Best of BAD: A Distillation Of The History Of Moonshine

As the moonshiner movie LAWLESS hits theaters, revisit a classic Badass Digest post where Tim League tours the history of home distillation of spirits - and champions it!

This article originally ran on January 16, 2011. With the release of Lawless, a movie about moonshine, we figured it was a good time to revisit it.

91 years ago today the federal government took away the people’s right to drink. We got it back, but we’re still inching towards some more basic booze freedoms. In the 70s Jimmy Carter legalized home brewing, creating a multi-billion dollar industry. When will someone do the same for home distilling of spirits?

What is a lesser-known fact is that these same forefathers were also distillers.  Distillation of alcohol was one of the freedoms if not one of the primary freedoms in the minds of our founding fathers when they mandated to protect “the pursuit of happiness.”

So where did it all go wrong?  Home-distillation is punishable by up to $10,000 per instance along with a five-year stint in federal prison.  Homemade whiskey is purported to cause blindness and we’ve been told that those who practice the craft are almost certainly destined to blow themselves up.  Furthermore, moonshiners are painted as criminals, no better than crack dealers or prostitutes.

The descent of home-distillation from honorable and inalienable right to sordid felony begins with the somewhat aristocratic philosophies of Alexander Hamilton, a bucket of tar and some chicken feathers.

Alexander Hamilton, not a friend of the common man
 
The war of independence was an undeniable success (we won).  Our valiant efforts coupled with our understandable philosophical dislike of taxation, however, caused the US to quickly rack up nearly 75 million dollars in war and operational debt.  Whittling it down with tariffs on imported goods was helping to staunch the flow, but Hamilton, the first secretary of the Treasury of the newly formed Federal government, wanted to burn it off faster.  In  1791 he instituted the highly controversial federal Whiskey Tax, which has the dubious distinction as the very first tax in our nation’s history to be levied on a domestic product.
 
Hamilton was a brilliant man.  He was the principle architect of the constitution and was George Washington’s right-hand man.  He crafted from ether the mechanisms of the new federal governmental machine.  By many accounts, though, he was kind of a dick, especially to rural Americans.  His policies greatly favored big business over individuals, he leaned heavily towards a strong Federal government at the expense of states rights, and he was fast and loose in his interpretation of the willfully vague and conservative constitution.
 
Understandably, new taxes and a strong federal government rankled farmers who had just a decade before dropped their plows, picked up their rifles, and fought for to free themselves of a similar situation.
 
Most grain farmers in the US at that time would distill their excess yield into whiskey.   Whiskey didn’t go bad, it was easier to transport to sell, and it served as the standard barter currency in rural communities.
 
In the fall of 1791, Robert Johnson, the first tax collector to dare venture into Appalachia to collect the contentious whiskey tax was literally tarred and feathered.  When officials arrived to serve court warrants to the farmers who brutalized Johnson, those city slickers were whipped AND THEN tarred and feathered.
 
Without consulting Washington, an enraged Hamilton drafted a presidential proclamation denouncing resistance to the whiskey tax.  He also began writing essays in the Philadelphia paper under the pseudonym “Tully” denouncing whiskey-tax-related violence and advocating military intervention.
 
Meanwhile, tensions continued to build.  At its peak, a gathering of 7000 Pennsylvanians gathered at Braddock’s field to discuss the idea of declaring independence from the United States and joining forces with Spain.  The threat was so serious that the “whiskey rebels” had even designed their new flag.  Washington had little choice but to act.  He declared a military draft, raised 12000 troops and personally led the expedition to squash the rebellion.  The leaders were hung, others fled to the wilder far west and the Appalachian farmers, well, they began the long-standing tradition of hiding their stills, bootlegging moonshine and distrusting the federal government.  Even though the rebellion was crushed, the whiskey tax was never effectively collected in the Appalachia or other parts of rural America.
 

Give a listen to the folk classic “Copper Kettle,” and you can see that nearly 200 years later, the drama surrounding the whiskey tax is still a bit of a sore subject. “My granddaddy made whisky, his granddaddy too.  We ain’t paid no Whiskey tax since 1792.”

