Whether you refer to the drink as white lightning, shine, firewater, or mountain dew, Moonshine has a long and complicated history in the United States. The name itself may simultaneously bring to mind the candy-colored tourist moonshine drinks of today, images of Appalachian and Smoky Mountain settlers making illegal beverages during the early 20th century, or (if you’re a history buff) remembrances of the Whisky Rebellion in the days of our country’s infancy.
Homemade whiskey is often associated with rebellious, anti-government, or anti-Prohibition sentiments as it was originally formulated in the country when it was illegal to make alcohol at home — and sometimes an illicit venture to serve alcohol at all. Most people today, of course, just enjoy the drink! Read through the following points to learn more about the evolution of moonshine and understand how we ended up with the drink as it is today: A tourist-driven, legal beverage that has its roots deep in the history of our country.
If you’re familiar with the history of distillery moonshine, the idea of “tourist” moonshine may make you raise an eyebrow — or smile, depending on how you view this interesting change in culture in the Smoky Mountain area. As it is used today, the term moonshine is a basic term used to describe the majority of white whiskey drinks that are unaged (in the way that wine and beer are fermented for a long time before you can drink them). Making moonshine is legal in Tennessee now — but this was not always the case. Brewing moonshine at home used to be a highly illegal and secret activity that was punishable by law. Today, many drinks marketed with the “moonshine” label are simply low-alcohol cocktail beverages that do not use authentic moonshine as a base.
Making alcohol with grains is a practice that goes back hundreds, if not thousands, of years — before the founding of the United States and definitely before the founding of the modern South. European farmers and common people would often ferment grains and make their own whiskey as early as the 16th century (and most likely before this). The term “moonshine” was used at this point to refer to this alcoholic drink.
In America, moonshine has its origins in the major grain-producing states and those considered “frontier” areas such as early Pennsylvania, Kentucky, and Tennessee and several states in the modern South. Because moonshine was so simple to make with excess grains, farmers would often make moonshine whiskey with their extra grains left over after a harvest so that nothing would be wasted.
Moonshine, unlike some other alcoholic beverages, has a simple recipe and can be made by anyone. This fact alone makes it incredibly easy for anybody to make their own moonshine. Unfortunately, this practice can be illegal in most states — and it’s not as simple as it seems despite the minimal list of ingredients. It takes a practiced hand to perfect the process. Moonshine uses a mixture of the following ingredients:
First, the corn was ground into cornmeal and soaked in hot water. Sometimes sugar was added at this point. Yeast was sprinkled in to start the fermentation of the corn in the water. At this point, the mixture was called “mash” (modern moonshiners will often still use this term). The mash was heated and stirred as the alcohol evaporated into a barrel and then pumped into another proofing barrel. There was no aging period or amount of time that the moonshine needed to sit out before it was ready to consume — and the same is true of the process today.
Moonshiners and bootleggers are often confused with one another, but these words refer to two different activities. Moonshiners simply made the alcohol, while bootleggers were individuals notorious for hiding flasks of alcohol in the tops of their boots — naturally — in the 1800s. Bootleggers eventually used cars to smuggle alcohol wherever they liked. Moonshiners were the producers in this operation, while bootleggers were the “runners” or those who hid and transported this illicit alcohol around the area. Bootleggers could be moonshiners as well, but moonshiners were not necessarily bootleggers.
According to federal law, making alcohol at home is considered illegal. You can be heavily fined if you attempt to distill alcohol without a permit — but artisan distilleries, including those in Tennessee, Kentucky, Georgia, South Carolina, and Alabama, can produce legal moonshine. Moonshine tourism has grown over the last decade due to the opening of small moonshine distilleries in these states.
Fortunately for moonshine lovers, the Prohibition era is over, and alcohol is no longer restricted for those over 21 years of age; however, creating moonshine at home is still frowned upon by the federal government. This doesn’t mean it’s illegal everywhere. The practice of making alcohol in secret has been translated over the years to making a profit in small, local distilleries.
The legalization of moonshine in certain states in the early 2000s and 2010s led to the opening of several local locations specializing in artisan drinks and cocktails made with real moonshine. If you’re on the lookout for local moonshine drinks in the Smoky Mountain area, including Gatlinburg and Sevierville, be careful that you prioritize distilleries that make their own moonshine. Authentic moonshine, as you’ve learned by now, is not simply whiskey that’s mixed with flavors to create the popular moonshine cocktails that are prevalent in the area today.
People who want to taste authentic moonshine don’t have to brew their own at home in their bathtubs (yes, the drink was actually made this way at a few points in history). If y’all are interested in learning about local history and tasting real moonshine-based drinks, you’re in luck! Moonshine tours are quickly becoming a popular recreational activity for those interested in the history of the craft and tasting some of the most popular beverages in the region. At Tennessee Shine Co., we’ve got four locations and a varied menu of moonshine for even the pickiest alcohol connoisseur.
At Tennessee Shine Co., we’re aware of the long and winding history of the moonshine that exists in our state — and we strive to respect this legacy and educate others about the craft when they visit our region. Quality matters. Our moonshine whiskey, shine wines, and moonshine-based drinks are unique in this respect: We use our real, on-site-produced moonshine as a starting point for all of our drinks on our menu — even our pumpkin spice moonshine! If you’re interested in learning more about our products, participating in free tastings with our shop’s bartenders, or taking our Moonshine History Tour in Sevierville, please get in touch today. We look forward to meeting you and introducing you to the living history of the moonshine craft!