Garden & Gun: Moonshine

Moonhsine still

Moonshine

It goes by countless names, but no matter what you call it, moonshine is experiencing a golden age—and it tastes pretty good too

As my pickup rolls along a rural East Tennessee two-lane at sunset—the surrounding forests already dark—a friend I’ll call D. explains why, over the past few years, homemade corn liquor, otherwise known as moonshine, has found its renaissance.

“It’s a symbol for us,” he’s saying. “The way the Confederate flag used to be. But the flag today has taken on so many unfortunate associations, nobody feels good about showing it anymore. So we’ve embraced moonshine: making it, moving it, drinking it. Moonshine has become a point in our identity. It’s a way of saying, ‘I’m from here.’”

As D. talks, he lifts a 750-milliliter mason jar from the seat between us. Unscrewing the container’s lid, he lets the unmistakably musky smell of corn liquor engulf the cab. Beneath this scent, however, there’s the warming glow of apple and cinnamon. It’s a new form of moonshine, called apple pie. Which is precisely what it tastes like.

D. lifts the jar to his face. A second later he re-caps the container and exhales. “Yeaaaahhh…” he says. “That’s as good as any apple martini you’ll find in New York.”

He stares out the windshield, watching the landscape hurtle past. “That’s another reason for moonshine’s new popularity,” he says. He opens the jar again, its apple-cinnamon scent filling the truck.

“We’ve finally figured out how to make it taste good.

A Presidential Past
Clear, bracing—and occasionally a little unsubtle—moonshine is America made drinkable. And in an increasingly fashionable “eat local” world, there may be no more indigenous product. Until recently, you had to know someone through a proud and private social network to obtain it. But with moonshine’s second coming, even that is changing.

The stuff is back. And it’s everywhere.

Legend holds that self-distilling whiskey in the United States began in the fall of 1620, when an Englishman named George Thorpe convinced Powhatan natives in what is now Gloucester County, Virginia, to part with a mound of corn, birthing a distilled-down product that’s been with us ever since.

Moonshine was a factor in the American Revolution when resentment over onerous Colonial taxes (partly on home-distilled whiskey) led to the “No taxation without representation” plank of the founders’ argument. By then, George Washington wasn’t merely the go-to choice for commanding general of the Continental Army, he would become the largest distiller in the Colonies, producing 11,500 gallons of corn whiskey a year at Mount Vernon.

On July 4, 1776, when the members of the Second Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence, every signer was known to drink home-brewed whiskey, with the Declaration’s initial signatory, John Hancock, being a prominent distiller in Boston, as part of his successful mercantile business.

Ironically only eighteen years later, following the American Revolution, then-president Washington was compelled to put down the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794, which arose after he levied taxes against America’s large and small distillers at different levels—with the smaller and more-numerous producers taxed more heavily—to pay down the Revolutionary War debt.

Today, when people think of moonshine, they flash to Prohibition and the later rise of NASCAR, whose originators had evolved only slightly from the bootleg movers they’d been a year—or a day—earlier. In 1941, when Lloyd Seay won the National Stock Car Championship, it is said the Ford coupe he drove had—a dozen hours before—been on a moonshine run. The day after his victory, Seay was shot and killed by his cousin in an argument over one of moonshine’s central components: sugar.

But while Prohibition’s repeal in 1933 slowed home distilling in most parts of the country, the practice remained robust in the American Southeast, where moonshine has continued to live quietly, spreading out and developing in semiretirement. These days, the 120- to 150-proof product comes in three forms: the classic palate-searing “white,” the smoky brownish “char” (which has usually been aged in charred oak barrels), and the newest and overwhelmingly popular “flavored,” in varieties such as apple pie, cherry, peach, and strawberry.

So after a period of dormancy when the stuff virtually disappeared from broad public use, over the past few years moonshine’s low-cost lure has slowly worked its way back into public favor—largely for reasons involving the current economic climate, a fashionable new cultural love of “artisanal” foods, and a certain, uh, displeasure with the federal government. This is particularly true for the American Southeast.

