What drew you to the project?
Moonshine just seemed to be everywhere. There was a reality TV show about it, and a legal moonshine distillery just blocks from where I live in Brooklyn, called Kings County Distillery. I was seeing three or four brands of locally-made moonshine on the shelves behind the cash register of my neighborhood wine shop. I was curious. And the more I learned about it the more intrigued I became. Here was a spirit with a real American story. So it was an opportunity to write about history and to do it through the lens of liquor. It was also an opportunity to look at the burgeoning craft distilling movement, and that was really exciting.
The book sets up a complex identity for “moonshine.” It seems that during Prohibition—and even before—it was defined by its illegality, whereas now taxpaying distilleries focus on its process and ingredients: it’s unaged corn whiskey. How would you define it?
Moonshine is a clear, unaged spirit. A description I like is bourbon without the barrel, or whiskey without the wood. Moonshine that’s sold legally falls into what the government classifies as either a whiskey or a neutral spirit, like vodka. Some distillers make their moonshine from a blend of corn and oats, or corn and barley. Some use wheat. Corsair Distillery, in Nashville, does a really nice unaged rye called Wry Moon. Of course, in the heyday of illegal moonshine people were leaving grain out of their recipes entirely and making moonshine out of sugar. Sugar shine was cheaper and faster to produce.
Personally, I was completely astonished when I read about moonshine’s role in NASCAR’s inception. What discovery most surprised you in your research?
That’s funny, because I was completely astonished by how much I got into NASCAR as a result of this book! Here’s an organization that got a nice chunk of seed money from a man named Raymond Parks. Parks made his money from running moonshine, and he invested it in stock-car auto racing.
On a non-NASCAR note, I had no idea before I started writing this book that the United States almost had its first civil war because of whiskey. President Washington called out nearly 13,000 troops to western Pennsylvania to put down the Whiskey Rebellion, which began as a protest against the tax on distilled spirits that was imposed as a way to pay down Revolutionary War debt. Did you learn about that in your high school history classes? I didn’t. I mean, this is the kind of information that could make high-school history classes more fun!
Another surprising discovery: There’s some really good moonshine being made today. This isn’t the rotgut that people often think of when they hear the word moonshine. So yeah, I was totally surprised when I found myself on a reporting trip in Greenville, South Carolina, having breakfast at a Main Street café, eating grits, watching NASCAR, and spiking my coffee with a little shot of moonshine. I posted about this on Facebook and it freaked out my mother. She was convinced that moonshine could make me go blind. I had to reassure her that I was enjoying the good stuff, and that I was enjoying it responsibly, in the name of research.
You quote American Distilling Institute president Bill Owens as saying, “There’s nothing more American than whiskey.” Do you think this its appeal today? What factors are behind its resurgence into popular culture?
Oh, yeah. It’s Americana. Craft distilleries are popping up all over the country. They’re people from the community. They’re using local grains. My cousin, Paco Joyce, is the master distiller at Seattle Distilling, on Vashon Island. He makes his whiskey from Washington State barley. His vodka is from wheat. Farmers on the island use the spent mash—that’s the grain that’s left over at the end of the distilling process—to feed their cows and pigs. A local restaurant used the mash to make granola. It’s this whole cycle that I think is enormously appealing at a time when we want to know where our food and drink comes from, where we appreciate a personal connection with the people who grow and make what we put into our bodies. I think that grain-to-glass ethos really fuels so much of the interest in craft spirits.
Much of moonshine’s history seems to be characterized as a struggle between rich and poor. Unfortunately, this conflict also seems to be part of our national identity. How did whiskey shift from being hailed as a profitable source of income for American farmers to being portrayed as an evil substance to which one could become addicted after just one sip? Why prohibit something so profitable?
Well, there were many moonshiners who took great pride in putting out quality product. You have to remember that whiskey making was, and is, an art form that’s been passed on for generations. For so many people, it’s tradition. But there came a point when some people were putting profit over quality and they were producing some vile, dangerous, sometimes deadly, liquor. Poison moonshine was a real public health issue. One of my favorite pieces of ephemera in the book is a “Moonshine is Poison” paper fan from Alabama in the 1960s. On one side there’s a corpse, boots up, with daisies sprouting from his belly. On the other side is a list of phone numbers of local law enforcement offices to report sales of “deadly poison moonshine.” People were making moonshine in car radiators. Lead poisoning was a major problem. That right there is a huge driver behind the moonshine crackdown. At the height of federal enforcement efforts in the 60s, one newspaper referred to this as the “popskull crackdown.” I love that—popskull! All the different words that people have come up with are so great.
I’m interested in the role of women in this story. I think it’s common to associate women with the Temperance movement, but it’s less common to hear about the female distillers and whiskey trippers you tell us about in Moonshine. Do you find this to be the case? Why do you think this could be?
Absolutely. Whiskey’s traditionally been thought of as a man’s drink. And whiskey making is an art that’s associated with men, for sure. And moonshine? I mean, who doesn’t picture a bunch of good old boys making this stuff by a creek in the woods? That’s the image; that’s what I pictured when I started researching this book. And yet I knew that there were women working as distillers today, and that there had to be women, historically, who were making liquor, too. I wanted to tell the stories that don’t often get told.
One of my favorite women in the book is Willie Carter Sharpe. She was a whiskey tripper in the 1930s, in Franklin County, Virginia. Here was a woman who knew how to drive fast, who was packing her car with Mason jars full of illegal liquor and leading whole caravans of trippers who were doing the same thing—delivering goods to market. She was a total bad ass. When she testified during the so-called Moonshine Conspiracy Trial, in Roanoke, she became a celebrity. It was the middle of the Great Depression and this woman showed up in court with diamonds in her teeth! She’d done time at Alderson Federal Prison—that’s where Martha Stewart served her sentence, by the way. Blue-blood Virginia society ladies wanted to ride with her, for kicks.
One last question! The New York Times published an editorial earlier this week advocating for a “repeal [of] Prohibition, again.” Regarding the current conversation about marijuana legalization, do you believe that this is an accurate metaphor? I feel like we hear it all the time, but with little exploration of what (alcohol) Prohibition really meant for the country in its true context.
I think the metaphor makes sense. Our country’s 13 year experiment with national alcohol prohibition was a failure. It was meant to protect health and well-being, but it didn’t stop people from drinking. Instead, they smuggled in liquor from other countries, they made alcohol themselves, and some of it was so bad that it killed people. Organized crime flourished. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
–Interview by OE Senior Intern Gillian Bradshaw