew on the state of illicit liquor in the US.
Bill, as president of the ADI, approached moonshine as a distiller, letting the audience of accomplished and aspiring spirits wranglers know just how straightforward it is to make commercial spirits that evoke popular concepts of Appalachian moonshine. Max, ever an entertaining reader, read from his book Chasing the White Dog
and tackled commercial moonshiners — those who make untaxed liquor for sale — and I talked about origins of modern home distilling.
With minor edits for flow, here's As Surely as Thunder Follows Lightning
, my talk. Since it's a bit long, I'm dividing it into two sections. In this section, I break down in general terms who's distilling off the grid. Part two in this ongoing guide to moonshine will lay out in broad strokes how law-abiding homebrewers turned their eyes to more ardent — and less legal — beverages.
Last week, I talked with the owners of four businesses selling mail order stills in the United States: BrewHaus USA, Mile High Distilling, the Amphora Society, and Vaughn Wilson, whom some of you know as the Colonel.
Between them, they sell over 200 stills a month, most rigs so small you can fit them in a broom closet. If anyone’s telling you that moonshine is dead, understand that businessmen like these are laughing all the way to the funeral.
I’ve studied illicit liquor for more than half my life. As an historian, I’ve traveled over 20,000 miles and interviewed secret distillers from Florida to Oregon. And if there’s one single, irrefutable fact I’ve learned, it’s that no drink is more degraded and disgusting than American moonshine. I’ve had liquor so bad that it’s brought tears to my eyes and made me fear for my own safety.
Something else I’ve learned: there are few drinks I’d rather have than today’s crop of homemade liquor. It’s true: some of what’s out there will flat out hurt you. But some of it ranks among the very best liquor I’ve ever had.
Call it white lightning, white mule, panther piss, old horsey, bug juice, bustskull, forty-rod, tangleleg, squirrel whiskey, or Mom’s Summertime Elixir, it’s all the same in this regard: The liquor that most interests me, regardless of what it’s made from, or where I find it, is the result of unregistered and unlicensed distilling.
Not all that long ago, otherwise enlightened drinkers would tell you in all earnestness that moonshine liquor was eradicated on Prohibition’s repeal almost eighty years ago. Recent stories from mainstream press such as The Washington Post, Salon.com, Imbibe, Wired, and Esquire have clued in non-distillers that moonshine is back—and it’s not what it used to be. They are right.
The distilling landscape has changed since the days of Thunder Road. Today’s most active stills are not the 400-gallon hedgehogs or 1000-gallon models of our grandparents’ era. They’re ten gallons, five gallons, marvels of efficiency, some of them so small, you could tote them in a backpack. And they are everywhere. They are in Manhattan, in Seattle, in New Orleans, in Kansas City; they are in Ames, Iowa, and San Diego, California.
My work as an historian and writer has allowed me to talk to people making all kinds of liquor for lots of different reasons. Among the distillers I’ve met: a Kentucky farmer making the whiskey his father and uncles did; a suburban housewife running sugar washes while her kids are at school; a New York imbiber wresting ten ounces of gin from a case of Budweiser; and a chef tweaking her grandmother’s kümmel recipe. Now, I don’t particularly like kümmel, but I love the fact that someone cares enough about family history to carry on a tradition she considers an honor and duty.
By and large, I talk to individuals making moonshine for themselves, their families, and friends. Unlike the commercial operators Max talks about, today’s hobbyist nano-distillers don’t sell their products. In fact, one of the quickest ways to really piss them off is for an unlicensed distiller to start making noise about selling their makings.
Some embrace a Southern moonshiner identity while others skitter away from the term because of its association with lawlessness. Regardless of what they call themselves, most of these small-batch, home-based distillers fall into three loose categories—economic, technical, and artisanal producers.
A few words about all three:
Economic distillers make liquor because homemade is cheaper than store-bought. Might use pot stills, might use reflux stills. Might use an aquarium heater in a plastic bucket. Whatever gets the job done. They are apt to distill sugar spirits, but also grains and fruits when they are cheap. When you hear of Corn Flakes whiskey or doughnut mashes, think of these guys.
Technical distillers are armchair engineers and chemists, gearheads striving to make the most efficient distillery setup they can, forever tweaking and adjusting their rigs, never quite satisfied with the results. They will make, and make, and make a batch of the most pure spirit they possibly can, trying to extract all the unwanted flavors, taking meticulous notes. And then change one thing and do it over. They tend to have a lot of vodka on hand which they flavor with extracts and essences to simulate a range of spirits.
That leaves the group closest to my heart: Accomplished and aspiring artisans who strive to make great-tasting spirits. The chemical compounds that technical distillers consider impediments to achieving pure liquor, artisans rightfully regard as taste and aroma, the backbone that defines their own personal styles of distilling. They tend to use less efficient, old-school pot stills, to ferment grains and fruits rather than sugar, and not to care what it costs—because they’ll be the ones drinking it.
They are in pursuit of an experience, sometimes exploring their own heritage. They are Italian Americans making grappa; Southerners creating their own real corn whiskeys; Georgians churning out peach brandy, five pints at a time; chefs realizing that making whiskey is part and parcel of preparing the best meals they can.
