The Last American hero

The Last American hero

Jim Leggett meets the moonshiner legend from the glory days of liquor making

People 26 Oct 2012 | Interviews | By Jim Leggett

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Farmhouse windows rattled, trees trembled, the very ground shook, while distant thunder echoed among the Blue Ridge Mountain foothills. "Earthquake!" some proclaimed; valleys in North Carolina's high country do straddle primeval geological faults.Locals smiled; they knew it was only moonshiner Junior Johnson blasting 'bootlegger' turns in his daddy's souped up Ford; the law hot on his tail again.

Varooming down twisty dirt roads Johnson, just turned 14, was already the fastest 'tripper', running untaxed corn whiskey to Atlanta, Charlotte and beyond.Newspaper photos dated 1935 show the Johnson home in Ingle Holler, cases of moonshine piled high. Junior, then four years old, still remembers the drama.

"Our house was plum full of likker when the law showed up. My daddy had 7,100 gallons of whiskey stashed everywhere. The law laid planks on the stairs to slide them whiskey boxes out. So me and my brothers, we rode astride them boxes, down the planks, shoutin' 'Get outa here! That's my daddy's whiskey.'"

This was the largest inland bust of untaxed whiskey ever made in the United States, and the record stands.Junior, Robert Glen Johnson Jr., was born on June 28 1931. His family was known for making quality corn whiskey. Grandmother Lora Belle Mooney was Irish, Grandfather Robert Glen Johnson a Scotsman - a fine lineage for a whiskey maker.Immigrating to America during the Irish potato famine, they settled in Wilkes County, N. C. a region fretted with sweet springs, clear streams and abundant creeks, heavenmade for clandestine distilling of corn liquor.Soon Wilkes County was called the 'Moonshine Capitol of America'.Junior, now 81, confides: "I've always felt it was our Scottish heritage that taught us our ways of makin' great quality whiskey."

The Johnsons ran their 'shine at 100 proof.Other folks used to water it down to get more volume from their whiskey run; never the Johnson family."My daddy was a stickler for good 'shine, always sold the finest we could make. We used four different proofs, according to the final product. "Original Moonshine (Jarred at 80-proof today), Peach Brandy, Blueberry Moonshine, Apple Pie (70-proof), ";Handmade Moonshine, with Real Apple Juice" all from the family recipes.A generous nip; not too fiery. Smooth to the palate, sudden warming as it goes down, no particular flavour, the heat distinct, as if to say "take note." Here's a tribute to old time 'shine, worthy of discerning connoisseurs.A second sampling dram "makes the blood leap in the veins, the hand to itch for a sword!" to quote H. V. Morton's In Search of Scotland as he describes the effect of braggart Highland War Pipes. A jar of this 'shine is best tamed with…considerable discretion.

Junior's trademark Bootlegger turn comes to mind: "I'd drop into second gear - slow down to 15-20 miles an hour... then I'd throw the wheel hard left all the way, an' then floor the gas pedal, makin' a controlled side-slip, 180-degrees, wheels still spinnin', car facin' the opposite direction. "Best way losing the law," he grins, pleased at the memory. "You had to practice that turn, running' cases of 'shine hid in them cars..."

Sometimes nearly 20 cases of 'shine would be crammed in the boot and the passenger side held a dozen more. "We kept 'em stashed seven inches below the windows," Junior recalls. "One case jammed in at my right hip helped keep me in ma' seat when throwin' the car around, no seat belts back then." By 1955 Junior had quit delivering moonshine. He got arrested a year later; caught working at his father's still and served 11 months of a two-year sentence.Folks figured vindictive lawmen jailed him, revenge for all those futile car chases.President Ronald Reagan pardoned Junior 12 years later.

Like other former moonshine drivers he took to stock car racing, soon a legend on the track, winning 50 NASCAR races, and a place in the NASCAR Hall of Fame. "I gotta admit I drove faster outrunnin' the law than in any of them races," he says with a smile.

Always the entrepreneur, Junior raised Black Angus on his 180 acre farm, sold under the brand name Country Hams and the like before partnering with fellow corn liquor enthusiast Joe Michalek as part owner of Piedmont Distillery in Madison, N. C.Once again Junior is making Midnight Moon whiskey - this time the legal way.
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