Americans have a long history of conflicting emotions when it comes to moonshine. While as a whole, we tend to err on the side of being intractably opinionated when it comes to most debates, deciding just where we stand when it comes to the production and sale of illicit liquor has proven to be a bit trickier to nail down. The pernicious brew sets our values all in a tangle, perhaps because of the nature of the beast itself—surely we’ve had a rocky road when it comes to alcohol in general—but perhaps it’s because it rests right in the sweet spot of duality in the American psyche, that hot little juncture where our egalitarian preference for law and order buts up against our red-blooded right to do what we darn well please.
Though popular culture has done its best to mold most of today’s moonshiners into caricatures of themselves—gap-toothed, pickled, and grubby-pawed—the origin of their enterprise can be traced much more closely to our own backyard than many of us realize. To be fair, the majority of jars bearing the label come to us courtesy of the same four simple ingredients—malt, sugar, yeast, and corn—yet the term moonshine does not necessarily refer to the product itself, but to the clandestine nature of its production: illicit liquor must be cooked, bottled, and transported by the light of the moon, lest the smoke and stoke of the still catch the watchful gaze of the law. With this definition in mind, the original American moonshiners were nowhere near the southern Appalachian hills now associated with the concoction, but in Pennsylvania, in the months following the Revolutionary War. The fledgling United States government, desperate to gain sound financial footing, (and conveniently forgetful of the tax-centric spark that ostensibly began the war in the first place) announced a new tax on alcohol, driving liquor producers to rise up in an act of defiance now known as the Whiskey Rebellion. Though the uprising was quashed and the tax prevailed, many a disgruntled producer dropped beneath the radar and slipped into the quiet corners of the country to make their brew. The moonshiner, as it were, was born.
In subsequent years, liquor producers would prove to be a favorite tax-target for floundering wartime coffers, though these endeavors met with varying levels of success. Both the North and South would attempt to tax alcohol during the Civil War, yet for the Confederacy (who, in signature Southern circumlocutory style, prohibited using grain for anything but food), chasing down illicit liquor stills quickly fell to the bottom of the priority list, and for the Union, taxing a seceded state—or one left economically ravaged after its defeat—posed unique challenges. It wasn’t until the 1870’s that alcohol tax began to regain foothold as a viable threat to liquor producers, though one might say that it made up for lost time: by 1894, liquor taxes were up to $1.10 per gallon, almost $30 in today’s currency, and more than enough motivation to drive even the most stalwart law-abider underground. As is often the case, breaking one law sent many down the slippery slope of moral ambiguity, and it wasn’t long before friendly competition amongst neighbors turned into rivalries between moonshining clans, vigilante vengeance raids, and shootouts with the federal agents, colloquially called Revenuers, who came to shut the illicit operations down.
Despite the crackdown on alcohol, moonshiners were high on success (and perhaps a quality-control dip or two) and had no intention of going down without a fight. Not even the outlaw of alcohol could slow the moonshine production lines; if anything, it boosted business. When the prohibition of the 1920’s closed the doors on the nation’s legitimate bottlers, those already producing liquor beneath the government radar—now largely squirreled away, out of sight in the thick of Appalachia—were all but gift-wrapped an exponentially expanded market with virtually zero competition. Commitments to the black-market exchange were bolstered even more with the onset of the Great Depression, since for many families, selling moonshine would become the only way to put food on the table. By the time the government rethought and rescinded the laws of Prohibition, it had become readily apparent that both moonshine and the renegade culture it fostered were around to stay.
Like many other facets of American counterculture, the moonshining industry has largely fallen victim to commercialization, tapped and marketed in a way that is equal parts capitalist and caricature. With colloquially branded, mass produced mason jars of “moonshine” lining liquor store shelves and television shows featuring all but unintelligible back-woods mountain dwellers clogging the cable lineup, it would be easy to imagine that the genuine article has fallen into obscurity. Despite the growing trend of distilling down the less conventional corners of our country into something that fits into a tidy living room package, however, the spirit that started it all—that fiercely independent, devil-may-care, hell-or-high-water spark that we hate to love and love to hate—lives on in the American moonshiner.