Historians are unified in the belief that the “whiskey rebellion” gave rise to the party system in America.  Instead of violent assembly, Americans were encouraged and learned to voice their discontent through voting.  In 1800 Thomas Jefferson, who adamantly opposed Hamilton’s Federalist philosophy, was elected to office and immediately repealed the whiskey tax.

Strike 1: Unfortunately, the first strike against home-distillation was pitched.  Dissention between distillers and the federal government was well underway.


Civil War and the rise of the Federal Income Tax
 
In 1862, in order to fund the Civil War, the US government created a number of taxes, including the first income tax and additional taxes on booze.  Persons earning between $600 and $10000 a year were to pay a 3% income tax.  Over $10,000 a year, you had to pay at a rate of 5%.  Also, the Revenue Act of 1862 established the Internal Revenue Service and gave them the power to assess, levy and collect taxes, and to enforce the tax laws through prosecution and seizure of property.
 
In 1810 there were 14,000 stills in the US, 2,000 in Kentucky alone and almost 3,600 in Pennsylvania, together producing over 8.6 million gallons of whiskey. By 1860 output rose to about 90 million gallons of spirits’ a year. In 1862, whiskey taxes were initially set at 20 cents a gallon, but by the end of the war had risen to over $2/gallon.  The double-whammy of income tax and a very expensive levy on whiskey itself caused thousands of distillers to go underground and evade income tax.  The government responded with shackles and sledgehammers.  Between 1862 and 1881, the IRS destroyed over 5000 illegal stills and made over 8000 moonshine-related arrests.
 
Strike 2: tax evasion, violence on both sides and the birth of serious commercial bootlegging further tarnishes the craft.
 

The Final Nail – Prohibition

Even though, to his credit, Woodrow Wilson tried to veto it, the Volstead Act, the Eighteenth amendment to the US constitution, was ratified on January 16th 1919.  One year after that day the sale, manufacture and transportation of alcohol became a federal crime.  Not only that, Herbert Hoover and the Bureau of Investigation (soon to become the FBI) poured enormous resources and money into the prosecution of moonshiners and destruction of their stills.

In his book The Great Illusion, an Informal History of Prohibition, Herbert Asbury wrote, “it must be remembered that the fourteen years from 1920 to 1934 were not only the era of unparalleled crime and corruption; they were also the era of the Big Lie. The drys lied to make prohibition look good, the wets lied to make it look bad; the government officials lied to make themselves look good and to frighten congress into giving them more money to spend; and the politicians lied through sheer force of habit.”

The only tangible result of prohibition was the creation of a very broad and sophisticated underground organized crime syndicate that now controlled the booze trade.  Prohibition gave us increased crime, decreased revenue, increased federal spending and little appreciable change in consumption.  By 1925, in New York alone, there were anywhere from 30,000 to 100,000 speakeasy clubs.

FDR repealed prohibition by ratifying the Cullen-Harrison Act on December 5th, 1933.  Even though distilling was now legal again, it was strictly regulated and policed.  Home-distilling for personal consumption without the proper licenses remained and remains to this day a federal felony crime.

Strike 3: Prohibition came and went, and home-distilling struck out.


The State of Spirits Today
 
Jimmy Carter legalized home brewing in 1978 and is almost single-handedly responsible for creating what is now a 7 billion dollar/100,000 job industry in the United States  (His happy beer-drinking brother got a beer named after him to commemorate).   Prior to 1978, home-brewers had the same stigma as home-distillers.  They were seen as either nefarious criminals or spaced-out weirdo hippies.  Thanks to Carter, in just 33 years the US has become the undisputed global champion in creative epicurean fermented malt beverages.
 
We can do the same thing with spirits. Several states have now opened the door to easily grant micro-distillation licenses to individuals who want to follow the craft beer model and perfect a small-batch handmade distilled product.  The obvious and unstated understanding between applicant and bureaucrat, however, is that by the time an individual applies for a distillation permit, he or she clearly has been operating as a felon for quite a while. The ban on home distillation is ignorant, outmoded and needs to be overturned.
 
