There’s a funny thing about alcohol. Every time the government makes it hard to get, the greater the lengths humans go to get it. Throughout human history we’ve found mind-bendingly creative ways to obtain our precious hooch, and the higher the government barriers the larger the black market. But moonshining isn’t just an American Prohibition era story, it’s a modern day–and global–phenomenon. So grab your jug and listen along as we compare moonshine myths and lore with modern day reality.

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Transcript:

Jarrett Dieterle:

In the late sixties, a scrawny young man named Marvin Sutton was kicking around a local bar in the western-appalachian regions of North Carolina. Feeling peckish, he dropped a dime into the bar’s popcorn machine. But the machine didn’t kick out any popcorn. Most people would have chalked something like this off to just plain bad luck, or maybe flagged it for the bar owner, and moved on. But Marvin Sutton was not most people.

Enraged, he took a nearby pool cue and shattered the machine, sending popcorn everywhere. Just like that, a legend was born.

The fight with the popcorn machine might have been forgotten if it hadn’t led to the greatest nickname in the history of nicknames. See, from that point forward, Marvin would be known only as “Popcorn” Sutton. And by this point, he was well on his way to becoming one of the most infamous backwoods outlaws that ever lived.

Jarrett Dieterle:

Like most Appalachian residents of his time that were descended from Scotch-Irish stock, Popcorn had a penchant for distilling his own corn whiskey back in the mountains. Despite Prohibition having been repealed decades before, home distilling remained illegal and Popcorn became notorious for his repeated run-ins with the law.

But Popcorn’s great genius was not simply making great moonshine–although his whiskey was known as some of the best around. No, his real talent was marketing.

In 1999, he self-published an autobiography called Me and My Likker, which even the New York Times reviewed–they called it “rambling, obscene, and hilarious.” He followed up his writing career by branching into movies with a self-directed documentary in which he filmed himself illegally making hooch near a mountain stream.

Jarrett Dieterle:

The book and film quickly became cult sensations. Meetings with celebrities, gushing newspaper profiles, and even a feature role in a History Channel movie about Appalachia followed. But, as with any celebrity, the star can only shine for so long.

In 2007, Popcorn made the mistake of telling an undercover agent that he had a thousand barrels of his famous whiskey hidden in a secret location. Once the whiskey was found, Popcorn was prosecuted–and unlike past legal run-ins, there was little leniency this time. In spite of a recent cancer diagnosis, Popcorn was sentenced to prison for over a year.

But the man who fought an inanimate popcorn machine found it a little tough to swallow being jailed for something he considered part of his Appalachian–and American–birthright. On March 16, 2009, Marvin “Popcorn” Sutton was found dead of self-inflicted carbon monoxide poisoning. Despite this tragic ending, Popcorn seemed determined to go out with a flair, ordering his descendants to adorn his grave with a simple epitaph: “Popcorn Said Fuck You.”

Jarrett Dieterle:

Popcorn remains one of the most famous American moonshiners who ever lived, and he checks off nearly every stereotype of what we think of when it comes to moonshine: Backwoods. Rebellious. Redneck-y. But Popcorn is only one part of the story. That’s because moonshining was–and is–a widespread global phenomenon that involves a lot more than worn out tropes and colorful characters.

I’m Jarrett Dieterle, author of Give Me Liberty and Give Me a Drink, and this is The Right to Drink.

[interlude]

Jarrett Dieterle:

Hey everybody and welcome to the show where we talk about drinking and everything that gets in the way. Today we’re going to talk about the weird–and surprising–world of moonshine.

Jarrett Dieterle:

But first, where does moonshine come from? How did it become such a cultural phenomenon in America, and why is it so often identified with Appalachia? Well, there’s no better person to answer these questions than Max Watman, author of Chasing the White Dog, a hilariously entertaining book about the history and culture of American moonshine. It turns out moonshine’s American origin story traces back to the earliest moments of our country:

Max Watman:

The backstory is as old as America. I mean, it starts with the whiskey rebellion in the 1790s when Alexander Hamilton decides to invoke the first tax, the first excise tax that was ever leveled at a federal level. And the problem with that tax of course, was that nobody had any money to pay it. It was mostly, now it’s mostly thought of as a thing that happened in Pennsylvania. I think that’s really because the only person that they could even find to ask for the money was in Pennsylvania. They found one dude who would go out into the fields and run around and ask farmers for cash because that was a losing idea. The farmers didn’t have any cash and nobody who knew them wanted to be the person who showed up and asked them for it. So they resisted in Pennsylvania…

