::Moonshine Makes A Comeback In NC
By R. Gregg, Raleigh Chronicle Editor In Chief
Tuesday, July 17, 2007
MADISON, NC - When Junior Johnson showed up at a nearby ABC store in June to promote his new line of "legal moonshine," it certainly seemed like the status of moonshiners had come full circle.
Instead of running from "revenuers" in fast cars on back roads to deliver moonshine like he did in the 1950's, Johnson is now selling his brand of white lightning in state-owned stores with their full blessing.
When he visited the Madison ABC store, not far from Stokesdale in Rockingham County, Johnson signed autographs and showed bottles of the new "Junior Johnson's Midnight Moon" liquor which have been in big demand.
Located in an old train station on East Murphy Street in Madison, the Piedmont Distillers company is the only (legal) liquor distiller in North Carolina and produces Junior's Midnight Moon liquor. It also produces another brand called CatDaddy which it says is distilled three times to make it a little smoother.
Moonshine On Town Seal
Only a few miles from Madison, where moonshine is now legally made, the Town of Stokesdale recognizes its past association with white lightning.
The official seal for the Town of Stokesdale has a moonshine still clearly depicted along with bottles of shine underneath the distilling tubes. An earlier version of the seal had the traditional "XXX" letters visible, clearly marking the item as moonshine but those have been removed in more recent editions.
The town seal may be the only one in North Carolina that recognizes that part of our past and the moonshine picture is not a mistake -- the town chose the design from over 70 different entries in 1994.
The design made by Clifton Matthews, who at that time was the town clerk, intended to show the town's reliance on farming and other products derived from the earth.
"While the fertile soils and the agricultural nature of the town produced abundant crops, the creeks of the northwest corner of the Town provided the water to make moonshine as a way to supplement farm income," says the Town of Stokesdale's website.
Moonshine In The Area's Past
Many folks in Stokesdale and Rockingham County can remember back when moonshine wasn't quite made legally and when you didn't buy it at the local ABC store.
At least one long time resident who was familiar with the business and didn't wish to be identified says that decades ago through the 1950's and 1960's, moonshine was readily available for purchase at a well-known house in town near the Stokesdale Fire Station.
The moonshine was not made there, but the person who lived there certainly knew where to procure it and served as the equivalent of the ABC store back in the day, making them a lot of money in the process, he said.
Although not the capital of moonshining activities in North Carolina (Junior's hometown of Wilkesboro, NC probably holds that title), Stokesdale and nearby Rockingham County certainly had their share of rural moonshine stills.
With rural backwoods that held plenty of streams to provide water and also corn harvests in the farming community, the area had all it needed to produce corn liquor, otherwise known as moonshine.
How Moonshine Was Made
According to the long time Stokesdale resident, making moonshine was almost an art form with different moonshiners adding their own personal touches to the liquor.
It wasn't hard to spot a moonshiner says the Stokesdale old-timer -- they were the ones buying 100 pounds of sugar for the fermenting process at the local supermarket.
Some revenuers picked up on this and less than subtle moonshiners were busted when they bought too much sugar at one time.
Certain producers had better reputations than others for quality liquor and were able to command higher prices. Often people did not buy from moonshiners who they didn't know.
It wasn't just a matter of taste -- poorly made liquor could kill you. The old-timer said that growing up in the mountains of North Carolina, their favorite uncle -- a frequent drinker of corn liquor -- died of lead poisoning after getting hold of a bad batch and his family found him dead underneath a tree with his drink still in his hand.
Still, despite the risk, people drank the home-made liquor especially from the prohibition era in the 1920's through the 1940's and 1950's. Moonshine wasn't just for having a good time as home remedies viewed the liquor as a treatment for certain ailments.
"My mother would give us kids a tablespoon or two when we were sick and it would clear up our chest when we had the croup," said the resident.
The moonshine was often made using 55 gallon pots or drums and copper tubing, but sometime revenues didn't have a high regard for quality control and even used such items as old truck radiators or other containers which could contain lead solder.
The moonshine making process including putting the corn and sugar together in the large "pot" (it's also referred to often as "pot liquor") and then lighting a fire underneath to heat up the mash. It would take several days to ferment, and revenuers often sought the refuge of a cluster of trees to avoid giving off telltale signs of smoke.
