#TBT: The history of moonshine in Asheville and WNC

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Colorphoto offset of moonshiners at work over a hot still in the WNC mountains. | Photo courtesy of NC Collection, Pack Memorial Library.

If you walk into an ABC Store or peruse a cocktail menu, you’ll see liquor distilled right here in Asheville + WNC from gin to rum and cordials. You also might see one spirit closely associated with our mountains: moonshine

But before you take a swig, get familiar with the history of this infamous intoxicant. For this #TBT, we’re distilling the story of moonshine in the mountains – and giving you some tips on how to find the legal stuff locally

It can be hard to define.

  • Technically, moonshine refers to any liquor made illegally. The term was first applied to liquor in 1785
  • Making moonshine was a way to get around high liquor taxes levied by the federal government in the 18th and 19th centuries. DYK: Liquor taxes are among the highest in the country, bringing in over $13 per gallon sold federally and $1.11 per gallon sold in N.C.
  • Other names for moonshine include white lightning, hooch, firewater, rotgut – and mountain dew. And yes, Mountain Dew and moonshine were once connected. It was first made to be a mixer for whiskey, and the name was a deliberate marketing technique.  
  • It can be made of anything fermentablelike fruit, grains, or even milk
  • Most of the moonshine made in this area – and what you’ll buy from stores or sip in cocktails at local restaurants – is distilled from corn and unaged. 

It was made famous in Appalachia. 

  • Moonshine was first made in the U.S. in Pennsylvania and other areas of Appalachia where grain was a major agricultural crop. In Southern Appalachia, corn was plentiful, and Scots-Irish settlers brought their distillation methods with them to create it. 
  • In the early- to mid-20th century, moonshine runners souped-up cars to deliver products faster – often in automobiles that looked slow and heavy, but had been tailored to carry a maximum amount of product without drawing suspicion. Many of these bootleg drivers got interested in stock car racing after the end of Prohibition, when demand for moonshine waned. That’s how NASCAR was born
  • Perhaps the most famous moonshiner of them all was Marvin “Popcorn” Sutton (1946-2009), who distributed his wares all over Western North Carolina + beyond. He was born + lived in Maggie Valley.  

Moonshine’s big break

  • The 1958 film Thunder Road, starring Robert Mitchum, followed an outlaw moonshiner who made his deliveries in souped-up cars through Tennessee + Kentucky. It was filmed mostly in Woodfin and became a cult classic.

 

Legal liquor

  • Homebrewing wine + beer became legal in 1978 – but it’s still illegal to homebrew liquor + spirits for private consumption
  • In 2009, Tennessee became the first state to legalize moonshine (unaged white whiskey) when it loosened liquor distillation laws as a way to bring in funds during the Great Recession when Tennessee loosened its liquor laws. Ole Smoky Moonshine Distillery in TN was one of the first to open, in 2010. It’s sold traditionally – in mason jars. 
  • Many moonshine traditionalists still go by the old belief that if it’s legal, it isn’t really moonshine

Sip, sip, hooray

Try it for yourself from one of these local distillers

Asheville Distilling Company 

The home of Troy & Sons does tours and tastings at their distillery (12 Old Charlotte Hwy.) and offers flavored + original moonshine for sale.

Howling Moon Distillery 

Established in 2010, Howling Moon makes flavors like peach + apple pie, plus their original, using a 150-year-old recipe.

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