Back country people have an interesting history with illegal whiskey dating back to the infancy of the nation. Whatever might have been attitudes about drinking alcohol elsewhere, it has been — at worst — ambivalent among rural residents, some of whom have favored its consumption and participated in its preparation. The stereotypical image of this activity is set in the mountains, southern Appalachia, but millions of gallons have been made in South Georgia backwoods and even in town.
To clarify terminology, “moonshine” is whiskey based on fermented corn that is not registered, bonded or taxed by the federal government, with state and local entities also adding taxes. Therefore, it is illegal.
“Moonshiners,” those who make it, are engaged in criminal activity and subject to pursuit, arrest and imprisonment by the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. Agents are called revenuers or revenoors because tax money is the real issue. ‘Shine is simply short for moonshine.
Another term that pops up is “boot-legging,” denoting the sale of alcohol in a place where that is forbidden, such as a “dry” town or county, made so by vote of citizens. A product that is legal, “bottled in bond,” whiskey in one place becomes illegal in another and bringing it across the boundary for sale is illegal activity called boot-legging. Whether bottled in bond or made down by the creek, whiskey seems always to make its way across boundaries into purportedly “dry” places.
Contention about the legal status of whiskey dates from 1791 when Alexander Hamilton as treasurer of the infant United States tried to find ways to pay off the debt incurred by the Revolutionary War and founding of the country. He proposed and Congress passed an excise tax on certain items, especially whiskey.
Lacking easy access to markets, frontier settlers had turned to whiskey as a transportable product so valued that it was used as money. They viewed the whiskey tax as onerous, a regional provocation. In 1794, they organized and resisted in what has been called the Whiskey Rebellion. President Washington called up a militia force of 12,900, which marched across the Alleghenies, but the rebels melted away into the forests without a battle. Washington pardoned the two who were caught.
However, back country people have continued to resist by making illegal whiskey for centuries since that time. Dislike of central government has been a factor. Many of the settlers who pushed onto the frontier and other challenging places were Scots, Irish and Scotch-Irish. They came to the colonies with harsh experiences in dealings with the English monarchy. Their antipathy went far beyond distrust. Moreover, whiskey making had been part of their way of life for centuries. They had no use for Boston or Philadel-phia. Those who lived there seemed more like the English than their kinsmen.
Many of those who settled the moving frontier of the South came from the same places. Rural vs. urban antipathies have persisted. Indeed, they deepened after the Civil War. Moonshiners that I have known saw no moral wrong in their activities. Indeed, they saw the federal law itself as wrong. Few of the teetotalers around actively opposed them because the prevailing culture supported their views. While purchase price might have been a factor in the decisions of customers, many buyers expressed a preference for ‘shine over “that old guvment likker.” Anti-govern-ment had to be a motivator because moonshine, unsmoothed by years of aging in a properly charred barrel, is a fiery drink, definitely not “sipping liquor.” It is not called “white lightning” for nothing.
Many moonshiners were never caught. Some ran small operations with selected customers and escaped detection. There were big operators who took their products to cities where transplanted country boys made ready customers. They used automobiles with souped-up engines to outrun revenuers and beefed-up springs to carry cases of half-gallon jars full of whiskey. It is no secret that these cars were the first versions of stock-car racers. While some were caught and sent to prison, others made fortunes that became the foundations for family prosperity today.
Moonshining continues. Forget the reality TV stuff, which is contrived; otherwise they all would be in jail. Its scale is limited, largely because other things have become more popular. Marijuana, a favorite for some, can be grown with less traffic to bring in ingredients and take away product. Other addictive substances are less bulky, easier to hide and are supported by vast crime organizations. They fit urban life. However, here and there people are still making and drinking white lightning.
Roger G. Branch Sr. is professor emeritus of sociology at Georgia Southern University and is a retired pastor.