Max Watman:

And from there it kind of goes, those populations drift down the mountain range there on the East coast all the way down into Virginia and in North Carolina. It’s the Germans and it’s the early Fins and it’s the Scotch-Irish especially, and they never stopped making moonshine. And, you know, they’re not making moonshine when moonshine isn’t a thing like, so when Thomas Jefferson repeals the whiskey tax, they’re suddenly not making moonshine because there’s no such thing. I don’t think their behavior has changed at all from 1790 to now.

Jarrett Dieterle:

So now we know how moonshine made its way to Appalachia–as mentioned, Popcorn Sutton’s relatives were likely some of these very Scotch-Irish settlers that traveled down into North Carolina and continued making hooch. But Max hits upon another issue: What is moonshine, and when does distilling become moonshining?

To answer this question, I turned to Kevin Kosar, a policy scholar and drinks writer who investigated this very issue in his book Moonshine: A Global History. As Kevin explains, the first step in understanding moonshine is understanding the origin of the word itself:

Kevin Kosar:

Well we know that the word moonshine means the shine of the moon. And if you go back about 600 years or so, the word was commonly used to refer to, you know, the light reflecting light from the sun that reflects off of the moon, the shine of the moon. But in the English language, it also picked up a connotation of something that was illusory. Like, you know, when the moon’s light reflects off of water. You know, poets and literary sorts would write stuff and bring in that sort of connotation. And then that sort of bled over further into, you know, maybe things that might not be true or might just be false, but appearing as true. Those started to be called moonshine. And it was in the dictionary of the vulgar tongue that was produced in England in the 17th century that we first see a reference to illicitly produced Brandy from Kent being called moonshine. And that I think got picked up in the lexicon and ultimately made its way over to the United States.

Jarrett Dieterle:

Ok, but still: What is moonshine? Is it something that can be defined at all? Or is it some mysterious, amorphous term that defies characterization? Perhaps it’s like an antiquated version of the word “Blockchain”: A term everyone says, but nobody really understands.

Jarrett Dieterle:

Luckily, there is a real definition of moonshine, as Kevin clarifies:

Kevin Kosar:

In my book, I define moonshine as any illegally produced distilled spirits. Now that’s a little different from what some other people think. Some people associate moonshine with liquor produced by corn by guys in Appalachia and Southern parts of the U.S. Others insist that, you know, moonshine is the stuff that is made from grain in the Hills of the Northeast of the United States. And I think that’s an utterly artificial definition that ignores the fact that, you know, liquor is liquor. And if it’s produced illegally, that’s a universal as a universal commonality: Legal liquor versus illegal liquor.

Jarrett Dieterle:

The key word there? Illegal. That means, by definition, that there is some type of law or government-imposed barrier involved–and that people who make moonshine are breaking that law. But if this is the case, there’s nothing inherently rural or backwoods about moonshine. And sure enough, moonshine can be–and is–made anywhere.

Jarrett Dieterle:

You can even find it in densely populated urban areas, as Max found out while researching his book:

Max Watman:

I think the biggest surprise for me moving into the research phase of the book–so quite some time ago, well before the book came out, really when it was just when it was me kind of going really?–was that this gigantic moonshine still exploded in Philadelphia. And it was big enough to provide well over a thousand gallons a week for sale, which, you know, that’s not a hobby, that’s not somebody like part-time goof, that’s a real business. And everything about it seemed wrong to me because it didn’t line up with anything that anybody had ever told me a story about. You know, I mean, we all think that moonshining is a folklore tradition and there’s a lot of people who work really hard to keep it in that line to keep everyone thinking that it’s just all about fiddle music and bluegrass and rusty shotguns.

Jarrett Dieterle:

And the truth is that it’s a continuing criminal enterprise. You know, it’s an, it’s a commercial inebriate in the black market. As I investigated, you know, kind of sparked by that discovery, I just found more and more of it. I found it everywhere.

Jarrett Dieterle:

And I think the truth, the truth is that historically that’s always been the case that any place where people want to have a drink, which is everywhere, people are going to make it themselves either because they can’t afford it or because it’s difficult to get, or the, the laws are too weird or just because it’s their traditional family activity.

