Georgians have made moonshine since the late eighteenth century.
The Scots-Irish, immigrants from the province of Ulster in Northern Ireland, brought the practice of distilling alcohol to the backcountry of Georgia and other American colonies during the eighteenth century. Moonshine production is an involved process but not so difficult that men of relatively few resources could not master it. Two steps—fermentation and distillation—are involved in making whiskey or brandy, which the historian Joseph Dabney explains in his book Mountain Spirits:
During the fermentation process, the starches in the grain (or the fruit) are broken down through saccharification into sugars and then the sugars into alcohol. This process is speeded up greatly by the infusion of sugar, yeast, and/or malt. . . . In whiskey making, the basic fermenting mixture of grain, water, and other ingredients is called "mash." . . . To go from the fermented mash to alcohol itself requires the additional step of distillation. In this process the essence, or spirit, of the fermented liquid is separated from the water by being heated to the appropriate temperature. . . . The resulting vapor lifts the alcohol essence out of the water, and the vapor is then reconverted to liquid by cooling.
Moonshine was a practical enterprise. Farmers discovered that they could earn extra money by manufacturing excess yields of their crops into corn whiskey or apple and peach brandy, and selling it. Because of the region's rugged terrain and poor roads, north Georgia farmers also found it easier and more profitable to distill some of their crops before carrying them to market. Antebellum Georgians viewed distillers as well-respected members of the community and denounced the federal government's attempt to impose a tax on liquor manufacturing in the 1790s.
During the Civil War (1861-65) the U.S. Congress attempted to balance the national budget by creating
This sparked a much-publicized war in north Georgia between moonshiners and revenuers, the federal agents who sought to enforce the liquor law. Moonshiners attacked revenuers and intimidated local residents who might otherwise be tempted to help revenuers identify lawbreakers. In the early 1870s the Ku Klux Klan joined forces with them to combat the IRS. The historian Wilbur Miller estimated that in 1876 four-fifths of all federal law-enforcement efforts and court cases in the Georgia mountains involved illegal liquor issues, more than for the highland areas of any other state.
During the twentieth century the moonshiner degenerated from a skilled craftsman to a greedy gangster. The prohibition era began with the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution in 1919 and its implementation in 1920 through the Volstead Act, in which Congress declared all alcohol manufacturing and consumption illegal. (Georgia had already passed a similar law in 1907.) Prohibition increased the demand for moonshine. Gangsters soon cornered the market, creating elaborate moonshining networks and forcing farmers to run stills for them.
Images of Moonshiners
In the process of such blockade running, moonshiners had become reckless outlaws who were concerned only with making money rather than manufacturing quality whiskey. In a full chapter on the subject in his memoir, The Mountains within Me, former Georgia governor Zell Miller explains the changes he observed in the business in and around his native county of Towns. Fewer local families engaged in liquor trafficking, and those who did had become "a breed apart from their ancestors to whom making whiskey was a personal custom-sanctioned activity that was incidental to their total livelihood and not a calculated, law-breaking enterprise."
Moonshiners also figure prominently in the autobiographical literature produced by other Georgians. Rick Bragg devotes his second book, Ava's Man, to his maternal grandfather, Charlie Bundrum, whose illicit whiskey operation in and around Floyd County in the 1930s and 1940s was one of several enterprises by which he supported his large, poverty-stricken family. In an essay entitled "Mountain Spirits," published in the Sewanee Review, James Kilgo writes of an uncomfortable encounter he had while on a fishing trip in Rabun County: two locals offered him their homemade brew, bemoaning the fact that people had lost pride in making whiskey and that so much of the "radiator likker they're selling now will kill you."
Several Georgians have written about family members' run-ins with the law. In The Last Radio Baby,
Since the 1960s moonshining activity has slowed considerably, and much of it has migrated from the mountains to metropolitan areas, where producers have found it easier to evade the federal liquor tax. They place their illicit stills in homes and barns, which revenuers (who now work under the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives) must have a search warrant to enter.
Today, any lost tax revenue from the sale of illegal liquor is of less concern to officials than the health threat posed by moonshine. Because moonshine contains impurities and toxins, especially lead, moonshine consumption can be deadly. Poor people have suffered most, since moonshine is extremely inexpensive, and illegal distributors may target poor neighborhoods in which to sell their products.
Jess Carr, The Second Oldest Profession: An Informal History of Moonshining in America (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1972).
Joseph Earl Dabney, Mountain Spirits: A Chronicle of Corn Whiskey from King James' Ulster Plantation to America's Appalachians and the Moonshine Life (New York: Scribner, 1974).
Patricia Guthrie, "Moonshine Poisoning Urban Poor," Atlanta Journal-Constitution, September 12, 2003.
William F. Holmes, "Moonshining and Collective Violence, Georgia, 1889-1895," Journal of American History 67 (December 1980): 589-611.
Wilbur R. Miller, Revenuers and Moonshiners: Enforcing Federal Liquor Law in the Mountain South, 1865-1900 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991).
"Moonshining as a Fine Art," in The Foxfire Book, ed. Eliot Wigginton (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1972), 301-45.
Bruce E. Stewart, University of Georgia
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