A Brief History
The term “moonshine” technically refers to any illegally produced alcohol in general. In fact, the first American incantations of moonshine originated in Pennsylvania and other grain-producing states. Farmers took to distilling their leftover grain products, and various forms of illicit alcohol were produced in homemade “stills” or distillation apparatuses.
As moonshine rose in popularity throughout many grain-producing regions, Scotch-Irish settlers in the Appalachian area were producing a very similar elixir. Known in Gaelic as “the water of life,” their recipe produced corn mash-based white whiskey, which they drank without aging. This became the recipe of choice in the Appalachian region and down into the South, creating what we know today as “white lightning,” “mountain dew,” “shine,” and the like.
Moonshiners began springing up across the foothills, even down into the transitional mountains of the Sequatchie Valley, Chattanooga, and through the Cumberland Plateau. Locally, there are numerous tributes to the history of moonshining in the area. The Dunlap Coke Ovens Coal Mining Museum in Dunlap, the old moonshine still site found on the Savage Gulf Day Loop Trail in South Cumberland State Park, the McMinn County Living Heritage Museum in Athens, and a smokehouse in Monteagle are just a few nearby places with monuments erected to the Southern tradition of moonshining.
Tax impositions put on whiskey production in the late 1700s led to a raucous citizen uprising known as the Whiskey Rebellion. And well into the 20th century, home distilling continued to be on the outside of the law. The need to keep whiskey production secret inspired evasive moonshiners to hide their stills throughout the mountains, where the varied terrain lent itself to keeping the copper cooking stills well-hidden. Those who made moonshine often partnered with someone who was willing to transport their product to buyers. The brave few who dared to sneak the illegal drink to paying patrons became known as “bootleggers,” since they often hid bottles in the tops of their boots. Eventually, as cars came onto the scene, bootleggers began juicing up their engines and creating crafty hiding compartments to make evading law enforcement easier. The talented and fast-paced driving skills of these bootleggers are credited with beginning the tradition of NASCAR racing.
While there is no longer a need to distill moonshine in the caves and hills of the mountains or run from the law with a bottle tucked away, moonshine only became legal in the United States in 2010, when the production of clear, unaged whiskey became legal.