The story of Cherry Bounce, North Carolina’s unofficial state drink

The Rutherford-based South Mountain Distilling's reproduction of this historic drink. | Photo via South Mountain Distillery

Since 1987, milk has been the official state beverage of North Carolina, but us Tar Heels have another unofficial (and far more storied) state drink up our sleeve: the Cherry Bounce. 

This concoction of corn whiskey, sourwood honey, and cherry juice was invented in the mid 1800s by prolific moonshiner Amos Owens, aka The Cherry Bounce King, who lived atop Cherry Mountain in Rutherford County (~1 hour away). 

Amos, who was described as a “rotund, red-faced, jovial Leprechaun of an Irishman,” began making batches of Cherry Bounce after concluding his military service in the Civil War. What made his elixir special, he asserted, was that it “had been trod in Old World style by the bare feet of his beautiful daughters.” 

At the peak of its popularity, folks from across NC made the pilgrimage to Cherry Mountain for a chance to guzzle the good stuff, and it’s said that folks as far west as the Mississippi River became enamored with the beverage. 

Cherry Mountain also became the site of an annual summer festival, which celebrated the time of year when cherries were the ripest. Back in the day, folks would pay a flat fee of 25 cents for all-you-can-eat food and all-you-can-drink Cherry Bounce, complete with dancing, banjos, and fiddles.

The festival also had a reputation of being quite violent, with lots of boxing and a gruesome activity called “gander pulling.” To this day, the annual Cherry Bounce Festival still operates in Forest City, though in a much more legal and safe capacity. 

Like many moonshiners who refused to pay taxes + register their stills with the federal government, the law eventually caught up to Amos — though he certainly did his best to thwart it.

It’s said he would often use a telescope to spot IRS revenue agents before they reached his stills. And on at least one occasion, it’s also rumored that he got visiting revenue agents “piss drunk” to avoid arrest (which did not work; they arrested Amos immediately upon sobering up). 

Throughout his life, Amos served time in the federal penitentiary on three occasions, with his final sentence occurring in his seventies. Following that, he appeared to have begun attending church and given up on making Cherry Bounce — or at the very least, he got better at hiding it. 

This NA version of the Cherry Bounce uses Kentucky 74 “Bourbon.” | Photo by @hey_nolo

Modern interpretations of the drink 

Other modern interpretations of this beverage often replace the brandy or moonshine with vodka, and local beverage company NoLo uses bourbon. Though we’re not sure if The Cherry Bounce King himself would fully sign off on this rendition (due to the lack of moonshine), we still think it’s a fun nod to a juicy drink with an even juicier backstory

NoLo Carolina Cherry Bounce

Ingredients: 

  • 4 cherries muddled
  • 2 oz Bourbon (or
  • 1 oz cherry juice
  • 1/4 oz blood orange bitters
  • 1/4 oz lime juice
  • 1/4 oz honey simple syrup

Steps:

  • Shake with ice and pour into glass.
  • Serve with a cherry garnish