Welcome, Diane. I’ll turn the floor over to you –
While I lived in Texas most of my life, I moved to Tennessee in 2014, and then to North Carolina four years later. Living in the Appalachian region, I learned that moonshining was a big part of the area’s history. After sampling some modern-day moonshine, I became fascinated by it. I figured ‘shine would make a fun focal point for an entertaining mystery series. While doing more detailed research for The Moonshine Shack Murder, the first book in my new Southern Homebrew cozy mystery series, I learned some interesting and unexpected things about moonshine and moonshiners. I’ll share a little shiner primer with you.
In America’s pioneer days, farmers sometimes turned their corn crops, which weren’t worth much, into much higher-value moonshine. Making ‘shine was a real job, not just a hobby. After the American Revolution, the new United States government was struggling financially due to war debts. To make ends meet, it imposed taxes on liquor. The U.S. was among the first governments in the world to tax and regulate the liquor industry, and people were none too happy about it. Government officials or “revenuers” attempting to collect liquor taxes might be attacked and beaten. Boston might have had a tea party, but Pennsylvania rose up in a Whiskey Rebellion just two decades later, during George Washington’s presidency. Angry not only that the tax existed, but also that the tax penalized small producers and favored larger ones, a group of men dressed as women surrounded excise officer Robert Johnson in September of 1791. They stripped him bare before tarring and feathering him, then abandoning him in the woods and stealing his horse. Things escalated over the next few years, with a handful of deaths and property destruction. President Washington eventually sent a militia to Pennsylvania, but those rebelling against the tax had largely indulged in their product and little violence actually ensued. The rebellion was one of the first tests of the new government, which proved it could suppress violent uprisings within the country.
Prior to the Civil War, moonshiners were seen as heroes fighting an oppressive government. But, after the war, moonshiners were viewed as violent criminals. Excise taxes on alcohol had been again imposed to finance this second war, and the ensuing violence swayed public opinion. The changing attitudes toward moonshiners eventually led to the passage of Prohibition in 1920. Ironically, moonshiners were thrilled, because the law made their now-illicit wares far more valuable. Organized crime quickly moved in to take control of the industry, and secret bars known as speakeasies cropped up across America. People learned to hide liquor on their person, as well. The term bootlegger originally referred to those who carried hidden flasks of liquor tucked into the tops of their boots, but eventually the term came to refer to those who smuggled booze. Early auto mechanics found ways to make hiding places for moonshine in vehicles, as well as ways to soup up the car engines so that the vehicles could go faster. The bootleggers learned to drive very fast and very well, and the practice eventually led to the auto races that spawned NASCAR. Prohibition was repealed in 1933, and the moonshine market dwindled until its recent Renaissance.
While the term “moonshine” used to mean illegally manufactured liquor, such is no longer the case. Moonshine is now produced legally and commercially, though many make it at home as a hobby. Some of the confusion surrounding the present-day use of the term is due to a lack of federal regulation in the labeling of moonshine. While liquor labeled as whiskey must be made from grain, distilled at a certain alcohol content, and aged in oak, there are no such stipulations for alcohol labeled as moonshine. Similar to vodka, it can be made from any fermentable source such as fruit, sugar, or grain, and there is no upper limit on its alcohol content.
If you find moonshining as fascinating as I do, you’ll enjoy The Moonshine Shack Murder, which stars modern-day moonshiner Hattie Hayes and her furry sidekick Smoky. It’s a fun mystery set along the riverfront in beautiful Chattanooga, Tennessee. It could be just your cup of tea – spiked with a shot of shine, of course.
Thank you for giving readers an insight into the history of making moonshine, Diane, and good luck with The Moonshine Shack Murder, the first book in the Southern Homebrew mystery series.
The novel is available at the following online retailers:
About Diane Kelly: Diane writes stories that feature feisty female lead characters and their furry, four-footed friends. Diane is the author of over 30 novels and novellas, including the Death & Taxes, Paw Enforcement, and House Flipper mystery series. In 2021, she’ll launch two new series, the Southern Homebrew moonshine series and the Mountain Lodge Mysteries.