Past Times

Moonshiners met demand during Prohibition

Mountain moonshiners met the demand when operations elsewhere in the state were shut down.
Mountain moonshiners met the demand when operations elsewhere in the state were shut down. State Archives of North Carolina

Moonshine has been part if the history in nearly every region of the state. In 1927, writer C.R. Sumner examined the state of the trade in the mountains as law enforcement cracked down on operations Down East.

“Mountain Dew,” the potent beverage that for decades has flowed from the hidden caves of the Southern Appalachians, has become the chief source of supply for the bootleg industry. Far back in the mountains, skilled coppersmiths are laboring over stills, crossroad merchants are doing a land office business, and the “Old Time Moonshiners” are getting ready to meet the extra demand that has been placed upon the cove distilleries.

Facing the prospect of a concerted drive by a new dry army that may employ airplanes, tear gas, and railing expeditions into the heart of the great swamps, blockaders in Eastern North Carolina may be regarded as an uncertain quantity as far as a stable source of supply for the bootleg industry is concerned.

Recent raids which resulted in wholesale seizure of whiskey and widespread destruction of the blockading industry in the swamps have caused the eye of the country to be focused on North Carolina as the battlefront of the wet and dry fight.…

The brooding silence of the mountains, the isolation of the rock-walled coves, and the broken country tend to encourage individual enterprise and to discourage teamwork in the matter of manufacturing the banned and beaded beverage.

Although the thin blue smoke from rhododendron that fades by the time it reaches the tops of ordinary bushes, will once more curl upward in the narrow mountain coves, and the rank smell of still mash will once more cause the landscape to reek with a multiplicity of sour odors, the product will not be the same as in the old days.

Practically all of the first-class “operators” who are looking to buildup a following by their product are going back to copper stills from the flyer they took into the realm of galvanized iron and gasoline barrels. The main ingredient for “North Carolina corn” whiskey will be missing and the result will be told in liquid fire on then thousand throats in the next few months.

Sugar has been substituted for corn meal as raw material for several reasons. The result is that the liquor is not mellow like the original corn, although it “packs a kick” that would satisfy a thirsty stevedore.

The first reason for using sugar is that it is handled more quickly, requiring far less preparation. That is not the only consideration, however. It gives a much higher number of gallons to the dollar than corn meal. Faced by the necessity for quick runs and big returns the mountain moonshiners, although clinging to the finely made copper still, have abandoned corn meal in favor of sugar and the result is told in the product.

If the dry war that has been waged relentlessly along the coast in recent weeks is brought to the mountains under the vigorous methods that are expected from the new prohibition regime, it will degenerate from an orderly and well-planned mass attack into something resembling the guerrilla warfare that was waged in these same mountains in the early days of the country.

Distillers’ circles of the Land of the Sky are stirred by the tidings from “down east” that may mark the beginning of the end of the chief source of the corn liquors sold in restaurants, night clubs and blind pigs of New York.…

Among those connected with the distillers’ business in this part of the country, whether as officers of the law or breakers of it, there has been a long maintained story of an Eastern North Carolina community altogether immune to revenue officers’ appearances. Residents of it were said to come from some of the oldest strains of the United States, their ancestors having been hootch connoisseurs. It was long believed that it would be worth the life of a revenue officer to try to break it up and it has often been suggested that nothing short of the State militia could do that.

That summary of conditions against which the government is now waging vigorous warfare brings into bold relief that difference up here in the mountains. Court reporters have observed that mountaineer distillers operate on a smaller scale, on an independent (and frequently highly competitive) basis. They get the money for their whiskey before the buyer gets from “under the gun.” While no such cargoes as are being seized down east are moving hereabouts, good roads have many advantages over angry waves. Liquor-laden automobiles move speedily over them along with a constant stream of other machines. Revenue officers find it difficult to check records on every rum-running automobile, particularly when trading in this field is active. The N&O April 3, 1927

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Leonard: 919-829-4866 or tleonard@newsobserver.com

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