by Andrew Bosworth, Ph.D.
A new and outstanding Discovery Channel series reveals the world of “moonshiners” in the Appalachian Mountains. They turn corn into alcohol.
These moonshiners are 21st-century frontiersmen, complete with overalls, shotguns, battered pickup trucks and cell phones. They find cold-water creeks and set up camouflaged stills in the woods.
It’s a family affair, with each man recruiting perhaps a brother, an uncle, teenage sons and some dogs.
Some of the moonshiners speak in accents so thick (mountain accents, not southern) that Discovery Channel includes English subtitles. This was the case for a thin, bearded man called “Popcorn” whose moonshine was much in demand. Popcorn was as old as dirt.
Most people assume that moonshine has been around since the Prohibition of the 1920s. Then there was the Great Depression of the 1930s, when bottles of moonshine even served as currency.
But as the moonshiners themselves make clear, their ancestors, descended from Irish and Scottish immigrants, have been practicing this craft for some 300 years, passing it down from generation to generation.
The Discovery Channel show revealed – without being direct about it – that prohibition does not work.
State and federal authorities make the attempt to crack down, arresting and jailing the occasional moonshiner.
Not surprisingly, the enforcement effort against moonshiners mimics what one would expect of a military operation in Iraq. Agents get all geared up and use terms like “intel” and “bad guys.”
So, now we have state agents running around the Appalachian Mountains looking like Special Forces troops, stalking self-described country hicks and their teenage sons, and speaking about them as if they were domestic terrorists.
But moonshiners remain busy, despite the efforts of the “lawmen.”
As one moonshiner put it:
“Govmint is not runnin’ its own business too good. Our business is booming.”
It makes more sense to legalize moonshine at the county level, as has been done by several counties in North Carolina.
Legalization of moonshine encourages accountability, with families sticking proud labels on bottles, even if only signed with a marker on masking tape.
At present, in clandestine circumstances, some moonshiners cut corners and don’t dilute their product properly, or make it in contaminated vessels. The results can be fatal.
Legalizing moonshine reduces the threat to the public. Mere reputation is probably the most effective means for consumer protection, though it is likely that some counties will insist on testing samples.
It would be sad, however, to see moonshine go the way of other products: irradiated, homogenized, bar-coded, taxed.
Some products in America simply need to be sold out of front porches or the backs of pickup trucks – for it to be a free country, that is.
Some products in America need to be sold at Farmer’s Markets, with no track-and-trace technology, no hermetically-sealed plastic bags.
After all, if you want sterile food, you already know where to shop.
Do we really want to like in a country where state and federal authorities arrest Mennonite farmers for selling raw milk?
Or shut down some neighborhood kids’ lemonade stand?
Or insist that Farmer John have a permit for his roadside watermelon stand?
Or crash a “farm-to-table” picnic, organized by several dozen organic food enthusiasts and aging hippies?
That is where we are now.
Moonshiners are engaged in unadulterated, small-scale free enterprise, with no subsidies or bailouts, just the law of supply and demand.
Meantime, government today favors larger corporations: “crapitalism.”
It would be sad if state and federal “lawmen” eradicated moonshine.
Moonshine comes from America’s deep history.
As a young and somewhat drunk moonshiner eloquently put it:
“If you really love your country, you’re going to have to love moonshine.”
North Carolina Moonshine
Last image: Discovery Channel