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The History of Moonshine

Making moonshine is one of the activities which goes way back in American history and has survived impressive obstacles, from high taxes and illegality, to diminished quality and the threat of large commercial producers.

People started making their own moonshine right after the American Revolution in the 1770s. As the state was weak and struggling to pay its war debts, a federal tax on liquors and spirits was placed. But people were already having a hard time simply getting by, not to mention paying their now oppressive taxes to the state, so they began to make their own alcohol.

The interesting thing is this didn’t start off as a hobby or for personal consumption purposes. For a large majority, this was actually their way to survive. Farmers could turn their corn into profitable whiskey, and the extra income helped them feed their families and keep their assets, as the taxes were so high they barely got by. Federal agents, called Revenuers, were attacked when they came around to collect the tax; there are even famous stories which talk about some having been tarred and feathered. There were rebellions and constant clashes between moonshiners and authorities, with some of the most famous gun fights having taken place in those times. As these conflicts escalated in the 1860s, together with the state trying to fund the Civil War from excise taxes, the Temperance Movement, which sought to ban alcohol altogether, became more and more popular.

The greatest ‘blessing’ for moonshiners came in 1920 when nationwide Prohibition went into effect, the law that banned alcohol sale, manufacture, transportation (bootlegging) and consumption. Suddenly, with no legal alcohol available, moonshine was in such great demand that moonshiners could barely keep up with orders. This resulted into the production of poor quality, sugar-based or watered-down moonshine. Organized crime flourished as speakeasies opened in every town – secret saloons with hidden doors, passwords and escape routes in case of federal raids. In many rural towns, small speakeasies and blind pigs were operated by local business owners. The poor quality bootleg liquor sold there was responsible for a shift away from 19th century 'classic' cocktails, which celebrated the raw taste of liquor, to new cocktails aimed at masking the taste of rough moonshine.

When Prohibition ended, in 1933, the market for moonshine collapsed. With commercial distilleries producing on large scales, alcohol became cheaper and making moonshine was not a means to an economic end anymore. However, moonshine continued to be a problem for federal authorities into the 1960s and '70s. Even today, many prefer to make their own moonshine. Whether out of passion for distilling or the simple desire to defy government authority, moonshiners still form an impressive community in the United States.

Posted by Jason Stone on


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