I put home distillers in that order because that’s the progression I’ve seen both historically and individually. Twenty years ago, those making cheap liquor were most prevalent while in the last five years, growth has been strongest among the artisans. Individually, many begin distilling with affordable equipment and ingredients before stepping up to all-grain and fruit mashes and more expensive distilling rigs.
In over 20 years of looking into moonshine, covert distilling, and personal, bespoke liquors, I’ve never seen anything like the renaissance of the last few years, not just with nanobatch artisans, but with hobbyist distilling of all kinds. It’s time to reboot the entire concept of moonshining as a dead, dying, or suspect art. Homemade liquor is not dead; it is not dying; more people are making it; and more of them are getting really good at it.
Here’s the deal:
Not that long ago, American moonshiners were rumored to be extinct. Popular accounts from reputable authors assured us that the old artisans, Appalachian geezers making pure and powerful mountain dew, the echt shine, had died off and that their craft had passed with them.
Those accounts, as Mark Twain would say, were much exaggerated. I’d met enough men and women making their own liquor to know that. I wanted to know why, when all that was supposed to be history, I could find people making their own spirits as easily as I could find those making their own cornbread.
One reason—a big one—is that it’s still against the law to make moonshine. So it’s understandable that traditional moonshiners tend to be isolated, secretive—and sometimes violently protective of those secrets.
Another reason for the premature report of moonshine’s demise is a book. Joe Dabney’s 1974 Mountain Spirits remains a cornerstone in any American distiller’s library. It captures a snapshot in the history of Southern folk distilling. Unfortunately, it was so well-researched that it helped set the tenor for writing about clandestine American liquor for four decades.
Here’s what Joe wrote:
The truth is that compared to equivalent figures from five, ten, and twenty years ago, the “corn likker” craft is dying fast.
Joe wasn’t alone in his lament.
Around the American bicentennial, as America looked to its future, many folklorists and journalists also looked to the past with a nostalgic longing for parts of America’s story they thought were dead and gone.
They wrote about everyday life and subjects that historians largely ignored. They wrote about the nation’s quaint customs, Southern moonshining included. And they took their cues from books like Mountain Spirits and The Foxfire Book. The almost palpable sense of loss in their works came to infuse subsequent writing about homemade liquor. Until 2009, in fact, essays on moonshining read like…well, like obituaries.
Those obituaries were pining for a mostly romanticized history of moonshine.
The real history is somewhat different.
Here’s the truth: In the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries American spirits were made with local or regional ingredients: apples, peaches, corn, rye, sorghum—whatever grew nearby and was abundant. Condensing acres of perishable crops into just a few barrels was a smart way to get a lot of product to market in as few trips as possible.
Invariably, the production destined for local or personal consumption was regarded as higher quality than the liquor shipped out. The distinction became known in some places as the difference between sippin’ whiskey and sellin’ whiskey. Strangers got the sellin’ whiskey.
And the selllin’ whiskey could be rough stuff. That was especially true during Prohibition, when beverage alcohol became illegal. Americans developed an unslakable thirst for alcohol, and distilling began to pull in staggering and unprecedented profits.
Distillers ditched grains and fruit in favor of table sugar. They started cutting corners by building stills from dangerous materials; by not separating heads and tails from the cleaner heart of the runs; by failing to clean out stills between runs; or not bothering to filter their makings in the hurry to get it made and get it sold. Bootleggers selling this rotgut watered it down and added toxins and colorants to simulate age and give it a kick. Some called it “splo” for the ‘splosion in your head when you drank it.
Everybody got in on the act. Ignorant, careless, and just greedy distillers and bootleggers sold shudderingly bad—sometimes deathly bad—liquor because they didn’t how to make it properly or didn’t care—They weren’t the ones drinking it.
By the middle of the 20th century, illegal liquor wasn’t pure rye or applejack anymore and especially not corn, but cheap, poorly made sugar-wash splo’ — contaminated with heavy metals, adulterated with antifreeze, spiked with wood alcohol, colored with iodine, seasoned with dead possums, and run through a truck radiator. I’ve even collected recipes for chickenshit mash. It’s no wonder people got sick.
That stuff existed. It still exists. And while it may be of interest to historians—or epidemiologists—that’s not what I’m talking about when I say moonshine is back. I’m talking about small-batch, hand-crafted artisan liquors that I’d pour for my own mother—who, incidentally, brought me to my first still site, unknowingly, when I was a toddler.
Despite what the best books claimed ten years ago, the old-timers who knew what they were doing weren’t gone. They were just hard to find—as I’ve said, for understandable reasons. But you could find good whiskey and brandy from unlicensed distillers in the 90’s. You just had to have the right ins.
Sadly for them, the upcoming generation of novice distillers, many of them in cities, didn’t have those ins. They didn’t know where to start separating moonshine myth, folklore, and hearsay from basic facts about recipes, still design, and whether the stuff really did blind people.
Even today, “secretive” remains the rule when it comes to unmarked liquor. But amateur distillers are far from isolated anymore. In less than a generation, they’ve learned to talk to each other, pool their knowledge, and ask ever-more nuanced questions about building and operating a range of stills.
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The last part of the talk
comes later this week. I'll post the link here when it's up
. Download a PDF of the entire talk here