Moonshine goes by many names: hooch; white lightning; corn likker; mountain dew; white whiskey. The illicit stuff has been around long enough to take on many personas. Even though it’s now relatively easy to find in the local liquor store, there are still plenty of ’shine-makers that keep their operations on the down-low. The fascinating history of moonshine is laced with as much mystery and illicit behavior as you’d expect from a bottle labeled “XXX.”
The beginning of moonshine’s mysterious tale starts not in the Appalachian backwoods, but with an old English folk tale. The tale is set when smuggling liquor was as common in Europe as it was in the U.S. during Prohibition—most likely in the early to mid-1700s. One night, a group of folks from rural England were discovered by Excisemen (tax collectors) as they were raking a pond to uncover hidden barrels of smuggled French brandy. To avoid suspicion, they pointed to the moon’s reflection in the pond, pretended to be drunk and told the Excisemen that they were trying to rake in a big hunk of cheese. The authorities dismissed them as simpletons, nicknaming them “moonrakers” and were none the wiser about the hidden barrels of brandy. Clever, clever.
The name for the now-beloved white whiskey wasn’t the only way Europeans influenced its history. In the 18th and 19th centuries, thousands of Scots-Irish immigrants from Ulster settled in the American south. That emigration had a huge impact on the country’s culture and introduced the U.S. to a new kind of homemade, unaged whiskey. The recipes and techniques for making the potent hooch were then adopted in the Appalachian area, leading to a boom in the production and sale of proprietary whiskies.
You can thank Alexander Hamilton, then Treasury Secretary, for imposing the first tax on whiskey produced in the U.S. He was looking for a way to create a steady stream of government revenue, but he got a lot more than he bargained for. When the tax levy was instituted by Congress in 1791, farmers who produced whiskey as a way to stay afloat during difficult years made no effort to hide their hostility. This led to a full-on rebellion in 1794. Those opposed to the tax attacked the homes of tax men, which eventually led President Washington to attempt negotiations and, when that didn’t work, the use of military force.
Prohibition put dozens of well-known whiskey brands out of business and spurred the invention of bathtub gin and the importation of liquor from Canada, Mexico or anywhere else Americans could find it. But the ban on legal liquor also led to a massive boom in moonshine production and the number of illicit stills, not to mention a decline in the quality of the liquor. Because there were limited ways to satisfy a boozy craving during the Noble Experiment, the quantity of ’shine producers could make and sell began to overshadow its quality. The result? Sometimes dangerous hooch, resulting in death, blindness and paralysis.
Thankfully, the end of Prohibition didn’t mean the end of moonshine—the good stuff, anyway.
Every movement needs an inspirational figure, and, for the better half of the late-20th century, Marvin “Popcorn” Sutton became that figure for moonshiners.
Sutton took up his family’s moonshine-making business in Cocke County, in Tennessee’s Great Smoky Mountains. He had an illustrious career making moonshine from the 1960s through the early 2000s, despite being put on probation twice during that time on charges of running an illegal still. In 1999, Sutton published his autobiography Me and My Likker, and then appeared in various documentaries, including 2002’s This is the Last Dam Run of Likker I’ll Ever Make by Neal Hutcheson. Unfortunately for Sutton, that wasn’t true.
In 2008, Sutton was finally nabbed after trying to sell nearly 1,000 gallons of illegal liquor to an undercover agent. After appearing in court in his trademark hat and bib overalls, the moonshiner was sentenced to 18 months in federal prison. Having also been diagnosed with cancer, Sutton decided to take his own life in 2009 just days before he was set to start his prison term at age 62.
2010s: MOONSHINE’S RESURGENCE
People got an inside look at the illicit business of moonshining when Discovery launched its docudrama series Moonshiners in 2011. The show gave people a glimpse into the lives of various bootleggers in the Appalachian Mountains of the Carolinas and Virginia—including footage from Neal Hutcheson’s documentary on “Popcorn” Sutton.
White whiskey has been steadily gaining steam over the past few years. Not only is it much safer to drink than the stuff that was popular during Prohibition, but companies like Ole Smoky, Buffalo Trace and Jim Beam have started marketing the powerful corn liquor to the masses. There’s even a brand named after the venerable “Popcorn” Sutton himself, that’s made from his old family recipe—the same stuff that got him a jail sentence. The bottle features “XXX,” similar to the jugs of hooch commonly featured in cartoons.
It’s proof that moonshine has come a long way over the past three centuries. While there will always be illegal whiskey out there, there’s no need to risk jail time to get a taste of authentic Appalachian mountain dew.