 “These days, what moonshine means has changed economically,” says Chris Baker, Ph.D., a professor of sociology at Walters State Community College in Morristown, Tennessee. “At one time, making moonshine was a financial imperative. You had piles of harvested corn and steep mountains to get it over in slow-moving farm wagons. It was much easier—and more cost effective—to transport and sell it in distilled form. And those old distillers needed money. Shoes had to be bought.”

It goes by countless names, but no matter what you call it, moonshine is experiencing a golden age—and it tastes pretty good too

Today, Baker says, most modern moonshiners have made an active choice to keep their tradition alive. “They’re selecting this from a far wider array of economic options,” he says. “Like other populations in America, moonshiners have become postmodern. They might farm, sure, but they also might work an office job; they travel recreationally far from their homes. They have favorite Caribbean islands, favorite hotels in Las Vegas—but they still choose to make moonshine as a personal preference. It ties them to their land, to the traditions of that land.”

To test Baker’s statement, I later ask my friend D. if he has a favorite place to stay in Las Vegas.
“Oh yeah, absolutely,” he tells me. “If it’s my choice? The Bellagio.”

Legal Matters
Among other aspects of moonshine’s renaissance, it also seems to be thriving because law enforcement is distracted by other concerns.

“These days, we’re pretty busy chasing illegal weapons and violent criminals—mostly gangs,” says Steve Cordell, agent in charge for the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) in Knoxville, Tennessee. “Like everywhere else these days, East Tennessee has developed a gang problem that keeps us occupied. But I will say we’ve seen a rise in the making of moonshine over the last few years. For a while it went away, and now it’s returned some…and I can’t tell you exactly why. Still, it’s probably impossible to calculate how big today’s illegal whiskey industry is, but it is around.”

And in that part of the world, it’s remained pretty gettable, too. In fact, the most famous moonshiner in East Tennessee only recently shut down his still for good. On January 26 of this year, Marvin “Popcorn” Sutton was finally—with his fourth moonshining conviction since the 1970s—given his first prison term, his three previous convictions having resulted in probational sentences. Despite having been convicted of moonshining in the past, Popcorn would openly sell his “likker,” as he called it, to virtually anyone who wanted it, either from the still house on his farm, in Parrottsville, Tennessee, or from his antiques shop just over the state line in Maggie Valley, North Carolina.

A scrawny, deeply funny man with a fan of gray beard that always covered the top of his overalls bib, Popcorn openly showed his distilling techniques for broadcast on the History Channel and the Discovery Channel. Then, after a 2007 fire at his still house that required the local authorities to put it out—and revealed roughly 900 gallons of already finished White Lightning on his farm, plus another 798 gallons nearby—Popcorn was headed for court again.

“Mr. Sutton,” asked federal judge Ronnie Greer at Popcorn’s sentencing in January, “what am I supposed to do with you?”

In the end, despite Popcorn’s pleading that he would “never again make whiskey,” and despite a fearsome populist campaign from YouTube and Facebook to the local newspapers, Judge Greer sentenced an ailing sixty-two-year-old Popcorn to eighteen months in federal prison, on one count of illegally producing and selling untaxed liquor, and a second count of possessing firearms as a convicted felon. “I regret that your behavior has brought us to this,” the judge said. “Mr. Sutton, good luck.”
Popcorn, like everyone in the courtroom that day, was stunned. “Mister,” he told me afterward as he waited under house arrest for orders to report to prison, “what Judge Greer gave me? It’s a death sentence.”

Popcorn wasn’t kidding. On March 16, still under house arrest, his orders to present himself at federal prison finally arrived. And in a characteristically obstreperous Popcorn Sutton move, he proved one last time that the confinements of conventional society didn’t apply to him. Taking a length of hose out to his beloved Ford Fairlane, Popcorn connected one end to the car’s tailpipe and ran the other inside the vehicle’s passenger compartment, closed all the car’s windows, and, sitting inside, started the engine.

