We usually think of bourbon whiskey as the true American spirit. But long before Pappy Van Winkle was mellowing in oak casks, it was moonshine that largely began America’s tumultuous relationship with liquor.
That’s the story from author Jaime Joyce’s newly released work Moonshine: A Cultural History of America’s Infamous Liquor [2014, Zenith Press]. The book is a faithful account of the reasons for moonshining’s rise and fall. It tells of the never-ending game of cat and mouse waged by shiners and revenue agents, brings to life the wild and wooly cast of characters running white lightning down rural backroads, and explains the spirit’s impact on American culture.
Joyce’s book deals with untaxed spirits from unlicensed stills, which moonshine is by definition. But now that Minnesota’s craft distillers are beginning to put white whiskey on the shelves, it’s a good time to revisit how the un-aged spirit first captured the imagination of the country and how it got the reputation that legal distillers are trying to break.
We spoke with Joyce to get her thoughts on America’s history with white lightning.
The Growler: Why write a book on moonshine? How did you get interested in this topic?
Jaime Joyce: To me, moonshine is the true American spirit, no pun intended. It represents the pioneering American spirit. There’s so much history with moonshine, and as a history buff, that appealed to me. And it’s liquor! So, I couldn’t resist.
Growler: Do you have a favorite historical anecdote from your research?
Joyce: There are so many characters. When we think of moonshiners, often there’s the picture of the man in the backwoods – the good old boy. But there were a lot of women doing it, and I found that really cool.
I loved was the link between Junior Johnson and NASCAR. I didn’t realize when I started the book the true direct connection between NASCAR and moonshine whiskey. It ended up being one of my favorite chapters. Junior Johnson is one of the most well known drivers out there, and he was so great to talk to. He told me all about his life growing up in North Carolina running whiskey for his dad.
I also loved the great Moonshine Conspiracy Trial in Franklin County, Virginia. The movie Lawless was based on this story. It was fascinating because of the characters, one of them being Willie Carter Sharpe. She was testifying in court and everyone was so thrilled by her because she had diamonds in her teeth.
Growler: What’s your take on the “character” of the moonshiner, especially in the early days, the 1700s and 1800s. One the one hand, they’re a romantic figure – the plucky entrepreneur fighting unjust taxation. On the other hand, they’re a hypocritical criminal that largely doesn’t care that they’re selling poison.
Joyce: In the early days, that was the Whiskey Rebellion. People were saying “this is unfair, we just fought a war to get away from taxation and how dare you try to come tax this whiskey we’re making?” But the way they responded to it was pretty brutal – all the tarring and feathering, and kidnapping. Was it justified? I can’t say. It was a different time. They were fighting for what they believed in.
Growler: When the government responded to moonshining, through tax policies and local enforcement, did they exacerbate the problem or were they just caught between a rock and a hard place?
Joyce: I think it’s the latter. Moonshining was rampant, particularly in the early days. Going back through all the archival documents on the IRS’ website, they tell this narrative of moonshiners and the revenue agents who were tracking them. Bringing them to justice was not easy. It was being made in the back woods. The revenue agents were on horseback. There were no overhead planes with heat sensors on them. It was hard, brutal work.
Growler: You mention in the book about the circumstances giving rise to moonshining in rural areas – that jobs were scarce it seemed like the best way to make a living. How much of that do you buy? Was it truly their only option or was that an easy justification?
Joyce: I really think that was the case, especially in the South and certainly in the depression. But you have to couple that with the fact it was a tradition, from the Scots-Irish coming into the pre-United States. So family tradition coupled with a bleak economic picture – it makes sense that people would do it. And there was no shame in it. And so many of the revenue agents, they lived in the same communities as the people making the moonshine, and often times they were related. It was an interesting balance.
Growler: What is moonshine’s most important cultural legacy?
Joyce: The pop culture influence, especially the music. I include a playlist in the book of songs all about moonshine. They tell this real American story of what moonshine is. And the movies – Thunder Road is a classic. Also on TV, like The Andy Griffith Show. As an adult looking back on that, there was a lot of illegality going on there! The Dukes of Hazzard, I sure didn’t realize as a kid that they were talking about running moonshine.
Growler: In your talks with modern distillers, what are their thoughts on white whiskey as a craft spirit? It’s just a small sliver of the whiskey market, I wonder whether people even know what to do with it.
Joyce: But it’s really growing, and there are many reasons. It’s happening all over the US, with all these craft distilleries opening, one way to support your business is to make a white whiskey. You can get a product out right away. Death’s Door Distillery in Wisconsin – when they were getting started, they wanted to support agriculture in the region. One of their distributors suggested making a white whiskey and it became a phenomenon. But in a larger sense, you’ve even got moonshiners on TV! There’s so much interest in it. There are reports that white whiskey is one of the fastest growing sections of sprits. And that will continue as more craft distilleries open up.
(Interview edited for clarity and length.)