When busting up stills, revenuers or sheriff's deputies would often carry an axe, using it to put holes in the sides of the metal containers. Sometimes, a still would be busted up after being found and no one would even know who it belonged to. Stills were sometimes set up in remote areas on someone else's land to avoid being caught by the police.
Most often such moonshine operations were located near a stream to provide a clean and clear source of water. Many people hiking across North Carolina may have come across old stills in the woods and wondered why a bunch of metal pipes and barrells were there rusting away in the middle of nowhere.
Delivery Of Moonshine
As with any illegal product, one of the challenges in selling moonshine was getting the product to your customers.
A favorite of moonshine runners were the 1939-1941 Fords, says the Stokesdale resident. Often, they would take out the stock springs in the suspension and put in beefed up over-springs that would keep the car from sagging when carrying a heavy load of moonshine, giving away their true purpose.
Instead of carrying the liquor in jugs or glass gallon containers, some moonshiners would install a secret tank back behind the seat to allow for quick and discrete loading and unloading of the moonshine.
Some painted their cars different colors on occasion to keep the police guessing as to which car might be carrying 'shine. Later, some even installed smoke screens that would fill the windshield of chasing police cars with smoke. On a backcountry gravel road, with the prospect of driving into another car or off into a ditch, police had to slow down.
Our source says that back then, the local police or sheriff's deputies would not chase a car for very long, especially if they knew it was a moonshine driver knowing they were underpowered when dealing with moonshiner's fast cars.
The federal revenue agents on the other hand were more tenacious, but many of them had problems following moonshiners on back roads that they often knew better than the back of their hand.
When drivers hopped up their cars to outrun the police, they made modifications that were only visible if you looked under the hood at the powerful engines. Hence the term "stock car" was born and what we know today as NASCAR had its roots in the NC mountains and Piedmont areas.
Junior Johnson himself stopped running moonshine in 1955 and started racing cars, winning 50 victories in NASCAR races and also starting his own race teams.
Decline Of Moonshine
However, as "dry" counties began to repeal their liquor laws and as legal liquor became much more economical and available to the public, moonshine started to lose its appeal.
Also, as the federal government became much more involved in enforcement of the liquor tax and busting up illegal distillery operations, the economic benefits of moonshining were quickly evaporating.
One would be hard-pressed today to find a moonshine still anywhere in the area, at least one that isn't in a heap of rusting metal.
According to the Piedmont Distillery website in Madison, in 1970 the number of moonshine stills seized by the Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms federal agency totaled 5,228 and 86,416 gallons of moonshine were siezed.
By 1994, that total was down to one seized still and only 506 gallons.
Local Producers Reborn In Area
Although illegal moonshining may be a thing of the past, taking with it the health risks associated with backyard-brewed alcohol, there has been a rebirth of sorts in recent years in the local production of alcoholic beverages.
Piedmont Distillers was started by Joe Michalek in 2004 in the town of Madison in Rockingham County to legally produce and sell moonshine liquor. The company has been doing well and according to one newspaper report, the new Junior Johnson Midnight Moon liquor is selling out in ABC stores before they can even restock the shelves.
In addition to Piedmont Distillers, a local winery started up in 2005 in the heart of Stokesdale, just down the highway from Piedmont Distillers.
Although a far cry from the fiery hooch that some moonshiners made, the wine produced by Stonefield Cellars hearkens back to that sense of hand-crafted production that was seen on farms of yesterday.
The cellar was started in 2005 by California winemaker Robert Wurz and his wife, Nathalie Wurz and they produce high quality white wines, red wines, sweet red, and fruit wines, and a blush variety.
While the new liquor distiller and winery in the Stokesdale area are thankfully nothing like the typical moonshiner of the past, they still follow some of those same traditions.
By creating products from harvests of either corn or North Carolina grapes, they still follow in the path of many in Stokesdale's past who made a living from the earth and who provided locally made products that were made with pride and quality.
Only this time, these new producers of alcoholic beverages in Madison and Stokesdale are doing it legally. ::