He was found dead by his wife a few hours later, the car’s engine still running. His obituary was published in newspapers across the country, including a particularly sensitive half-page “Remembrance” in the Wall Street Journal.

Still, Popcorn Sutton aside, Agent Steve Cordell of the ATF says moonshine remains far down the agency’s list of priorities. He also notes that, several times a year, often during the investigation of other crimes, large-scale moonshine distillers are sometimes uncovered and apprehended. Though what they see more often are scraps of evidence that moonshine distilling continues to exist.

“If we’re conducting a weapons raid up, say, in northeast Tennessee, it’s a very normal thing to find a couple of gallons of moonshine around the site, too,” he says. “It’s something ingrained in that culture. But in those cases, mostly, it’s not being sold. It’s being traded and given away at parties. It’s just part of life there.”

Basement Brew
This combination of law-enforce-ment distraction and laissez-faire is most likely another contributing reason for moonshine’s resurgence. And that’s a good thing for another moonshining friend, E., who lives in a small- to medium-size city somewhere north of the Tennessee-Virginia line.

Employed in the tech industry, E. got into moonshining four years ago. “I don’t know why, exactly,” he says. “A friend and I just got curious. We’d been seeing moonshine getting passed around at bluegrass festivals and things, and we wanted to try to make it ourselves.”

Standing in a well-lit cinder-block room beneath his house—a room closed off from the rest of the basement by a heavy wooden door—E. has one hand resting on his still: a 100 percent copper ten-gallon pot with a peaked Georgia Ridge–style top, all of it resting atop a gas-powered fryer burner to provide distillation heat. 

Before stepping to the still, E. has already pointed out three five-gallon sealed buckets in which he creates a pre-cook “mash”: a mix of seven pounds of cracked corn, seven pounds of sugar, water, and yeast. When the ingredients have fully fermented to create a moonshiner’s mash-y “beer”—it takes about ten days for the fermentation to go flat, killing all the yeast—the time for distilling has arrived.

E. dumps ten gallons of the mash into the still’s cylindrical bottom, seals the still’s peaked top tightly with a rubber grommet, attaches the condenser coil or “worm” to the tiny aperture at the top of the still, and adjusts the still’s interior heat to precisely 190 degrees Fahrenheit. Within an hour or two, 120-plus-proof alcohol—which evaporates at a lower temperature than water—begins rising from the mash and moving into the copper tubing of the condenser coil, whose exterior is cooled by water. Eventually, as the distilled steam moves through the condenser, it cools back into liquid, emerging from the coil as “first run” moonshine.

E. points to a chart on the wall next to his still, which tracks the correlation between cooking temperature and the strength of the alcohol trickling from the condenser’s tip. “That’s one of the things I love about this—it’s all science,” he says. “At 190 degrees, we get a product that’s 58.5 percent alcohol. It’s that simple. Sure, it takes time and a little attention. Each run needs about twelve hours to finish, and you don’t ever want to be too far away from a still when it’s working, but it’s worth putting the time in.”

He then goes on to show how, after the first run, he repeats the process, “doubling” his liquor to get rid of any residual methyl alcohol by-products, checking its percentage of alcohol at the same time with a hydrometer that floats just ahead of the tip of his condenser. To complete the process, he stores the finished whiskey for several months in charred oak barrels, which he buys from a producer in Arkansas. Each run makes roughly eight gallons.

“And then it’s ready to drink,” he says, adding that, most years, he makes a few hundred gallons and largely gives it away to friends. “It’s just for fun.”

Proudly, he points out that with the exception of the corn and sugar (which are bought at the local Tractor Supply Co. and a supermarket), the rest of his kit was purchased online. “You can get everything there,” he says. “I bought the still for $450. We buy barrels from one place and distiller’s yeast from another. The suppliers ship it all to me, via UPS.”

