The History and Heritage of NC Moonshine and a Case for Legalization

The home distillation of alcohol has a rich, sometimes checkered, history in North Carolina.  When coming to the new world, Scotch-Irish settlers brought over techniques from their home country to distill low alcohol liquids made from grain into whiskey.  They settled in Western North Carolina in the mountains where few other settlers had dared attempt to make a life.  Hundreds of years later, this tradition continues all over the state, though typically in secret.  I hope to explore briefly the history and lore behind distilling as well as modern day distilling and present a case for legalization of home distilling.

The Past to Present

Distilling in the southern Appalachians developed out of necessity in many ways.  Land was open, easy to travel and grow crops on, in the east.  However, this was not the case for the settlers who conquered the southern highlands.  The impassibility of roads, even in the early 20th century, made travel and trade nearly impossible.  This forced the individuals of the region to have to rely upon themselves and the land to produce what they needed.  There were no farm or factory jobs in the little villages that were scattered across the high mountains as there were to the east.

In these times, a farmer grew what he needed to feed his family.  If there happened to be an exceptionally good corn or apple harvest then everyone had extra in the local area.  Due to this it was nearly impossible to sale in times of extra and in hard times the family barley had enough for even itself.  Travel outside the towns by more than a couple of miles was difficult, especially with goods in tow.  Harvested products have a finite life span; however, mashed, fermented, and distilled they will last indefinitely.  To add to this, whiskey and brandy were always in demand and it became a quasi-currency in itself.

All of these conditions lead to home distilling becoming typical in rural Appalachia. These were coupled with the mindset, as Horace Kephart put it in Our Southern Highlanders, that “a man has the same right to make his own whiskey as his own soup, if he chooses.”  He goes on to explain that a moonshiner’s only offense was “malum in prohibitum, not malum in se,” meaning it is only wrong because it is illegal, not because it is wrong in principal or by nature.

After prohibition the price of homemade whiskey in Western North Carolina skyrocketed, as it did around the country.  This lead to an increase in illegal distillation and allowed some former small scale distillers to begin making the sole source of their living off making corn whiskey.  Prohibition also increased the taste for un-aged corn whiskey (popularly called moonshine).  Corn was readily available in the region and there were neither the time nor resources to barrel and age.

Even after prohibition ended, the desire for moonshine stayed around and a new era of distilling emerged, where modern techniques and shortcuts were used as opposed to the old ways. Instead of making whiskey for home use and bartering, people begin to setup large scale operations that sometimes used less than ideal equipment and ingredients which occasionally were unsafe. This split from home distilling to distilling for profit is where homemade spirits picked up the negative stereotypes which still surround it today.

Current State of Home Distilling

First, it is important to make a distinction between home distilling and illegal commercial distillers.  We will define home distilling as making spirits for solely personal use on a small scale.  Please note, any selling of alcohol violates this definition and puts one in the illegal commercial distiller’s category.  This is the same as home brewing.  It is perfectly legal to brew up to 200 gallons a year, but illegal to sale a drop.

True home distillers today are, overall, responsible, safe, and otherwise law abiding individuals.  Typically safety is taken to an extreme that even legitimate, large scale, commercial distilleries do not practice in regards to the use of plastics and other synthetics.  Most distillers run small, 15 gallon or less, operations, which produce around 1 gallon of drinkable spirits.

Many home distillers build their own setups with carefully chosen materials and design.  Innovation is commonplace.  You will find complex columned reflux stills that produce neutral spirits such as vodka.  There are also folks running traditional pot still, much the way they were operated hundreds of years ago.

A Case for Legalization

The original barriers to home distilling were taxes.  The first major tax levied against the citizens of the new country after the Revolutionary War was a whiskey tax, which subsequently created large rebellion.  The government still takes in a large percentage of the price paid for commercially produced spirits today.  The idea of losing a small chunk of this revenue is fighting to a government in an economy that has already seen decreases in federal and state budgets at record levels.  The amount of revenue lost would be minimal, but is often thought of as one of the reasons the Prohibition on hobby distilling is not lifted.

Although Jimmy Carter may not have been our greatest president, he did do one good thing in 1978: legalize home brewing at the federal level.  This had many benefits in the beer industry, which will be discussed latter, with no significant negative effect.  Wine making is also legal.  This provides for an interesting dilemma.  It is perfectly legal to produce alcohol, but not legal to separate water and other chemicals from it later. Distilling does not create alcohol. It simply heats a liquid with alcohol to the point the alcohol evaporates, and then cools the vapor back down.

Some individuals would argue there are safety issues at hand which should limit distillation to legal commercial distilleries.  I would disagree.  There are some safety issues, the main one being fire since alcohol is flammable.  However, running a still off propane is no more dangerous than running a turkey fryer with oil.  Electric stills are even less of a danger.  Some stereotypes portray moonshine as making you go blind or cripple.  However, these are not real dangers in whiskey made using proper equipment.  One is more likely to get food poising from improperly prepared/stored food than to ever get sick from homemade whiskey. However, we allow people to take potentially dangerous dishes to large gatherings without any regulations.

To back up these facts one could point to New Zealand.  In 1996 it was made legal to distill for personal use.  I could not find a single study which pointed to any single large scale negative side effect of legalization.

The Benefits of Legalization

The lifting of the ban on home brewing spawned a revival of quality, hand crafted beer.  It did this in two ways.  It allowed people to learn to brew legally and it also allowed for hundreds of people to experiment with thousands of different recipes.

Just as the rise in craft brews and the number of quality beers on the market has been a direct result of the legalization of home brewing, the same could be expected with the legalization of home distillation.  Without working in a distillery (which are rare in most places), it is impossible to legally get experience in distilling.  The owners of the few craft distilleries that open each year typically learn to distill as hobby distillers, but must do so illegally.  However, if people were able to legally develop new recipes, techniques, and equipment the same type revival would be possible.

Home distilling has a long history, especially in our region.  Throughout time the distillation has been an important and continuing part of the culture of the southern Appalachians and foothills. Although there are some safety risks, these are minimal compared to other things we are legally able to do in our homes each day.  Legalization would more than likely lesson the dangers due to the ability to regulate and would also lead to a revival in craft distilling.  It is time to legalize home distilling and allow individuals to make liquor for themselves as has been done for centuries.

Here is an interesting video from ReasonTV on the topic:

 

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