Jarrett Dieterle:

So now we can see that moonshine can–and does–exist everywhere. But for an activity that is against the law, a whole lot of people still do it. And their reasons for doing it are oftentimes a lot more complex than you might think, as we’ll talk about next.

Jarrett Dieterle:

[AD BREAK: If you’re interested in the things we’re talking about on today’s podcast, be sure to check out my new cocktail book, Give Me Liberty and Give Me a Drink!, which provides a rollicking, recipe-packed tour of America’s most insane and laughable booze laws. Give Me Liberty and Give Me a Drink is available from all major and independent bookstores. Also be sure check out DrinksReform.org, a website and weekly newsletter from the R Street Institute, which covers the intersection of alcohol and our legal system.]

Jarrett Dieterle:

In modern day America, homebrewing and winemaking are both widespread and legal. But keep in mind, that hasn’t always been the case. It took until the late 70s for the federal government to finally legalize homebrewing. And even today, home distilling remains very much illegal. Which, as Max discovered, creates a bit of a problem when you’re attempting to make your own moonshine for the book you’re writing:

Max Watman:

I was terrified. I lived in a state of perpetual anxiety about getting caught doing this, especially because I was poking the bear really, you know. I would spend Wednesday sitting around with ABC agents–revenuers–talking about moonshiners and going out to dinner with them. And then I would spend Friday back at home, stirring my mash and, you know, drinking moonshine. And it was nerve wracking because you’re reminded at every pass that it is not just against the law, that it’s profoundly against the law, that you’re really breaking a lot of laws. And I would not have had any excuse about not understanding them either. You know, it’s true. Here’s the pile like, here’s the pile of Manila folders explaining how well I understand the laws I was breaking, you know.

Max Watman:

And, I developed, I mean, I had some strategies. Some of the experiments I did, I had a license to produce fuel for a little while, which I thought might help me. Cause it is a tough argument, whether or not your fuel smells too good to be running your lawn mower. It seems to me, you know, I like my lawnmower to smell like apricots. But I guess, I just kind of crossed my fingers that really, and hoped that everybody would understand that the spirit of the thing that I was doing was to learn it, to educate myself.

Jarrett Dieterle:

But again, for something that’s illegal, moonshining seems to be pretty damn popular. In fact, there are large swaths of the American cultural landscape dedicated to glorifying it. Popular sports were even founded on moonshining: for instance, NASCAR got its start when a bunch of ex-bootleggers realized their souped up getaway cars were good for something besides outrunning the law.

Jarrett Dieterle:

Even today in America, it seems like everyone–including many law enforcement officials–kind of give moonshining the old wink-and-nod approach:

Max Watman:

I thought about it when I was, as far back as when I was selling Chasing the White Dog, when I was taking it around to publishers, I realized that if I was pitching a book within which I was going to build a meth lab, I’d be in jail already. You know, I would have been in jail within the first week of doing that. And for some reason, walking around town and telling everybody that I was going to build a moonshine still just made their, it brought a twinkle to their eye. Everybody wanted to show up to the meeting in case I brought some with me..

Max Watman:

Imagine that in any other scenario where everyone comes to the meeting, because maybe Max brought some meth. No, that’s not going to be what happens.

Jarrett Dieterle:

The more you study moonshine, the more you start to pick up patterns. You see, there are a few distinct camps when it comes to moonshining.

Jarrett Dieterle:

First, there are what we’ll call the tinkerers and hobbyists. These folks might be mechanics or engineers or foodies who enjoy the craft of making distilled spirits and want to try it on their own. Or perhaps they simply learned it from their grandfather and want to keep up the family tradition. They’re a passionate group, but they don’t produce a ton of hooch. And, at least in America, they are also the group most likely to get that wink-and-a-nod from the local police department.

Jarrett Dieterle:

But then are the people who might prefer legal alcohol but for some reason find it easier–and cheaper–to make illegal alcohol instead. In some poor communities around the world, for example, it can be nearly impossible to find an accessible supply of legal booze. In these situations, the government either taxes alcohol so highly that no one can afford it, or it bans alcohol outright. The easy workaround is just to make it yourself, even if doing so is technically against the law.

