Moonshine has had a major resurgence over the last 5 years. Once holding a stigma of low class, the beverage has suddenly taken on an artisanal personality. Today, part-scientist, part-artist craft distillers are constantly innovating to improve their beloved hooch. Its return seems to be fueled by T.V. shows and apple-pie flavorings more than anything. However, when you take a look at Moonshine’s history, the popular beverage becomes far more interesting.
The Whiskey Rebellion
15 years after our independence, moonshine actually became the centerpiece of a rebellion. After mounting a revolution, the United States government needed some cash. The solution to this problem came in the form of an excise tax on whiskey sales. In the Appalachian hills, residents were surviving on mostly subsistence farming and booze. As a testament to their rowdy way of life, many of these people actually used whiskey/moonshine as a currency. Therefore, when this tax was enacted it hit this already poor way of life disproportionately. Tax collectors brave enough to approach this part of the country were routinely tarred-and-feathered. The malice quickly escalated to a full-blown armed rebellion. The federal government responded in force and put down the rebellion without too much fuss. However, tax evasion and high-tensions never left the region.
Prohibition: Rise of the Bootlegger
In the early 1800’s, the United States saw the rise of The Temperance movement. Under the rhetoric of religious fundamentalism, the demonization of alcohol became extremely popular. Before long, there was enough support to undergo “The Noble Experiment.” Or, as it’s known today, Prohibition. Of course, simply saying something is not allowed does not eliminate market demand. Therefore the market was left with a vacuum, and basic economics have taught us that a vacuum in the marketplace will always be filled.
The residents of the Appalachian hills were postured perfectly to fill that vacuum. After years of evading taxes and fighting with law enforcement, the organizational infrastructure was already in place to operate outside the law. Not only did Irish moonshiners enter the market, they were now able to completely monopolize it.
Organized Crime and The Mafia
Soon, bootleggers crystalized into highly organized crime syndicates. In fact, the transportation network used by these bootleggers is actually the genesis of modern-day Nascar. As we all know, these crime syndicates started to compete amongst themselves. Soon the Irish weren’t the only players and were even eclipsed by the Italians. Today, Prohibition-era organized crime groups like the mafia are the stuff of movies. However, it’s less commonly noted that the beginning of these organizations started in the Appalachian hills with farmers turning their corn into white lightning.
Today, moonshine is becoming popular again. The rich history of the drink is very likely one of the variables in this popularity. However, many craft-spirits enthusiasts will point to the drink’s rich flavor profile as another contributing factor. There has also been a lot of innovation in moonshine stills that has greatly increased the quality of the beverage. This new technology alongside new techniques makes what’s known as “Sugarshine,” a moonshine derivative that is highly conducive to flavoring. It seems clear that moonshine is back and here to stay, it is also clear that we will watch it continue to evolve.