By Tracy Watson
The Original American Spirit: Moonshine
Moonshine (aka hooch, white lightening, Tennessee white whiskey, and mountain dew), a term dating back to the Prohibition era (when Appalachian distillers who produced and distributed it, often did so by the light of the moon), generally refers to any high-proof spirit made in an “unlicensed still”. But that’s changing. Moonshine has become legitimate, with stores from Wal-Mart to Sam’s Club selling the stuff (often in authentic-looking Mason jars) right out in the open. The other name for Moonshine, Tennessee white whiskey, refers to the lack of color that characterizes moonshine (along with Tennessee’s reputation as a central place for traditional moonshine production), which is essentially bourbon, or rum, or whiskey that is un-aged (aging in barrels is what gives spirits their signature amber hue).
The production and distribution of moonshine (typically made from sugar, corn, grains, or fruit) could be likened to a thriving cottage-industry, once upon a time. Even before the adoption of the Coffee still (sometime after the 1830s), legal distilleries in the United States numbered in the tens of thousands; the number of craft (or micro-) distillers and brewers peaked at 8,000 +/- during the 1880s. Larger producers began to chip away at the micro-brewing and micro-distilling industries before Prohibition, and after the onset of Prohibition (1920 to 1933) the small distillery market began a precipitous decline that lasted over a century.
Though legal small-scale distilling languished, illegal operations (bootlegging) continued. “Moonshine played a huge part in our history,” according to Georgia native Casey Teague, the manager at Mac McGee’s Irish Pub in Decatur, GA, “After the Civil War and Prohibition, it saved a lot of families. It put money in pockets and food on the table, especially in the South.”
And, like other notable American institutions and novelties of bygone eras, moonshine is making a comeback. In part because of the fascination with all things artisanal and local, and in part because of its economic potential. As one modern-day moonshiner put it, “When you think about it, there are not a lot of authentic American spirits: there’s Bourbon and there’s moonshine.”
For family producers during the Great Depression, micro-brewing/ distilling and distribution of moonshine was the sole thing standing between them and utter destitution, and as we’ll see later on, many states have begun to revoke anti-moonshine laws in the hopes that the influx of tourism and tax revenues it may generate will aid their ailing economies.