Jarrett Dieterle:

But as Kevin notes, when the government makes it really hard to get legal booze, it also creates a third group. These are the criminal syndicates and gangs that get involved in bootlegging in an effort to supply that cheap illegal liquor to communities cut off from legal booze:

Kevin Kosar:

Moonshine has been with us a very long time just as all fermented intoxicating beverages have been with us a very long time. You know, thousands of years ago, humans figured out the basic techniques of fermentation, which can lead to the production of wine and beer and, in ancient Alexandria, Egypt, that was probably where a couple thousand years ago they first figured out how to distill. Which is a step further than simple fermentation because you’re taking something that’s fermented, heating it up, and then capturing the vapors, and thus you have this distilled or spirit version of the beverage you were messing with originally. And it’s much more potent, which human beings like that, and this all gets to the bigger issue of: Humans like pleasure, humans enjoy intoxication.

Kevin Kosar:

Well, if you begin with the operating assumption that people will want to drink intoxicants, and amongst that class will be liquor, you then have to ask yourself, how will they acquire said liquor? Certainly, making it oneself is very doable. Today with the internet, it’s even more doable. You can simply go online and you can order grain and you can order tubing and you can order all the things you need. And you could watch one video after another, on YouTube and elsewhere, that will walk you through the steps of how to rig up your own still and cook up your own mash and make your own liquor. So it’s very easy to do. Now, for most people, they don’t want to go through all those hassles. I mean, making liquor is hard. And if you screw it up, you can poison yourself and go blind or drop dead.

Jarrett Dieterle:

So it’s much easier to be able to just buy it from somebody who sells it and who can be trusted. If you have a good market economy with sensible regulation, you will have a lot of very good producers of distilled spirits to whom the public can turn. If you don’t have that, which is the case in many parts of the world, you will have a black market crop up.

Jarrett Dieterle:

As Kevin hits upon, alcohol can be dangerous if it’s made incorrectly. And it only becomes more dangerous on the black market. If you’re buying booze from the dealer down the street, you don’t really know the person who made the alcohol in the first place and if they’re trustworthy. They might have taken shortcuts in making their moonshine, or used questionable ingredients that don’t belong anywhere near a still. Which is why at least some level of government regulation makes sense when it comes to alcohol.

Jarrett Dieterle:

But counterintuitively, history has shown time and again that too much government involvement can create the very environment in which an unregulated black market thrives:

Kevin Kosar:

In the United States, we had this experiment with prohibition and it accelerated the production of illicit and often dangerous spirits. Other nations did the same thing, and they too saw gang the rise of gangsters, bad booze being peddled, people ending up in the hospital. You know, it’s remarkable to see that roughly a hundred years ago, the Western world went through this experiment with prohibition, trying to get people to stop drinking liquor by simply banning it’s trafficking and sale.

Kevin Kosar:

So you had the United States, you had England, you had a bunch of European nations experiment with this. They tried and it didn’t go well. Now we see another part of the world, far East Indonesia, places like that, where prohibition is being pushed. Once again, under the name of religious principles. And unfortunately history is repeating itself. You read regularly in the media reports from India and elsewhere of lots of people dying or becoming hospitalized, very, very sick after having gone to a party and somebody borrowed a bunch of moonshine that they thought was safe and it turned out it had ethanol or some other toxin in it.

Jarrett Dieterle:

So moonshine is very much a problem in many parts of the world even today. What’s the answer in those areas? Kevin points to countries like Kenya which have started working to bring their booze black markets out of the shadows:

Kevin Kosar:

A classic example of that is Kenya. Kenya has long had this illicit spirit called Chang’aa, and it’s sometimes made for bananas, but it’s not like there are rules. It can be made for virtually anything, which is a slightly terrifying thing…

Kevin Kosar:

And Kenya has struggled with it for a long time. And finally, they realized that the reason chang’aa is so popular is because poor people can buy it really cheaply because the people who make it use crappy products, and they don’t have to buy fancy machinery, and they don’t have to pay taxes, and they don’t have to do with regulatory inspections and all these other costs. And they can make this stuff on the cheap and push it out the door.

