In the 1958 movie, Thunder Road, Robert Mitchum plays a reluctant moonshine runner in Harlan, Kentucky, who, after returning from the Korean War, takes up driving his family’s corn whiskey to Knoxville, Tennessee and other distribution points throughout the south. It’s a gangster movie with a country setting; a Southern Gothic folk song set to screen. I didn’t see the movie until long after I’d moved away from Harlan. Even though I had known about the movie (vaguely), I’ve always been interested in moonshine. I never watched the film. Only after looking through a guide to making moonshine and seeing the lyrics to the title song, did I bother to watch, and was surprised at the credibility of the film—one that I recognized both from growing up in Kentucky and as a hobby distiller. Mitchum was obsessed with details that gave his film authenticity: the particulars of the way cars were endlessly discussed and worked on, specifics of moonshine making, and the thin and fickle alliances between authorities and the bootleggers. Mitchum was the driving force behind the film; he was the author of its story, producer, star, and wrote the original music for its credit sequence.
Harlan is still dry to this day, though there are towns within the county that are now able to sell alcohol. My dad was the minister at a small Presbyterian church, at what was the probable terminus of Thunder Road in Smith, KY, where friends of the family still recall stories of moonshining and dangerous living.
Going to the bootlegger was a lot like going to the drug dealer, but you didn’t have to make polite chitchat and play video games.
By the time I had entered high school in the 90s, moonshine making was on the decline. We listened to Steve Earle’s record Copperhead Road about the children of moonshiners turning to growing marijuana after the Vietnam War. There were still bootleggers in Harlan, and getting alcohol was easy if you had the connection. By then, bootleggers were just reselling commercial alcohol, most likely bought in bulk just over the state line in Virginia. Seagrams 7, Kessler, and Jim Beam were common, though I mostly avoided the hard stuff and cut straight to Zima, Mad Dog 20/20, and Red Dog Beer. Going to the bootlegger was a lot like going to the drug dealer, but you didn’t have to make polite chitchat and play video games. You got in and got out. Most of these bootleggers sold moonshine even if they didn’t make it, but no one I knew ever got it.
Moonshine—historically—is just unaged whiskey, a somewhat long-lost black sheep in the family of American whiskey. Though Appalachian moonshine recipes had come to include sugar by Mitchum’s time—which would disqualify it as whiskey—moonshine is still used as a synonym for what many are calling “white whiskey.” Whatever you call it, moonshine is a misunderstood spirit: surprisingly drinkable, unpretentious, and upends conventional wisdom about what good whiskey should be. It also best demonstrates the skill of the distiller, because mistakes can’t be masked by the barrel. I got a small still in 2007 from a company called Brewhaus, and started making whiskey mostly out of curiosity and a little bit of nostalgia. The first spirit I made was disgusting, but time and determination opened a world of taste and opportunity for me. After a fair amount of puttering, I’d get Facebook messages from people interested in the moonshine. If strangers could find me that easy, it wasn’t too hard to imagine the FBI dropping by. I’d been distilling with a friend of mine, David Haskell, and he suggested we go into business together. A little over a year later, we were running the oldest (and youngest) whiskey distillery in New York City, the first since Prohibition (distilling had long ago fled for the country, and then consolidated into a handful of large commercial operations, mostly located in Kentucky and Tennessee). Located in a 300 square foot studio, Kings County was then the smallest commercial distillery in the country, and since most start-up distilleries have to sell something unaged while they age their bourbon or rye whiskey, we settled on moonshine: a bright, hot spirit that can be sweet and drinkable.
One of the most famous bootleggers in my hometown, Mag Bailey, reportedly “got saved” in 1996, just after I left Harlan, and abandoned the business that she had carried on for nearly 60 years. She died shortly after, and following her death, the town of Harlan voted for a new law to allow restaurants to serve beer and wine, though it took several years for anyone to apply for a license to do so. On a recent visit, I went to Harlan’s first alcohol-serving restaurant, a mining-themed sports bar, but even Superbowl Sunday is the Lord’s day. The taps were bone dry. A plaque on the wall commemorates Mag Bailey, folk hero and Harlan Countian.