We are living in an era that has seen the rise to power of the obsessive, creative nerd.  I for one want back one of my inalienable nerd rights, the right that Thomas Jefferson fought for us to enjoy, hell, the right that brought him to Presidential power in the first place!
 
We are also in a time of economic crisis.  The US needs more jobs and manufacturing.  We should not overlook a potential $10 billion dollar industry.  The rapid growth and the incredible success of the craft brewing industry is a direct and translatable roadmap to the potential of the handmade craft spirit industry.   Since distillation comes with a potential of 5 years in prison and a $10,000 fine, however, most wallflower introverted obsessive types who might get sucked into the hobby/industry will likely stick with the lagers and stouts.
 
I asked one of the sales guys at the Austin Home Brew about the distillation procedure, and he immediately looked nervous and all but turned on a dime and walked the other way.  He did, however, subtly nod his head to a dusty shelf in the corner of the showroom that held the reference book on the subject (see below).
 
The stigma needs to be lifted.  Americans should be allowed to pursue this alternate form of spiritual happiness.
 
Perhaps Jim Mitchum sums it the spirit of the American distiller best in his monologue from Thunder Road (the inspiration for the Dukes of Hazzard btw).
You know I remember when I was a little kid, trailing my daddy up to the still through those mountain winters. I suppose I knew then that what he was doing was contrary to somebody’s law, but my granddaddy and his daddy before him and so on clear back to Ireland, they held that what a man did on his own land was his business. They didn’t have any noble notions of course. Still don’t. When they came here, fought for this country, scratched up the hills with their plows and skinny mules, they did it to guarantee the basics rights of free men. They just figured that whiskey makin’ was one of  ‘em.

 



How’s It Done and How Do You Not Die?
 
If you fancy yourself a rum-running thrill-seeker or want to take up the noble cause with some felonious civil disobedience, you can find all you need to know at http://homedistiller.org/. The information is newsgroup style and is a tad bit all-over the place and contradictory, but the thousands of posts and articles definitely contain everything you need to know.
 
The concept of distillation is simple.  Brew a simple beer (or anything with sugar and yeast for that matter).  Ferment it.  Once fermenting is over, boil the liquid in a sealed kettle.  Alcohol boils at a lower temperature than water, so at about 180-190 degrees or so, the alcohol will vaporize.  Run a copper tube out of the top of the kettle and then cool that tube down with cold water or ice.  That will condense the alcohol, which you can then collect in a mason jar and serve.  Obviously, there are intricacies, but that’s the basic science of it.
 
For simple, easier-to-follow directions, you can check out a couple of books (see link below).  One gives a detailed history of distillation in the United States and the other provides simple, easy-to-follow instructions and recipes.
 
If you don’t want to solder your own still from Home Depot parts, the undisputed king of the American copper still manufacturing is “the colonel” (pictured above).   Visit him at www.coppermoonshinestills.com.  He can also help you to avoid federal prosecution with his interesting but slightly dubious theory of not-recognizing the corporation of the United States.  Check out the tab labeled “the colonel’s lawsuits”   for more of his legal theories.
 
Oh and just like “water pipes” at a headshop, owning and manufacturing a still is not illegal.  Using it to make sipping alcohol is.  If the feds come a knockin’, remember, you are making ethanol for your car, not your gullet.
 
Blindness: Moonshine won’t make you go blind.  If you drink enough methanol, it CAN make you blind or kill you.  During most distillation procedures, the first 50ml or so of distilled product from a 10 gallon batch will be methanol.  You’d have to drink 10 times that to go blind and one swallow is reportedly enough to tell you that is a really bad idea.  Remember, whiskey is a poison too.  Drink enough of it and you die as well.
 
Explosions: Yes, Ethanol is flammable, and you are turning it into a vapor, so you could theoretically blow something up.   Ethanol is not nearly as volatile as gasoline, however, so the risk is low and you’d have to be doing something pretty obviously wrong.  Use an electric burner and don’t smoke on the job.  That should cover your bases.
 
Enjoy.  And if anyone in Austin makes a batch, please invite me over for a swig.  I won’t tell and I’d love to try it!

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