These western North Carolina mountains have a rich history of moonshiners evading the revenuers. We met one of the local brewers back in 1991 as he was “cooking” at a local event. We spent a good hour that day listening to Jim Tom Hedrick’s stories. He was quite a local character back in those days and became a well known TV personality in 2012 when he first appeared on the Moonshiners Discovery Channel.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF MOONSHINING
“What contemptible scoundrel stole the cork from my lunch.” W. C. Fields
Being southern born with deep roots in rural Tennessee, North Carolina and South Carolina, I heard a few moon shining tales in my lifetime. My uncle used to tell me about his illegal business practices hidden in a cave in the banks of a backwoods Tennessee river. He moved on to more legal pursuits before the law caught-up with him.Jim Tom Hedrick
Shortly after relocating from the megalopolis of southeast Florida in 1991 to the backwoods of Robbinsville, North Carolina we met one of the moonshiners of the past. He was cooking 140 proof shine right in the open on the grounds of a well known local hotel. Jim Tom Hedrick with his thick country drawl entertained us for an hour with the adventures of his past, no doubt well embellished. He said he was just brewing ethanol so it was legal. Jim Tom was producing bio-fuels way ahead of his time!
Jim Tom went on to become somewhat of a local celebrity after being featured in several interviews, two movies and appearing in Matt Stillwell’s music video Shine in 2009. The video was actually filmed at Fontana Village located at the northern end of Moonshiner28. Then he made it really big in the Moonshiners television series on the Discovery Channel 2012 season. Today his face appears on bottles of legal shine sold by Sugarlands Distilling.
We own two of Jim Tom’s autographed custom miniature copper stills which have become great collector items. In spite of his fame we see Jim Tom just about every day in the warmer months riding the back roads of Graham County on his 50 cc cruiser. He makes the rounds to dumpster dive or sit a spell at the local mountain stores.
We also purchased a non-operational 40-gallon still from Jim Tom. It is a work of art and completely legal to own. It’s illegal to cook though, even for your personal consumption. According to Jim Tom back some 50 years ago when he learned to moonshine there were more than a hundred stills in operation around Robbinsville alone. Any that operate today are well hidden.
Jim Tom will proudly tell you that he holds the North Carolina State Record for DUIs with 21 (22 as of 2015). And he also holds the record for surviving the worst motorcycle wreck in history. According to him he hit a car head-on at better than 100 miles an hour and flew into the air some 300 feet high. CLICK HERE FOR STORY Yes, Jim Tom is quite a character.
History of Illegal Whiskey Making
The governmental taxing of whiskey and illegal distilling is not a new thing. The Whisky Rebellion of 1791 was a result of the Congress under President George Washington laying a tax on alcohol. Most of the distillers of the time were farmers who lived in remote areas where it was difficult to get their grain to market. To make use of their excess grain it was distilled. The “Whiskey Boys” of Pennsylvania, Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina protested the tax, sometimes violently. Tennessee and Kentucky, not yet in existence, offered safe haven for distillers or they too would have been a part of the protests.
The violence turned to armed rebellion in 1794. One tax collector had his head shaved, his horse stolen and was then tarred and feathered. Washington responded with a sizable militia ordered into the countryside to arrest and detain the unruly rabble. The suppression of the rebellion proved unpopular and became a detriment to the Federalist Party. The whisky tax was repealed in 1803.
The Civil War found a new whisky tax instituted to fund the Federal Government. The extremely high taxes were as much as eight times the cost of the liquor itself. Small distillers began hiding in the backwoods in order to avoid the taxes. The Revenue Bureau of the Treasury Department transformed their “collectors” into a policing authority. The moonshiners and revenuers were born.
From these early days of resistance to taxes we move into the early 1900s when the sale of alcohol was actually made illegal in many places. In an odd incongruity, the production of moonshine actually increased as more local municipalities heeded the outcries of the prohibition and temperance movements to make the sale of alcohol a crime. Prohibition also lowered the standards of quality as producers concentrated on making larger amounts to meet the increased demand. This substandard shine was termed “Mean Whisky” and could result in serious injury or even death. One medical problem, known as Jake Leg Syndrome, caused partial paralysis of the feet and legs after consuming a drink called Jake. Because of the underground nature of the business, health concerns were often ignored. Contaminants, bacteria, and poisonous additives sometimes created a potential danger to the consumer.
The term Moonshine comes from the fact that distilling illegal liquor is done underground or “in the moonlight”. The term bootlegger comes from early colonists who hid liquor in their boots in order to smuggle it to the Native Americans.
There are many different recipes for shine. Jim Tom says to “fill your barrel on up with water, put 60 pounds of sugar in it, and a gallon of sprout malt corn, that’s just sprouty corn to make it work, and cover it up. After about four days it will be ready to pour back in the still and run it through.”
