2009-03-18 / Top News

Moonshine: a colorful side of American history with a kick

BY E.I. ROTTERSMAN news@floridaweekly.com

How 'bout a little moonshine with your sunny side eggs?

Well it wasn't exactly like that but Sanibel Captiva Rotary Club members sipped a little something other than orange juice during a recent morning breakfast meeting on Sanibel.

The members take turns making presentations to the group every meeting.

A group of members encouraged part-time Sanibel resident Haskel Ayers to talk about moonshine and his hometown of Stinky River, Tenn.

For starters — making moonshine, also known as white lightning, corn liquor or even rot gut — is not legal.

But the homemade booze occupies one of the shelves — perhaps not a top shelf — of American history. It's also part of the rebel character of our nation — since moonshiners defied the law to make the alcohol, often in the secrecy of backwoods and barns.

"It's just become a way of life," Mr. Ayers said.

Moonshine is any kind of alcohol — typically whiskey — that is made in secret to avoid high taxes or outright bans. The term "moonshine" comes from Britain, where it originally was a verb, "moonshining," that referred to any job or activity that was done late at night.

Moonshine history

Moonshining began very early in American history.

Shortly after the Revolution, the United States found itself struggling to pay off an expensive war. The government decided to place a federal tax on liquors and spirits. But the American people, who had just fought a war to get out from under oppressive British taxes, were not thrilled. So they decided to just keep on making their own alcohol, disregarding the federal tax.

For these early moonshiners, making and selling alcohol wasn't just for fun or a few extra bucks — it was a means of survival. Farmers could survive a bad year by turning their corn into profitable whisky, and the extra income made a harsh frontier existence almost bearable. To them, paying the tax meant they wouldn't be able to feed their families.

Federal agents (called "Revenuers") were attacked when they came around to collect the tax, and several were tarred and feathered.

Still there is the basic rebellious core of us as Americans that led us to perpetuate the moonshine world. The desire to drink the "forbidden fruit" can entice buyers of moonshine.

What's in the stuff

Moonshine is typically made with a corn mash — fermented corn and water, but Mr. Ayers, 73, whose past generations of family members made the alcohol, said anything that can sour will do for the brew. He said once the alcohol is distilled from corn mash it creates a whopping 100 proof alcohol.

Aside from its purpose as a an alcoholic beverage, moonshine has been used an elixir and medicine for families, Mr. Ayers said.

Dangerous booze

Despite all that has changed about moonshining in the last 200 years, with the advent of technology, one thing remains the same: it's illegal.

Home-brewed beer and amateur winemaking are legal, but they can only be made in small quantities. Homebrewing is a different activity from distilling alcohol, and distilling is definitely illegal in any amount. The reason distilling at home is illegal is because it's too easy to make a mistake and create a harmful product, according to howstuff is made.com. Permits and licenses are required so the government can make sure the alcohol being produced is safe. Aside from this, the government wants its taxes paid.

However, moonshiners are rarely arrested or charged with making illegal liquor.

Because the operators of illegal whisky stills had to conduct their business out of the sight of authorities, often in the dense brush, these backwoods brewmasters became known as moonshiners.

Moonshiners are the people who actually make the alcohol. Bootleggers are the smugglers who transport and sell it.

Mr. Ayers said often county sheriff's would have the job of tracking and finding moonshiners. During prohibition, federal agents focused on the bigger towns and cities rather than small communities — leaving the job in county hands.

Mr. Ayers, who experienced the moonshine trade as a small child, is no stranger to the danger. He lost his father, John Ayers, in 1943 during a shootout with authorities at his home over moonshine.

Mr. Ayers was 7 at the time of the confrontation between his dad and the authorities. Officers even made young Mr. Ayers put his little hands in the air during the raid. "I was with him when he died." he said. His father's death was a life-changing event for the family and moonshine would never play a major role with Mr. Ayers or his siblings. Aside from a few presentations about moonshine, Mr. Ayers, a successful hotelier and businessman, never touches the stuff.

"I became a teetotaler," he said. Anyone who would like to experience a bit more of the moonshine world can check out the Moonshine Festival in Dawsonville, Ga. Held the fourth weekend in October, The Mountain Moonshine Festival explores the history during the Prohibition era when liquor was illegal and running moonshine through the foothills was a way of life.

Visitors can see an old Moonshine still; listen to stories from the "Tripper's" and Revenuer's. For more information, visit Dawsonville's Web site at www.dawsonville.com.

Moonshine

The recipe for moonshine is simple: It's just corn meal, sugar, yeast and water.

Sometimes, other ingredients are included to add flavor or kick. Alcohol can actually be distilled from almost any kind of grain (the earliest American moonshiners used rye or barley), but virtually all moonshine made in the United States for the last 150 years has been made with corn.

So, what makes moonshine different from the whiskey you find on the shelf at a liquor store? Aside from the obvious differences between something made in a sanitized production facility and something made at night in the woods, the primary difference is aging. When whisky comes out of the still, it's so clear it looks like water. Moonshiners bottle it and sell it just like that.

Commercial alcohols have an amber or golden color to them -- this is because they are aged for years in charred oak barrels. The aging process gives them color and mellows the harsh taste. There's no such mellowing with moonshine, which is why it has such "kick."

Source: Howstuffgetsmade.com

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