We drink. The sour mash is amazing. Smooth, clean tasting. Better than most commercial bourbons.
“You know, I’ll bet 90 percent of what I know about making whiskey I learned online,” E. says. “There are online chat groups devoted to it. On one, there are at least five hundred active members. We trade information: mistakes and successes we’ve had. The rest of what I’ve learned is mostly through trial and error. And it’s turned out to be really fun. Everybody says, ‘If you’ll keep at it for two years, you’ll learn to make a pretty good whiskey.’ And they’re right.”

Open for Business
Contrary to statements by some federal officials, today there remain dozens of “known” large commercial distillers moving untaxed corn whiskey in the American Southeast. And as the newer stripe of boutique-batch moonshine has started creeping into the culture, it has started showing up in some of the South’s hipper restaurants, where it’s sometimes served surreptitiously to favored patrons.

But the happiest moonshiner in the region no longer even has to hide from the authorities. His name is Chuck Miller, and he’s been making the only legal corn whiskey off a farm since, as he puts it, “George Washington himself was in the distilling business.”

Working on 124 acres of corn, hay, and cattle livestock, Miller and his wife, Jeanette, got into legal moonshining for the same reasons his predecessors did. “We had five children, and I had to think about supporting them, paying for college,” Miller says. “And that was hard on 124 farm acres by doing traditional farming, but I had to elevate income off the farm. So, back in the late 1970s, Virginia wanted to support a local wine industry, and for a few years, I tried to make wine. But, man, that was hard work.”

Then one day, several years after abandoning his wine-making endeavor, Miller stepped back, looked at all the corn growing on his property, and thought: “My granddad was a moonshiner, though my father decided not to do it. And I thought, if you can make wine legally, why can’t you make legal corn whiskey? So I called the ATF and the state authorities and said, ‘I want to make corn whiskey.’ And, somewhat to my surprise, they said: ‘Okay, but you’ll have to do the paperwork.’”

Remarkably, both state and federal authorities were not only helpful, they provided expertise and financial assistance. Miller points to the two-thousand-gallon copper-pot still, built back in 1933, which he found for sale in a nearby county. “The government actually helped me to buy this,” he says.

Certainly, there were hurdles on the way to Miller’s success. For example, while both of his corn whiskey products—Virginia Lightning (white) and Kopper Kettle (a char made with corn, wheat, and barley)—emerge from the double distilling process at 150 proof, Miller must water them down to 100 proof, the strongest alcohol allowed for sale in Virginia and surrounding states. To get acceptable water for this, Miller had to install a $50,000 five-level water purification system, which, like the distilling machinery, is regularly inspected by state and federal officials.

Most of the rest of his operation, however, issues from Miller’s own homeplace. And because his family recipe is a purist one, which doesn’t employ the use of sugar, even that “exotic ingredient” is left out of the mix.

“I grow and harvest my own corn,” he says. “We start with good limestone-filtered springwater from our own earth. The only thing we buy is yeast. And Jeanette and I do most of this ourselves. We run one batch a week. Then each Thursday, I have three women who come in and put labels on the bottles and who help me keep the place clean. I sell it to the state for seven dollars a bottle, and they slap another seven dollars in state and federal taxes on it, and sell it themselves, so I don’t even have to fool with marketing.” A cat-who-ate-the-canary grin is now resting on Miller’s face.

In the past few years, in fact, the Millers’ products have even developed an international following. “One of our biggest markets for Kopper Kettle is Japan,” Miller says. “You’d be amazed how much we ship there. It’s actually kind of famous there.”

Miller also notes that, these days, because his is the moonshine the authorities know and trust, it’s become the measure against which all illegal brews are judged. “When they catch an illegal moonshiner with his goods,” Miller says, “they put it through a spectrometer to see how it compares with mine in terms of toxins and impurities. It’s kind of funny to think of, but we’ve become what the standard for moonshine is. And I guess that’s something, right?”

And what of the financial imperatives that birthed his business? “Oh, moonshine’s been very good to us,” Miller says. All five children are now adults, Jeanette adds. All are professionals—and all college and graduate-school educated. Miller grins and shakes his head. ”And that corn whiskey,” he says, “it paid for a lot of it.”