Scotch, Scotch-Irish and Irish immigrants who pushed the frontier of the English colonies and the infant nation thereafter often constituted the majority of back country settlers. They brought with them their music — fiddles to play and ballads to sing — which became the foundation for “country” music. From the free-grazing practice of the Highlands and the English “Commons” system, they crafted a “free-range” approach to raising hogs, cows and sheep. They also brought another ancient part of their culture — the manufacture, consumption and sale of whiskey — which has persisted legally and illegally for almost 400 years.
The first piece of serious civil disobedience after the Revolutionary War was the Whiskey Rebellion by Scotch-Irish settlers across the Allegheny Mountains in western Pennsylvania. Transporting their corn crops across the mountains to market was difficult and not always profitable, but the task was easier and the sale surer when they made the corn into whiskey, which could be moved in secure barrels. Besides, making whiskey was something they had been doing for centuries.
In 1791, a whiskey tax was passed to fund the federal government. “Sin taxes” have always been popular. It applied to some farmers but not others and had to be paid in cash.
In 1794, the enraged trans-Allegheny settlers rebelled, refused to pay. They — like other Scots and their Irish neighbors — had no use for established government. They had suffered at the hands of the English monarchy again and again. They had been despised and exploited. They hoped to find a better, more free life in America. They had done their share of fighting in the Revolution, but now it was more of the same in the new country. President George Washington sent soldiers to put down the insurrection. Poorly armed and unorganized, the farmers had no chance.
Of course people on the frontier did not stop making whiskey, but it was a local activity. Throughout the South, it was part of life. After improved transportation and the growth of towns and cities in the region made whiskey production in volume profitable, bonded distilleries were established, particularly in Tennessee and Kentucky. In mountain “hollers” and along creeks in the deep South, illegal distilling continued, the craft passed on from one generation to the next.
Since much of the work was done at night to avoid detection, the practice was called “moonshining” and the product “moonshine” or just “shine” or “white-lightning.”
(Years of “aging” in charred oaken barrels give whiskey its color and mellows its impact on taste buds. Moonshine, drawn straight from copper coils into glass jars, is colorless and hot.)
Moonshine was a normal part of the world in which I grew up. Then as now, there were divergent views about alcohol consumption. The 19th century anti-alcohol movement and subsequent Prohibition Amendment left some people and institutions that firmly opposed all manufacture and consumption. After national prohibition was repealed, this opposition took the form of a county referendum. Many counties were legally dry, though not behaviorally so. Some ministers were among the leading voices of opposition. “Preaching likker” became regular pulpit fare whether it changed the actions of congregants or not. Brother George was a very large preacher known for proclaiming loud and long while saying little. Occasionally he would castigate at length likker and its effects on Sunday, but it was known that on Monday he would fire his still to produce this evil stuff for profit and personal pleasure.
The anti-alcohol reforms and Prohibition had an impact, but centuries-old folk beliefs and practices die slowly. Sale of whiskey was banned by referendum in places, but in some counties folks voted dry but drank wet. Someone declared that when counties held liquor referendums, the chief advocates were preachers, bootleggers and moonshiners. Whiskey could be had from bootleggers who brought in legal liquor for resale by driving to the county line where wet county officials welcomed the revenue or by visiting a moonshine maker who usually was closer than the county line.
Attitudes toward moonshining were often permissive. Only a few people actually made liquor. Not everyone drank “shine.” Some abstained from alcohol completely. Others rejected its raw kick. Even the abstemious tended to adopt a “none of my business” mind set. Few were inclined to “turn in” moonshiners if they learned about a still. In part, this was a matter of maintaining community cohesion, so important for living in rural places. Moreover, “shiners” were sometimes kin or friend. In general, folks disliked central government, a trait rooted in ancestral experience and reinforced by abuses during Reconstruction. Agents of the federal Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agency (“revenoors”) were unwelcome to everyone. Local law enforcement gave them limited cooperation. Some even warned shine makers of impending raids.
Some drinkers chose moonshine exclusively, perhaps because it was cheaper than “bottled in bond” whiskey or was the handiwork of a relative or friend. Some valued its illegality and referred to the legal stuff as “that old guvment likker.” However, I never heard anyone base such preference on its “smoothness.”
A few moonshiners profited enough to retire and use some of the capital to support more accepted ventures and burnish their reputations. Others expanded their operations as good highways made it possible to transport their product to growing cities with large populations of migrants from the country. Specially equipped cars with heavy springs to offset the weight of the shine and engines altered to produce more power and speed allowed them to go far and fast without detection and evade capture if detected. It was big business, making some country boy rich. It also led to stock-car racing, a huge business and favorite sport for fans who have roots in deep back country places.
Today moonshining is just a shadow of its past. Use of airplanes and helicopters in law enforcement made it harder to hide stills. However, it was mostly changing preferences that sent shine to the back burner of things that make humans high or, for that matter, low. Others cost less to produce and require less labor and risk. Fewer people live in the back country, some of them coming from elsewhere and lacking the cultural patterns from the past. In spite of the so-called “reality” show on television about moonshining — which could not exist without some arrangement with “the law” — makers of shine following centuries old techniques are few and getting fewer. However, some have “gone legal” and produce shine for sale alongside elegant kindred spirits.
Roger G. Branch Sr. is professor emeritus of sociology at Georgia Southern University and is a retired pastor.