Kevin Kosar:

So Kenya decided, okay, you know what?  We actually have to develop a better legal booze market. We need to start thinking about our pricing, our taxes, and we also need to think about taking this changa’aa and disassociating it from illicit markets, but turning it into a legal drink of national pride. And now they are going and they are licensing people to legally produce and label stuff is changa’aa. And to sell it at a price point that is accessible to more of the population. They’ve had a lot of hitches and implementation along the way, but conceptually, that’s absolutely the way to go. I mean, ask yourself, would I go in like duck into some alley and buy a jug of some clear liquor for $10 when I can just go into a liquor store and get a really nice safe high-quality bottle for 15? Probably not.

Jarrett Dieterle:

Another good example of illegal booze going legal happened right here in the United States over the past several decades. Several prolific moonshiners have “gone straight” and started selling their version of moonshine–even though technically it should no longer be called moonshine–in real liquor stores. NASCAR driver Junior Johnson is perhaps the most famous, taking his family’s moonshining business into the legit marketplace with his popular Midnight Moon brand of ‘shine. Heck, even Popcorn Sutton’s family is selling a legal branded version of what is supposedly his moonshine recipe.

Jarrett Dieterle:

The reason? Follow the money. In modern America, you can attain a much wider market footprint if you’re operating legally instead of illegally. Which means you can make a lot more profit. But that doesn’t mean America has fixed its moonshine problem.

Jarrett Dieterle:

After all, if you’ve learned one thing from this show, it’s that in many parts of America it’s still more difficult to get alcohol than it should be. We have everything from dry counties to government-operated liquor stores that can make buying alcohol trickier than it needs to be. And as Max notes, moonshine still exists as a result:

Max Watman:

We think of alcohol as something easy to get, but the truth of the matter is that it’s pretty expensive. It, um, is often limited in the way it’s sold, especially by the glass. Um, it’s very hard in a lot of rural communities to get a drink…

Max Watman:

And I think that in places like Philadelphia, where the rules about when and where you can buy alcohol are just dizzying, the idea that you could, instead of engaging in all of that, just go into a corner store and get a little illicit moonshine out of the cooler is the obvious solution. It is what’s going to happen every time.

Max Watman:

So what to do? Well, lowering some of those unnecessary government barriers is a good start. That could fix the access-to-alcohol problems that lead to more moonshine.

Jarrett Dieterle:

But what about those hobby distillers who will probably keep doing it anyway? Well, as Kevin argues, it may also be time to start re-thinking whether home distilling needs to be illegal in the first place:

Kevin Kosar:

I think if history has shown us anything, it’s that some people are going to try to moonshine no matter what, even if it’s not economical. They’re going to do it because they’re curious about it, they want to challenge themselves, they think it would be cool, you know, or it plays to their desire to tinker with stuff. And if you accept that as a brute fact of life, the question then becomes: Okay, how can we ensure then that there are no major downsides to this?

Kevin Kosar:

As we’ve seen, if you distill incorrectly, you can create dangerous and unsafe alcohol, or even cause a fire–let’s not forget you’re dealing with a chemical process here that involves highly flammable liquids. That’s why Kevin has suggested ideas like having regional agricultural colleges put out instructions or provide classes on how to distill safely. And perhaps trade associations, or even local fire departments, could help inspect home distilling operations to ensure their safety.

Jarrett Dieterle:

As we’ve hit upon throughout this podcast, it seems clear that there is a better way to manage the uneasy relationship between government and alcohol. Instead of maintaining a system that outright bans moonshining–while at the same time incentivizing its very existence–we could bring it out of the shadows and try to make it safer.

Jarrett Dieterle:

Even Popcorn Sutton might approve of that! Ok, yeah, probably not. But if we asked him after a couple glasses of his famous ‘shine, maybe we could get him to go along.

Jarrett Dieterle:

I’m Jarrett Dieterle, and I wrote today’s episode of the show. Our show is produced and edited by Greg Benson, host of The Speakeasy and Back Bar, a new podcast coming soon from Heritage Radio Network. The Music is written, produced, and recorded by Jessica Leigh Graves. The cover art for the show was created by Ann Phelan. And I’d also like to thank Bill Gray and the R Street Institute, as well as today’s guests Max Watman and Kevin Kosar.

And if you enjoy this show, check out my new book, Give Me Liberty and Give Me a Drink!, as well as DrinksReform.org.

Thank you all for following along on our journey and listening to this first season of The Right to Drink. Wherever and however you listened, it was our pleasure talking with you about drinking and everything that gets in the way.