Moonshine is the libation that goes by many names: To some, it's white lightning, catdaddy, or Tennessee white whiskey. To others, it's alley bourbon, city gin, rotgut, or ruckus juice. Connoisseurs might wave you away from the stuff called popskull, so named because of the splitting headache it brings.
No matter what you call it, the spirit born in the shady, secret hollows of the Appalachians has come out into the light, and moonshine distilleries are on the rise. In Nashville, the Corsair Artisan Distillery advertises an un-aged rye whiskey and an experimental pumpkin spice whiskey that, a few years ago, more likely would have been found underground, only through friends of friends. In 2010, families with a long history of moonshining joined together to open Ole Smoky Tennessee Moonshine. Visitors to the distillery in Gatlinburg can see working stills, learn about the process and history, and sample the hooch.
In March of this year, the Tennessee government passed a bill that legalized distilleries in Cocke County, often referred to as "the moonshine capital of the nation." And in 2010, the Tennessee Department of Tourist Development began promoting the "White Lightning Trail," a 200-mile driving tour during which, according to the website, "you'll travel along the same route that rebel bootleggers used to transport their forbidden whisky. Imagine the thrill of the bootleggers' chase, careening through the jagged mountains of the Upper Cumberland Region while outmaneuvering the long arm of the law."
The trend has far outgrown the boundaries of the Volunteer State, as moonshine has popped up everywhere, from stylish Los Angeles lounges to upscale New York clubs. "We first started selling in July 2010, and we've consistently seen demand grow since then," says Joe Baker, co-founder of the Ole Smoky Distillery in Gatlinburg. "We're seeing a good growth pattern with no end in sight."
Of course, purists may argue that the products now being sold as moonshine-so called because it was created under the cover of darkness, out of view, out of reach of the government-isn't moonshine at all. The spirit has a long and complicated history with the Volunteer State; it's so enmeshed that "Rocky Top," one of Tennessee's nine official state songs, includes an ominous anecdote about two "strangers"-not locals, in any case-whose search for moonshine met an ominous end:
Once two strangers climbed on Rocky Top, lookin' for a moonshine still Strangers ain't come back from Rocky Top, Guess they never will
Corn won't grow at all on Rocky Top, dirt's too rocky by far That's why all the folks on Rocky Top get their corn from a jar
The term "moonshine" can be used to describe almost any kind of distilled spirit, but when most people talk about "moonshine," they are referring to a clear liquor that's distilled from a grain, usually corn, and can be consumed as soon as it drips out of the distiller. The main difference between moonshine and bourbon, for example, is that bourbon is aged in charred-oak barrels that impart the liquor's characteristic caramel color and taste.
Baker points out that families who lived in Tennessee hundreds of years ago learned that corn had the potential to go bad before being sold or eaten, but corn could be turned into mash-and then into moonshine-without spoiling. The moonshine industry of East Tennessee got a boost during the Prohibition era, when public demand for illegitimately made spirits spiked. At the same time, moonshine production became a more dangerous trade as bootlegging and smuggling became the predominant modes of transporting booze.
Moonshine itself wasn't exactly a safe habit: Since distilling methods were not regulated, people could use any materials to build their stills and follow any recipe. When moonshine's potency was enhanced with other chemicals, the mixture could leave a drinker blind or even dead. Lead poisoning, too, has become associated with the stuff: In 2003, Atlanta physicians found extremely elevated levels of lead in the blood of patients who said they'd been consuming moonshine in the weeks before coming to the hospital.
In recent years, the most famous moonshiner in Tennessee was Marvin "Popcorn" Sutton, who lived and sold his homemade booze from his home in Cocke County. He looked and talked just like the stereotype of a Tennessee moonshine-maker-long, wild beard included-and in a film titled This Is the Last Dam Run of Likker I'm Ever Gonna Make, Sutton talks about his life in moonshine. Early in the film, he turns to the camera: "I just done this to tell people to buy these videos and see what the hell a moonshiner has to put up with to make a living!"
Sutton's appearance in that film turned him into a minor celebrity, but he didn't live to see his own creation become legal. In March 2008, Sutton was arrested for trying to sell moonshine and sentenced to eighteen months in federal prison for not paying taxes. He had no intention of going to jail: A few days before his sentence started, in 2009, Sutton killed himself. His moonshine didn't die with him, though. Popcorn Sutton Whiskey, now being distilled in Nashville and sold through a legitimate business, is available in liquor stores.
Moonshine has come a long way, from its mountain roots, through the roller coaster ride of Prohibition, on to become a thriving tourism-draw and income-producer for Tennesseans. And since until recently moonshining has been mostly a family business, many families have been along for the ride.
"Most of my family who are still alive have memories of setting up a still or packing bottles," says Baker. "It's a craft that, in a lot of ways, was on the verge of being lost." On the other hand, he admits, family is still family-and not everyone in a moonshining family would raise a glass to the family business. "My dad's mom would roll over in her grave if she knew what we were doing."