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Few topics have inspired more bluegrass and old time song writing than the subject of moonshining. The New Lost City Ramblers devoted an entire LP to the subject called Prohibition is a Failure. And the fascination with the subject continues to the present day with songwriters like Greg Liszt of the Deadly Gentlemen:

Been a moonshiner since the day I was born,
I drunk up all my money and I stilled up all my corn,
Been a moonshiner and I’m numb to pain,
If you could have been me, You’d have done the same,

Recently I read a very interesting book called Our Southern Highlanders. It was written by Horace Kephart, who lived among the people of the Smoky Mountains during the early 20th century. Kephart spent the last half of his life in the mountains he loved and was instrumental in garnering support for the establishment of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. In his book, he spends a considerable amount of time describing the practice of moonshining and what it meant to the local inhabitants.Small scale distilling was well known to the Scots Irish settlers of the area. Although illegal here in the states, distilling for personal use is still allowed in some parts of the British Isles and the hardscrabble inhabitants of the Smokies saw no reason to be deprived of their tradition. As one local said: “Taxes cost mebbe three cents on the dollar; and that’s all right. But revenue costs a dollar and ten cents on twenty cents’ worth o’ liquor; and that’s robbin’ the people with a gun to their faces.”

Kephart gives some very interesting background on how the stills are hidden and on how dangerous it can be to go snooping around certain areas in the backwoods. You can find Kephart’s book at your local library or even online. I recommend it as a good read, but I’ll bet you can find most of the same information just by listening to enough bluegrass.

Once two strangers climbed old Rocky Top
Looking for a moonshine still
Strangers ain’t come down from Rocky Top
Reckon they never will.

Corn won’t grow at all on Rocky Top
Ground’s too rocky by far
That’s why all the folks on Rocky Top
Get their corn from a jar.

Need a recipe? Just listen to the Country Gentlemen:

Get you a copper kettle, get you a copper coil
Fill it with new made corn mash and never more you’ll toil
You’ll just lay there by the juniper while the moon is bright
Watch them jugs a-filling in the pale moonlight.

Build you a fire with hickory, hickory, ash and oak
Don’t use no green or rotten wood, they’ll get you by the smoke
You’ll just lay there by the juniper while the moon is bright
Watch them jugs a-filling in the pale moonlight.

Want to know how much moonshine is going to cost you? Just ask Peter Rowan:

I’ve been a moonshiner for many long years
I spend all of my money on whiskey and beer
I’ll go down to some holler and set up my still
I’ll sell you a gallon for a two dollar bill.

Apparently the price has come down since the days of Kephart: “Blockade whiskey, until recently, sold to the consumer at from $2.50 to $3.00 a gallon.” If the price is too low, one has wonder if adulterated brew is being sold. All manner of additional toxins can be used to spike a batch of moonshine and give it more “kick” or make it pass the various field tests used to estimate its proof. When I was in medical school I treated people with kidney failure caused by exposure to heavy metals from drinking moonshine that was made in automobile radiators. Everyone knows that wood alcohol and isopropyl alcohol are more dangerous to consume than good old ethyl alcohol, but in this unregulated industry it’s strictly caveat emptor.

I grew up in the foothills of the Blue Ridge mountains. Although I never was much of a consumer of “white lightning”, I did know that its taste was prized among many of the locals. And two very important principles were invariably followed when drinking one’s spirits from a Mason jar. Number one, know the person who offered you the swig extremely well, well enough to trust them with your health. And number two: don’t go looking for a bargain. You can expect to actually pay more for the better moonshine than you would for legal whiskey.

Those of you looking for a bargain, stick to bluegrass, where the price of moonshine is consistently low:

Dooley, slipping up the holler
Dooley, trying to make a dollar
Dooley, gimme a swaller
And I’ll pay you back some day.

Or what has to be almost everybody’s favorite moonshine song:

There’s a big hollow tree down the road here from me
Where you lay down a dollar or two
You stroll ’round the bend and you come back again
There’s a jug full of good old mountain dew

They call it that good old mountain dew
And them that refuse it are few
I’ll hush up my mug if you fill up my jug
With that good old mountain dew

I close with my favorite joke about that good old “whiskey in the jar”. This one I learned from Clint Howard:

It seems there was this fellow from New York who was visiting the mountains of North Carolina. He was walking up a gravel road and he met an old man coming the other way who was carrying a jug in one hand and a shotgun in the other hand. They talked for a while and after a bit the old man offered the New Yorker a swig from his jug.

“No thanks”, said the New Yorker. “I only drink bonded whiskey. I’d be afraid to drink that stuff”.

“Oh, go on and take a drink”, said the old man. “It’ll be OK”.

“No thanks”, said the city slicker. “I’d rather not”.

Suddenly, the old man lifts his shotgun and points it straight at the New Yorker, point blank range: “I SAID. Take a drink of that moonshine licker.”

The New Yorker obliges with a big guzzle. He makes a face and coughs after his unwelcome swallow. “I believe that’s about the worst tasting stuff I’ve ever drank.”

“Heck, I know,” said the old man. “Now hold this shotgun on me so I can take a drink!”

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