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More Southern Food
August 17, 2011
An excerpt from An Irresistible History of Southern Food by Rick McDaniel, published by The History Press.
On March 3, 1791, the newly minted United States government imposed a federal excise tax on stills and distilled spirits. This didn’t set well with the Scotsmen who settled the rugged coves and hollows of the Appalachian Mountains, as it reminded them a little too much of the tax the British had made them pay back home. Since they had dodged the British tax collectors for years, they pretty much ignored the tax and started making liquor on the sly.
For someSoutherners, it was the amount of tax levied by the government that kept their whiskey making on the other side of the law. As one mountaineer explained to Horace Kephart, author of Our Southern Highlanders (1913): “Nobody refuses to pay his taxes for taxes is fair and squar’. Taxes costs mebbe three cents on the dollar; and that’s all right. But revenue costs a dollar and ten cents on twenty cents’ worth o’ liquor; and that’s robbin’ the people with a gun to their faces. Now, yan’s my field o’ corn. I gather the corn, and shuck hit, and grind hit my own self, and the woman she bakes us a pone o’ bread to eat—and I don’t pay no tax, do I? Then why can’t I make some o’ my corn into pure whiskey to drink, without payin’ tax?”
Although moonshining occurred in many areas of the South, it was mostly concentrated in the Blue Ridge Mountains of western North Carolina, eastern Tennessee and northeast Georgia.
Corn liquor was a valuable trading commodity in a region where cash money was scarce.
Someone who had corn liquor could trade for powder and shot, flour, gingham and calico for the lady of the house, chewing tobacco or whatever else they needed or wanted to make life in the wilderness more pleasant.
Oftentimes would-be moonshiners went in with family or friends to pool resources to purchase a used still or to procure the parts to assemble a new one. The basic still consisted of a sealed copper kettle or pot in which to cook the mash and a copper condensing coil called a worm.
The distillation process for moonshine required a fire to “cook” off the alcohol. Since this produced large amounts of smoke and steam, the process was carried out at night far back in the woods, where the fire was indistinguishable from any normal campfire. Since the operation was carried out by the light of the moon, the word moonshine entered the American vernacular as both noun and verb.