The History of Moonshine

Jun 30th 2022

Moonshine is as much a part of Americana as the drive-in movie or baseball. The very name conjures up images of secret stills hidden deep in the woods and guarded by miserly old-timers. However, the mythology and romance which surrounds moonshine belies it's importance to American culture over the years. It has played a significant part in American history from the War of Independence to the days of Al Capone and Prohibition.

Early Production Methods
Despite being a uniquely American venture, the production of moonshine probably has it's roots in Scotland, England and Ireland. Settlers in areas such as Appalachia sought to create an alcoholic drink such as the illicit whisky and poteen they had enjoyed back in their countries of birth. They managed to do this by fermenting a mash made from Indian corn and then adding sugar, yeast and water. Early attempts at moonshine resulting in a liquid which was fairly weak, but moonshiners soon found that by distilling the liquid three times they were able to produce a liquor with considerable kick. This triple-distillation led to the famous 'triple-X' branding of jars.

The Origins of Moonshine
Following the American Revolution the newly founded American nation found it's self struggling financially. The war had left the state with huge debts and in a bid to raise revenue a tax on spirits and liquor was imposed. As most of the population was struggling to make ends meet, and given that much of the War of Independence was a reaction against imperialist taxes imposed by the British, the people reacted angrily with many choosing to distil their own alcohol while refusing to pay the government their taxes. This soon became a source of considerable income for farmers. The alcohol they produced helped provide for their families while generating the profits required to pay rent on their assets. Needless to say the government wasn't happy at losing out on their cut of this booming industry and tax collectors were sent out. These visits often resulted in violence and trouble escalated as the Treasury issued a militia force to curb the conflicts. While this succeeded in halting the violence, it drove the alcohol producers underground and the concept of moonshining was born. Thomas Jefferson later repealed the whiskey tax and for the next 60 years or so people were free to produce their own liquor, but the costs incurred by the Civil War saw the tax reintroduced and moonshining was once again forced underground.

A Booming Industry and Decline
The transformation of moonshine from a localised business into a nationwide industry came with the Prohibition Act of 1920. The ban on alcohol production, sale and consumption meant that people had to turn to alternative suppliers to get a drink. The difficulties of importing alcohol from abroad saw a boom in the production of moonshine. The demand for moonshine was at an all time high with speakeasies often run by gangsters requiring copious amounts of liquor to keep customers happy. It was a golden age for moonshiners which lasted until the Prohibition Act was repealed in 1933. Moonshine production declined sharply after this, but there is still a sizeable community who carry on the work of their forefathers by manufacturing home-made hooch.

It is difficult to think of any other 'hobbies' which have had as much of an impact on American society. What started off as a way for people to enjoy a drink and make a little extra money on the side turned into a multi-million dollar industry and gave rise to some of the most notorious criminals the country has ever seen. Even today TV Shows such as Moonshiners and Boardwalk Empire pay tribute to this most American of industries. And while this industry may be minimal compared to in it's heyday you get the impression that as long as there is corn to be mashed and a still to be used there will be people making moonshine.

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