The mash is then heated to about 175 degrees in the pot where vaporization occurs and flows into the “thumper” or “doubler” which acts as a second distillation. Without the doubler you have a “singlings” run which requires going through the entire distillation a second time to double the proof.
The vapor is then vented into a coil where it cools and condenses into shine ready to drink or sell. Stills were usually constructed in a remote area near a water source. Running cool water around the worm condenses the vapor into a liquid. The “thumper” was so named because of the sounds it make during production.
Some stills were actually made on wagons so they could be easily relocated. Today many are located indoors.
Moonshiners have always had a touch of folk hero status rather than being seen as criminals. A few years ago we were riding our KLRs on the back roads of Virginia and came upon the White Liquor Museum in the small town of Ferrum. We spent more than an hour touring the displays immortalizing the moonshiners of old Franklin County, known as the Moonshine Capital of Virginia. There was a still mock-up, a souped-up 1951 Ford pick-up truck that had been used for running, lots of local newspaper articles from the past and Moonshine T-shirts that glowed in the dark.
The Museum no longer has the display, but here is a link to their on-line page The History and Culture of Untaxed Liquor in the Mountains of Virginia. Be sure to CLICK on the various links in the CHAPTERS SECTION for some very detailed information.
Another moonshiner hailed as a hero in Maggie Valley was recently in the news again. Marvin “Popcorn” Sutton, age 61, committed suicide on March 16, 2009 rather than serve time in a Federal Prison for yet another arrest. Popcorn, who at the time of his demise lived near Parrotsville, Tennessee in the Appalachian Mountains, came from a long line of moonshiners in western North Carolina. According to him, “the heyday of moonshining was from 1965 to 1972 when you could buy likker about every 200 feet in places.”
One of Popcorn’s last arrests was in 2007 when a fire broke out at his home in Parrotsville and his stills were discovered. He was fined and sentenced to two years probation. He was arrested again in 2008 and at trial his illegal activities all the way back into the 1970s was presented.
He was sentenced to serve time and would have likely spent only a year or so in prison. He stubbornly refused to accept such treatment and committed suicide. Today he is a local folk hero for his mountain ways, rugged individualism and likker making skills. Some suggest that his death was staged and say that he stills roams the area.
Moonshine and NASCAR
Another famous moonshiner operated in Wilkes County North Carolina in the 1950s and 1960s. Willie Clay Call bragged that “my daddy was a moonshiner, and my grandpa was in it too”. His good friend Junior Johnson, whose own father ran a still, learned to drive fast by running shine. “Out on the highway, you’re a-runnin’ for your life.” He goes on to brag, “They never caught me a-hauling.” The revenuers did catch him once while working his father’s still and he did eleven months in the pen.
Like many other runners of the time Johnson’s cars were more powerful than those on the race track. The engines were bored and stroked, supercharged and turbocharged. The favorite engine was the Cadillac ambulance V-8s, the biggest engines available. Suspensions were heavily modified to carry the extra weight in the trunk. By comparison the revenuers cars were anemic and called “mechanical miscarriages” by the agents who drove them. Most shiners were caught on-foot, not on the highways.
After winning the Daytona 500 in 1960 Junior quit the moonshine business. Today he legally sells Junior Johnson’s Midnight Moon Carolina Moonshine, an 80 proof corn-based liquor.
In the 1950s moonshining was quite prevalent in the south. In the decade of 1954 to 1964 more than 72,000 stills were destroyed by federal agents in North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama and Mississippi.
But likker makin’ still goes on. A “white liquor” distiller in Wilkesboro was arrested in October 2009 and 929 gallons of moonshine was confiscated. Two brothers were arrested in Whitakers, North Carolina with 460 quarts of shine in November 2009. And in December 2009 community activist Gewndolyn Brown-Johnson of Charlotte was arrested for selling moonshine out of her child day care center. The distiller, 82 year-old Ervin Preston Finger, was arrested with 80 gallons of the hooch. Brown-Johnson said she didn’t know what was in the bag that the agent paid her $80 for.
Today you can legally buy a part of the past from a number of sources.
- Junior Johnson’s Midnight Moon Carolina Moonshine, an 80 proof corn-based liquor.
- Catdaddy Carolina Moonshine. This triple-distilled flavor moonshine is made in Madison, North Carolina and is totally legal. In shine circles the term Catdaddy described “the best of the best”.
- In 2011 another brand of moonshine came on the market. Troy and Sons 80 proof is distilled in Asheville.
- Ole Smoky, Sugarlands, Davey Crockey and Popcorn Suttons Distilleries are in Tennessee.
