Moonshine on the Mountain
Strong drink has been a traditional way to unwind and celebrate over the centuries. Cheers to the spirits of the Appalachian people with the corn whiskey they so lovingly create! Several lifetimes ago, Irish and Scottish immigrants brought their culture and home-brewed alcohol to the Appalachian Mountains. The most popular drink was an Irish/Scots recipe called “uisce beatha.” The Gaelic phrase means, “the water of life,” and for many, it was. This simple family mix was the very root of moonshine.
Distillers were the masters of their trade. The strength and flavor of moonshine would vary according to individual’s technique. A homemade still, which sometimes appeared as a pile of pots and junk, was a familiar sight and scent in the Appalachians. Corn was the most common ingredient used when distilling. The maize was hearty and had an extended shelf life. Shiners profited, and drinkers were merry until the government forced increased taxation.
The distilling community began to hide their product to evade increasingly heavy taxes. This tax evasion led to the 1920 National Prohibition Enforcement Act, banning all alcohol sale and manufacturing. Since selling shine was a reliable source of income and enjoyment, many mountain folks chose to ignore these new restrictions. Illegal moonshine flourished, inevitably becoming the focus of complications with the law. Illicit brewers had to conceal their stills and work whiskey magic in secret.
Moonshine Goes Underground: Literally!
With government pressure mounting, these moonlight entrepreneurs headed to the caves and hidden rock houses near freshwater sources. Moonshiners mapped cave systems and hid their big equipment as best they could. There are several hidden caverns in the Great Smoky Mountains that were renowned for shiners. One of which is Forbidden Caverns in Sevierville, Tennessee. Tours include not only beautiful natural formations but also historical artifacts like lanterns and still reproductions. It is a fitting memorial to the famed Appalachian distillers.
The breathtaking Red River Gorge National Forest hosts another popular moonshiner location. Large rock house caves are located on 140 acres with a natural creek water source. Moonshine Caverns has an old spring, trails, and the ruins of what was once a thriving business. Rusted stills, piping, and old lanterns remain, along with the faint scent of alcohol wafting through the caverns. If you want a piece of moonshine history, ironically, this land is for sale.
Moonshine Marketing: Corn Liquor Goes Mainstream
After over a decade of fighting, in 1933 the NPEA was repealed. Alcohol became legal again, but there were restrictions. Brewing corn whiskey without proper licensing was illegal, but that didn’t stop dedicated Appalachian distillers. Moonshiners are still gaining fame and infamy in the Appalachians to this day.
Marvin Popcorn Sutton might have been the most famous moonshiner in the Appalachian Mountains. His century-old family recipe became Popcorn Sutton’s Tennessee White Whiskey. He wrote a book called, “Me and my Likker,” in 1966, and appeared on “Most Shocking Moonshine Madness,” on the Country Music Channel. This renowned shiner never stopped shining. He was caught with 650 gallons of untaxed whiskey during 2007 and an additional 850 gallons in 2008.
Hank Williams Jr. had a fondness for Appalachian moonshine, and after trying Sutton’s recipe, he wanted to share the experience. The country music singer partnered with the infamous distiller’s daughter to produce the white whiskey. Together, they opened the official Popcorn Sutton’s Distilling in Newport Tennessee. Hank Williams III continued the Williams tribute to Popcorn, with the 2010 country song “Moonshiner’s Life.” Popcorn passed away before sentencing, but not before seeing his legacy immortalized.
The Appalachian Mountain shiners are part of the hillbilly culture. Old recipes passed down keep traditions alive, but more coveted. Moonshine is available in a barrage of flavors at most local liquor stores, but it won’t be brewed from a hidden still. Don’t give up, though. Authentic corn whiskey can occasionally be found tucked away in an Appalachians Mountain general store. You can always try Popcorns!