White lightning. Mountain dew. Hooch. Moonshine may conjure images of backwood “pappies” distilling liquor in creeks at the risk of getting caught by the Feds. You might have even seen the popular television show Moonshiners or the film Lawless.
One thing is for certain and it’s that the illegally distilled, high proof, unfiltered corn whiskey is something you’ll only find in the South. Its history dates back to Scots-Irish settlers in 1800s Appalachia as a way to avoid paying taxes on imported whiskey.
It used corn, which grows easily in the region, and often incorporated fruits like peaches for flavoring. When revenue agents started chasing after moonshiners in an effort to force taxes upon them, the trend of racing from “the law” was started. The roots of NASCAR have been traced back to moonshiners and their specially outfitted vehicles.
Moonshine looks clear, tastes raw, and sells fast. It usually runs close to 100 proof or more. To make it, sugar, water, yeast, cornmeal, and malt … are variously combined and processed in three stages: fermentation, distillation, and condensation.
My interactions with moonshine had been limited until recently. While touring the town of Greensboro, Georgia, I tucked into the local newspaper, where I was offered peach moonshine from the editor.
A few months later, I attended my first mud bog and was offered more at 8 am. I politely declined. The liquor has seen a popular, albeit legal, resurgence, but its roots are found in the mountains of Georgia, North Carolina, and Tennessee.
The liquor has seen a popular, albeit legal, resurgence, but its roots are found in the mountains of Georgia, North Carolina, and Tennessee as well as West Virginia and Kentucky. In fact, moonshine country extends beyond these states, but the largest number of illegal stills were seized from Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Alabama according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States.
Today, visitors to the region can still experience the moonshine culture. Many of the same family recipes are used in legal versions, just with more government oversight and many more taxes. Not every state makes it easy for these operations to exist, which is why some states boast more moonshine distilleries than others.
You might be surprised just how drinkable moonshine is when made well, mixed into a cocktail in place of just about any liquor. Some distilleries market their corn whiskey, but these actually market using the word “moonshine” or use traditional methods.
Moonshine in Georgia
When it comes to moonshine in Georgia, Dawson County was ground zero, sending liquor down to Prohibition-era Atlanta. Nearby Gilmer, Pickens, and Lumpkin counties also had illegal moonshine operations. Men like Simmie Free, in another mountain county, Rabun, started distilling with his father when he dropped out of second grade.
Today, you can experience the moonshine history at Dawsonville Moonshine Distillery, which uses a recipe passed down from Free. Moonrise Distillery in Clayton creates the Corn Squeezins using traditional ingredients with modern equipment.
Run by Carlos Lovell, Ivy Mountain Distillery LLC ceased their illegal operations in the 1960s but today makes a legal version of their sour mash using Georgia products, although their distillery is not open to visitors. Grandaddy Mimms Moonshine Distillery And Museum is the newest to the state, located in Blairsville, is named for a local philanthropist and moonshiner from the 1930s. His recipe lived on through his family.
Moonshine in North Carolina
The story of North Carolina moonshine is mostly centered around Wilkes County, which was called the moonshine capital of the world by federal revenue officers. Some might debate that title, but you can’t deny that the mountains of North Carolina are steeped in illegal liquor history. Some have carried over into the modern age.
Call Family Distillers is a one such, led by “The Uncatchable” Willie Call. In fact, a relative teamed up with Jack Daniel in the 1800s but later sold his stake in the company. Nearby Copper Barrel Distillery uses local North Carolina products and bottles their unique moonshine in custom made milk bottles.
Piedmont Distillers Inc was formed in 2005 as the state’s first legal distillery. Their most well-known product is Midnight Moon, produced by Nascar legend Junior Johnson. And in Asheville, Asheville Distilling Company, also known as Troy and Sons, creates their “true American moonshine” with the finest products available.
Moonshine in Tennessee
Moonshining in Tennessee took place in the area now known as the Great Smoky Mountains, including Blount, Polk, and Sevier counties. Names like Popcorn Sutton rose to fame in the 1960s for his illegal moonshine distilling in Cocke County, Tennessee and Maggie Valley, North Carolina.
To avoid serving prison time, he committed suicide in 2009, but his legacy lives on through Popcorn Sutton Distilling Tennessee White Whiskey, produced by his widow and Hank Williams Jr.
The area’s tasting rooms have also exploded in the last few years with Ole Smoky Distillery being one of the most well-known. Sugarlands Distilling Company and Doc Collier Moonshine also have locations in downtown Gatlinburg. Thunder Road Distillery and Old Forge Distillery are in Kodak and Pigeon Forge, respectively, while Cocke County Moonshine Distillery is in a more rural area but crafts a more authentic product.
Have you ever tried moonshine?
- Moonshine: A Life in Pursuit of White Liquor by Alec Wilkinson
- “Is moonshine just bad whiskey?,” BBC Travel
- North Georgia Moonshine: A History of the Lovells & Other Liquor Makers by Judy Garrison
- Mountain Spirits by Joseph Earl Dabney
- “Moonshine,” New Georgia Encyclopedia
- “Moonshine,” The Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture
Research for this story was made possible with the assistance of the Georgia Department of Tourism, Travel South USA, Visit North Carolina, Geiger Public Relations, and Tennessee Department of Tourism.