The Art of Creating Cornbread in a Bottle
by Mark Spivak
Moonshine is corn whiskey, traditionally made in improvised stills throughout the Appalachian South. While quality varied from one producer to another, the whiskey had one thing in common: It was illegal because the distiller refused to pay taxes to the U.S. government. Many moonshiners were descendants of Scotch-Irish immigrants who had fought in the original Whiskey Rebellion in the early 1790s.
They brought their knowledge of distilling with them to America along with a profound sense of indepen-dence and a refusal to submit to government authority.
Today many Southern states have relaxed their laws and now allow the legal production of moonshine—provided that taxes are paid. Yet many modern moonshiners retain deep links to their bootlegging heritage, bonds that go back generations or even centuries.
Moonshine Nation is the definitive book on the true American spirit. The first part chronicles the history of moonshine from the Whiskey Rebellion to the present day; the second half consists of profiles and interviews with modern, legal moonshiners. Spivak traverses the back roads of North Carolina with Junior Johnson, the legendary bootlegger and NASCAR driver; travels to Asheville to spend time with Troy Ball of Troy and Sons, the country’s only professional female moonshiner; visits the small distillery of Spencer Balentine, whose father ran moonshine in Western Kentucky; and logs time in a shed with Cody Bradford of Howling Moon, the descendant of three generations of men who made and sold corn whiskey. At the conclusion of the book, Spivak provides a list of American moonshine producers — a list that was probably incomplete as soon as it was printed, given the current popularity of corn whiskey.
What is it about moonshine that has struck such a resonant chord in our modern imagination? Spivak probes this question in his interviews, and comes up with a variety of interesting answers. “America has always been captivated by outlaws,” says Cody Bradford. “Look at Jesse James and Billy the Kid. People love that stuff. Just look at Popcorn Sutton.” Sutton was the moonshiner from Central Casting, a foul-mouthed loner in a plaid shirt and overalls who spent his life defying the law. In his profile of Sutton, Spivak postulates him as the man who lived the life others only dream of: flouting authority, sticking his middle finger at society, and totally in charge of his own destiny. He speculates that Sutton was a role model to everyone who felt they lacked control over their lives, and provided a model for others to live out their fantasies.
Over and over, what emerges is the fact that moonshine is a basic part of our national heritage. Sheila Balentine, Spencer’s wife, put it succinctly: “People think this moonshine revival is a trend, but it’s really an American love affair. You either love it or you hate it. Most people, they just love it.”
The appeal of corn whiskey was summed up more clearly by Joe Michalek, president of Piedmont Distillers. Michalek moved to North Carolina in the 1990s and quickly became
fascinated with the culture of moonshine. One night, at a blues jam session out in the woods, he was offered a taste from a jar of homemade peach moonshine, and was amazed by the smoothness of it. Michalek was hooked. He eventually convinced Junior Johnson to partner with him on a line of legal products, Junior Johnson’s Midnight Moon, which is now the best-selling moonshine in the country.
“Moonshine has been made in North Carolina and around the country for decades,” Michalek says. “For centuries, actually. Our customers are buying into the American heritage. It’s the history and the intrigue. And while a lot of people may buy it initially because of the intrigue factor, we’re getting our repeat business because of the juice in the jars.
“Our demographics tell us that the entire category of moonshine isn’t a regional thing. It’s an American thing. What comes back to us is that the people who engage in our brand are all over the board — 51 percent male, 49 percent female, representing virtually every group and ethnic category out there. It’s people from the South, of course, but also Oregon and Washington, New Hampshire, Texas and California. It goes from bikers to bankers. Our customers look like America.”
Moonshine Nation: The Art of Creating Cornbread in a Bottle, by Mark Spivak; Lyons Press, 2014; paperback, 253 pp., $16.95.