- Dark Corner Distillery in Greenville South Carolina makes a Stumphouse brand among others.
Thunder Road, the 1958 film starring Robert Mitchum, glorified the runners of the day. Most of the movie was filmed in western North Carolina. Some scenes were shot on the Dragon and Moonshiner28 itself. Other Hollywood moonshine movies fail to come close to the nostalgic popularity of Thunder Road with the theme song chorus, “Thunder, Thunder, over Thunder Road. Thunder was his engine, and white lightning was his load. Moonshine, moonshine, to quench the devil’s thirst. The law they never got him, ‘cause the devil got him first.”
Other moonshine movies: Why Kentucky Went Dry, Who’s Who in Hogg’s Hollow, Jerry and the Moonshiners all were corn pone comedies. Moonshine Mountain – 1964 gory; Moonshine War – 1970 Alan Alda; I Walk the Line – 1970 Gregory Peck; White Lightening – 1973 Burt Reynolds; Bootleggers – 1974; Female Moonshiners – 1975; Bad Georgia Road – 1977; Moonshine County Express – 1977; Ain’t No Way Back – 1989; Moonshine Highway – 1996; The Last One – 2008 Popcorn Sutton Emmy Award winner; and the two recent ones starring our own Jim Tom Hedrick. Jim Tom claims not to have been paid for these appearances, but he has sold his name to Sugarlands Distilling for a sizable sum.
Real moonshine comes in two “flavors” – legal and illegal. The essential difference is one is taxed and one is not. It’s all about the taxes. You can go into most any liquor store and buy moonshine such as Georgia Moon Corn Whiskey, Platte Valley Corn Whiskey or Catdaddy. The federal tax on a gallon of whiskey is $15.50.
It is legal to own a still; you can buy one online for less than $800. But if you want to produce any alcohol in your still, even for your own personal consumption, you need a federal permit. Under the alternative fuels law, you can make up to 10,000 gallons a year of ethanol, which can power engines when mixed with gasoline.
“Yes, you can have a still, but it must be permitted and you can produce spirits for fuel use only,” said Art Resnick, director of public and media affairs for the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau of the U.S. Treasury Department. “Let’s make this perfectly clear: It’s illegal to make moonshine, which is untaxed spirits.”
Even if a person wanted to make moonshine at home and pay federal taxes, it’s not that simple. It requires a federal distiller’s license and is cost-prohibitive for anyone other than a business.
Because of the difficulties in legally distilling your own spirits, a popular new home brewing underground is developing. Artisans are now busy making small batches of “craft” moonshine. The main idea is to create good tasting hooch for personal consumption rather than to produce large amounts for sale. This is still illegal. Oddly, home brewers can legally make beer and wine for personal use, but distilling liquor on an unlicensed still is a felony punishable with a $10,000 fine and up to 5 years in a federal penitentiary.
Why the difference between beer/wine and liquor? Money …. tax money to be specific. A bottle of whiskey is taxed more than $2 while the same size bottle of wine is about 20 cents. Beer is 5 cents a can. It is possible to obtain a license after going through reams of paperwork and spending some $20,000, but that is hardly worth it for the backyard distiller.
The first liquid out of the still was often unfit and sometimes poisonous so someone had to taste the shine as batches were cooked. The taster, risking his health for the good of the producer, determined when it was suitable for consumption. Jim Tom says that he discards the first quart out of a new still just to clean it out. After that it’s all good.
Other names for moonshine include: Branch Water, White Lightning, Kickapoo, Moonshine, Happy Sally, Ruckus Juice, Joy Juice, Hooch, Panther’s Breath, Mountain Dew, Hillbilly Pop, Skull Cracker, Bush Wisky, Stump, Mule Kick, Catdaddy, Cool Water, Old Horsey, Rot Gut, Wildcat, Rise’n Shine and Splo.
In a recent article on Salon.com a commenter wrote: “I had the pleasure of attending one of Terry Sanford’s famous “varmint dinners” at the president of Duke’s residence when I was a visiting lecturer there. Before becoming president of Duke, Terry had been governor of North Carolina and at one point in his career, an FBI agent. The varmint dinners consisted of dishes made from rattlesnake, possum, real Brunswick stew from squirrel, crow pie, which Terry baked himself, and other critters. There were glistening carcasses throughout the large living room, creating a rather spectacular environment. Terry was in Oshkosh overalls, and served the “white lightning” himself, pouring it with glee. He seemed to have an unlimited supply! It knocked your socks off and was somehow a perfect beverage to serve with the food, which was splendid. To this day, I have wondered how Terry pulled it off. All he confessed was that it was made in North Carolina in the mountains. And with a wry grin, he poured you some more.”