HAPPY MOONSHINE DAY | Part 1: Moonshine Lore

By JAMES OLSEN | WVVille Charlatan Bureau Chief

Celebrate responsibly. | Image from The National Day Calendar website.

Happy Moonshine Day. We hope you are celebrating responsibly in quarantine! (You ARE still in quarantine, we trust?). This day, June 5, 2020 marks National Moonshine Day.

No, really.

The National Day Calendar website says it’s so. And if the Internet says it’s so, it’s so. Yes?

We have gathered up moonshine minutiae from several sources. Before we get to that, a public service announcement: Remember to safely celebrate National Moonshine Day in quarantine. Appoint a designated household member to guide family members or friends impaired by moonshine abuse from the deck to the bathroom, the living room to the deck. Call them an Uber or Lyft—don’t give them their keys back!

(EDITOR’S FEEDBACK ON THIS STORY DRAFT: You realize you’re making light of alcohol abuse, don’t you? Have your fun, but moonshine has seriously high alcohol content. You shouldn’t treat it lightly.

NOTE BACK FROM JAMES: When you hired me, you said I’d have editorial freedom and—your words!—the ability to write in ways I’d ‘never’ written before. What’s up with that?

EDITOR’S FEEDBACK: Proceed. But I’m watching you.)

RELATED: “The Plum,” a short story by Connie Kinsey, starring plum moonshine.

A triple ‘X’ on a moonshine barrel meant it was dangerous stuff—after having been run through the still three times, it was pure alcohol.

Fun Moonshine Facts to Know & Tell

  • THE NAME: The term “moonshine” comes from Britain, where it originally was a verb—“moonshining”—referring to jobs or activities done late at night. Because the illegal still operators had to conduct their business out of the sight of legal authorities, these backwoods brewmasters became known as moonshiners and the alcohol they produced as moonshine.
  • THE NICKNAMES: Some alternate names for moonshine: white lightning; mountain dew; homebrew; hillbilly pop; rotgut; firewater; hooch.
  • THE X’s: The X’s on moonshine jugs supposedly represent the number of times a batch was run through the still. If marked XXX, the moonshine was pure alcohol.
  • THE FAKE-OUT: During prohibition, there were many ways to transport bootlegged moonshine.  Faking a funeral was a convenient ruse to move the product.  Out of respect for the dead, authorities were reluctant to stop a funeral procession.
  • THE TRANSACTION: Whiskey was an important and useful item to barter for salt, nails, and taxes in pioneer days. Some even used it to buy property.
  • THE ‘WORM’: A good copper still and its condensing coil or ‘‘worm’’ had considerable value.

Legal moonshine is a growing niche. This is just a partial shot of a crowded page one of a Google search on the word ‘moonshine.’

  • THE WOMEN: What do Esther Clark, Edna Giard, Stella Beloumant, Mary Wazeniak all have in common? They were all bootleggers. Bootlegging was an equal opportunity profession.
  • THE GRANDMA BOOTLEGGER?: Lavinia Gilman was a bootlegger, too. At 80 years old, she ran a 300-gallon still in Montana.  The judge suspected her son was the real culprit, though.
  • THE REBELLION: On March 3, 1791, soon after all the American colonies became a nation, Congress imposed taxes on stills and whiskey. The laws fomented the 1794 Whiskey Rebellion, an uprising in western Pennsylvania and parts of present West Virginia. George Washington led troops to suppress the riots.
  • THE MAIN INGREDIENT: Mountaineers usually used corn for moonshine. The first step was to sprout the corn, crush the sprouted grain, and mix with water to make a “mash.” This was fermented in open barrels. If moonshiners had access to yeast, fermentation took up to four days; if not and if it the weather was cool, fermentation might take up to two weeks.
  • THE LAW: West Virginia imposed prohibition against alcohol sales early, in 1914. Then, from 1920 until 1933 the U.S. government imposed nationwide prohibition. That led to a boom in illegal moonshining. 
  • THE DUKES: Moonshine running was part of the backstory of “The Dukes of Hazzard” TV show. ‘Sweet Tillie‘ or ‘Black Tillie‘ was the name of Uncle Jesse’s Ford LTD/Galaxie in the first episode—his moonshine runner.
  • THE FLAVORS: Moonshine is now legal for sale in West Virginia and many small distilleries offer it, from Appalachian Distillery in Ripley, to Pinchgut Hollow Distillery in Fairmont (which sells moonshine-style whiskeys in flavors including Apple Pie, Honey Peach, Corn, and Buckwheat). Here’s are some outlets selling moonshine in the Mountain State.
  • THE SOURCES: National Day Calendar; Only In Your State; West Virginia Encyclopedia

Moonshine in West Virginia History

Police with a moonshine still. | IMAGE from West Virginia Encyclopedia entry on moonshine.

~ Excerpt from West Virginia Encyclopedia article on moonshine

In West Virginia, field corn, soft creek water, and industrious farmers came together to make moonshine, sometimes also called mountain dew or white lightning. Moonshine is typically 100-proof whiskey, aged little or none, and was an important cash crop. So long as revenue agents did not cause trouble, making moonshine was an efficient and profitable way to market corn. With a good still, one-and-a-half bushels of corn was reduced to a gallon of whiskey, which was worth more than the grain itself and less bulky to transport. | Sohn, Mark F. “Moonshine.” e-WV: The West Virginia Encyclopedia. 20 October 2010. Web. 05 June 2020. | READ ON

FREE SUBSCRIBE to WestVirginiaVille’s e-mail newsletter:

Leave a Reply