Making that southern 'white lightin'

Thursday, April 30, 2009
Moonshine stills need ground corn to make the mash. Photos by Amanda Powers

Moonshine plays a huge part in the history of the Ozarks. "I have been somewhere where someone was making moonshine all of my life," a local resident said of growing up in the Ozarks.

Since prohibition is long gone, moonshine is primarily made for personal consumption now, but in the old days it often was a way for many to put food on the table.

Revenuers, or men trying to enforce the federal liquor laws, spent much of their time in the mountains and hollers of the Ozarks. These men would risk their lives trying to find moonshine stills and put them out of business. Some might be surprised to know that moonshine stills are still being used in this part of Arkansas.

According to a local resident who said he grew up around moonshine, in the old days, moonshiners would use a mechanism called a thumper barrel on their stills. When the moonshiners would start their stills up the thumper would make a loud noise like a drum. Revenuers would sit in the woods and listen for this noise in order to find the stills.

Often times, even when the revenuers found the stills, they were guarded by men with guns.

"My still has a story," a local man said. "Some guy in Oklahoma had it before I did and he got busted. My still has a dent where a bullet hit it when the guy was shot at."

If the revenuers found a still and were able to get to it, they would usually destroy it and arrest the operators, if possible.

Someone almost always had to tell the revenuers where the still was, because the moonshiners knew the woods so well and their stills were in places that were very difficult to find. Moonshiners would usually brew at night, hence the name moonshine.

The process involved in making moonshine is a tedious one that requires much practice and attention according to a local man. Although his grandfather made moonshine and he grew up around it, he said it didn't just come naturally. "I had a pretty good idea of how to make it from hearing people talk about it," he said. "But I have read a lot of literature on the subject and it still took me a while to get it just right."

According to the man, in the old days moonshiners would make their shine with white corn and ground yellow corn, but now people usually use sugar because it's easier to get. "It takes eight pounds of sugar to produce one gallon of shine," he said.

There is a lot to making the "white lightening" but this man said a still usually has a copper bottom, a copper coil and a barrel. The barrel is sealed with rye dough, which is just rye flour and water. "You take the rye dough and rub it around the top to create a seal," he said. "When the dough dries it becomes very hard."

"When it's (the moonshine) the right alcohol content, you can light it and it will burn real blue -- that's good shine." He said moonshine that is real clear is a sign that it hasn't been filtered, which can be dangerous.

According to the man, if moonshine isn't filtered there is a chance it contains brandy grease. "Filtering it (the moonshine) will take the brandy grease out of it -- brandy grease will make you sick."

He said in the old days, some of the moonshiners would use old radiators to make their shine. The radiators would sometimes still have antifreeze in them and people would get sick that way.

Another thing many people don't know, according to this local resident, is that the famous southern sport NASCAR got its start from moonshine. Often times runners, the people who delivered the moonshine, would modify their cars to outrun the police, such as portrayed in the television show, "The Dukes of Hazard" with the infamous General Lee.

According to many articles on the Internet about moonshine, a gallon of the popular liquor used to sell for anywhere from $5 to $15. Now, according to the local man, a gallon of good shine sells for anywhere from $80-$100.

The law permits people to make beer and wine. A household of two adults is allowed to produce up to 200 gallons of beer or wine in a calender year for personal consumption. A household of one adult is allowed 100 gallons.

This process is exempt from state fees as long as it is made on premises and not for sale.

As far as moonshine production goes, it is still illegal. According to ATF Agent Grover Crossland, no one governs the production nor sanitation of making moonshine because it is illegal.

"Moonshine has never been an enforcement issue here in town (Salem)," Salem Chief of Police Albert Roork said. "There has been a few cases in the county (Fulton) though."

It may be illegal, but moonshining is still a trade. A local man said, "In the good ole' days every community had a well witcher, a preacher, a moonshiner and a carpenter -- thats what made a community."

"If this world went to the pot all I'd need is some grain and my still to feed my family," the man said. "People are always gonna drink."

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