Whatever you call it, moonshine is a misunderstood spirit: surprisingly drinkable, unpretentious, and upends conventional wisdom about what good whiskey should be.
Even in her time, Mag was something of a relic, and in my experience, most of the moonshining that goes on in Kentucky these days is from younger people deliberately carrying on a folk tradition, not much different from quilting or canning vegetables—in other words, not for profit. There are old-timers that might have access to a still, but if they do, they aren’t running it very often.
According to the TTB (formerly the ATF), the government seized more than 5,000 stills in 1970, but by the 90s, that number was down to one or zero stills a year (state and local police routinely seize stills, but raids no longer involve federal agents). Cheaper commercial alcohol, changing politics, and better highways in and out of Appalachia have all but made the moonshiner unnecessary. Perhaps it’s no coincidence then that with the moonshiner’s final irrelevance comes its own comic opera, the Moonshiners reality TV show on the Discovery Channel, which has all the credibility of professional wrestling. The show follows Tim Smith and his sidekick, Tickel, in a sort of modern-day vaudeville, lampooning caricatures of the American South as they seek to evade a Virginia revenue agent in a trick of clever editing. Nostalgia for the long-lost moonshiner has reached the same level of posturing that characterizes the fake speakeasies that still thrive in Manhattan, eighty years after the end of Prohibition. There is something deeply culturally ingrained in which we all like to pretend that drinking alcohol is subversive.
Still, if illegal, for-profit moonshining is heaving its dying breaths, recreational moonshining is just now finding its legs. While distilling once had been only the purview of those mechanically inclined enough to know how to actually build a still, the internet has made it possible for still-builders to connect with aspiring recreational distillers, all with the tacit understanding that stills are not made for distilling beverage alcohol (in as much as bongs are made only for tobacco use). I got curious about home distilling out of the same cultural nostalgia that celebrates the moonshiner of the past, but I got hooked because of the challenge and reward of the process.
“Legal moonshine” has also seen a bump. The federal government does not regulate the word “moonshine,” so almost anything that has been made at a legal distillery can be called moonshine. Common types are corn whiskey (historical moonshine is basically unaged bourbon), sugar-wash moonshine (more like post-prohibition Appalachian moonshine but belongs more to rum than whiskey), or the most common type: corn vodka (spirits cheaply distilled to a high proof with a neutral flavor). Ole Smoky is a brand of legal moonshine that bottled about 240,000 cases in 2013; even its nearest competitor, Midnight Moon—from celebrity spokesman and former NASCAR driver, Junior Johnson—sold more than 320,000 cases. That’s 50,000 cases more than Woodford Reserve, a well-known top shelf bourbon, and together more than half the sales of Maker’s Mark. Ole Smoky just raised capital from a Connecticut-based private equity firm to open a 20,000-square-foot bottling facility (the tourist-oriented distillery in Gatlinburg only makes a small fraction of what is sold, most of which is sourced from commercial distillers) and Midnight Moon just settled a lawsuit with a former master distiller, whose family recipes are said to be the basis for their popular flavored moonshines.
If there is something lost in the commercialization of moonshine (a sin I’m surely guilty of participating in—Kings County Distillery’s moonshine still represents a quarter of sales), then there is something gained by more and more people adopting home distilling as a way to appreciate spirits. It is a small act of civil disobedience, but a great testament to the founding fathers, who so often advocated for distilling as an industry that could be natively American. And while Harlan may not be the hub of illegal distillation that it was in the 40s and 50s, there is already a group of local business leaders who are putting together plans for a craft moonshine distillery: Appalachian Kentucky’s first legal craft spirit-maker.
I can’t wait to taste what they come up with.
This article previously ran on MUNCHIES in June, 2014.