White lightning, hidden stills & souped up Fords

White lightning, hidden stills & souped up Fords

As the latest film Lawless brings brings to life the bootlegging era, Jim Leggett goes in search of the real moonshiners

Production | 26 Oct 2012 | Issue 107 | By Jim Leggett

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Freedom and whisky gang thegither." Nowhere was Burns salute to whisky and freedom more robustly celebrated than among South Carolina’s splendidly rugged foothills.

Early Scots-Irish settlers turned abundant cheap corn into profitable 'likker' with great enthusiasm. Even today a trek through rolling backwoods turns up rusted wreckage of illicit stills hiding among great stands of river birches, ash leaf and scarlet maples.

Bloody insurrection, moonshiners vs. lawmen, began when US Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton suggested taxing whiskey to pay off America’s massive$21million dollar Independence War debt.

Moon-shining was further encouraged as unethical politicians, bribed to promote big Eastern distillers, taxed, jailed and tried to kill off any traces of rural production in the Southern States.

Hapless tax men, "Revenooers" locals call them, were tarred and feathered; their homes looted. The Whiskey Wars (1791-1794) spawned spirited defiance, even as hidden stills bubbled, whiskey flowed and contraband jugs changed hands.

Farmers and homesteaders fought back; soon untaxed white lightning gurgled abroad so merrily George Washington, himself a distiller, offered a $200 reward for the capture of excise opponents; Judas' were few in whiskey-dependent South Carolina.

Prohibition came next, a farcical insanity, so the events of history evidenced. Booze laws were ignored and flaunted everywhere, making many a poor man rich, spawning mayhem everywhere.

Blistering car chases were common as double-shocked souped-up Ford V-8 tanker cars, running 1,000-gallon loads of moonshine, outran the law most of the time.

The exploits of these daring distillers have even entered movie lore. The action has been brought right up to date with the latest film Lawless. Set in Depression-era Franklin County, Virginia, the film centres on the brothers Jack, Forrest and Howard Bondurant, a bootlegging gang, who are threatened by a new deputy and other authorities who want a cut of their profits.

Thunder Road, Robert Mitchum's 1958 classic film, depicts those hell-fire times when real life country boy 'trippers' (drivers) like moonshiner legend Junior Johnson and his like founded stock car racing, later to become NASCAR.

Jeff Bridges played Junior in 1973's action biography The Last American Hero, Junior, now aged 81, still makes 'likker'. See page 18 for more about Junior.

In 2011, Spartanburg County Sheriffs found an elaborate illicit distillery in a woodland orchard. It took a gun, an axe and half a dozen deputies to get rid of more than 1,500 gallons of moonshine found on the property; $150,000 in cash and four 55-gallon stills were also seized.

“The suspects were real cooperative, even showed us how the stills worked," a bemused deputy revealed.

So with this in mind it was time to do some barstool sleuthing for the story.

"Legal moonshine?" quipped gin-mill connoisseur Claude Mabes. "Can't hardly be, I never heard o' nobody as makes white lightnin' the law ain't after!"

Boasting Cherokee blood, a good nose for sniffing out 'shine, he delivers his wisdom.

South! says he, and off we go to Greenville, South Carolina to investigate.

Where Cherokee Indians roamed these wooded lands in times past, a town of modern charms stands today.

However back in the roaring 1920s it was nicknamed Little Chicago thanks to fierce liquor making feuds, knife fights and bootleg-driven lawlessness.

We soon tracked down a new fangled small scale distillery, right in the middle of old downtown!

Above a quaint 1925 era brick building a sign reads Dark Corner Distillery.

“We work to echo the spirit of old time Dark Corner, concentrating on the use of locally sourced grains and native botanicals” – John Wilcox


It is said back in the 1800s a perplexed preacher, upset, as some of the clergy get about booze, prophesised: "the Light will never shine in that dark corner." Well, that mystique and the name stuck.

Inside a bright and cheery shoe-box shaped store an 80-gallon copper pot-still works its magic.

Proprietor Joe Fenten, a Dark Corner native, and partner Richard Wenger, a noted home beer brewer, saw in this once banned silver liquid a golden opportunity; opening the State's first legal still to "immediate applause,” he confessed. “Moonshine does not have to age, so we were in business from day one and selling jugs right away.”

A few old timers stop by asking if they too can get legal, says Joe, since changes to liquor laws in S.C. and other states made it lawful for small distilleries to set up shop.

"Moonshine is a quintessential element of the identity of the Dark Corner region," he explains. "Our work to revive it sheds light on a heritage too long dismissed by outsiders as “backwoods.”

Corn whiskey is a foundation and expression of local identity tied to the land through time honoured use of local raw materials. Local farmers thought it was their inalienable, God-given right to make whiskey. "It was a hard life! If you could make an extra 10 cents more for a gallon of whiskey than you could from a bushel of corn, why not?"

Whiskey and Bourbon were practically the only currency of harsh Depression years. There was no money to be made. Liquor served as cash, and medicine for colic, colds and assorted fevers. Sick families were poor, too far from any doctors. The latter paid in chickens, food or Moonshine.

The new distillery had just opened when two VIP Scottish visitors dropped by. The Earl of Eglinton, Chief of Clan Montgomery, and Alexander, The Duke of Hamilton.(Alexander is only person allowed to precede the Queen as she makes her annual pilgrimage to the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh.)

The Scots arrived in S.C. to officiate at the annual Gallabrae Greenville Scottish Games, keen to learn about early Scots settlers, and hoist a dram of gin-clear 100-proof corn liquor too.

"The Duke never tasted moonshine before," Joe recalled. "Amazingly, he didn't feel any after effect...but I did notice he broke out into a sweat."
Generous drams of dark Bourbon followed, proclaimed by the Duke to be: "incredibly smooth."

Meandering up to the still we cannily befriended master distiller John Wilcox, an enthusiastic 33-year-old autodidactic in the art of whiskey making, in hope he might share some secrets, over a wee dram.

John's moonshine is surprisingly smooth; with faint aroma of corn, a light black pepper accent giving it a noticeable kick, robust body; warming glow as the potent dram goes down. Not taking your breath away (as did some frightening sips of illegal 175 to 190 proof mountain liquor that I managed to sample elsewhere...Shh!)

The mashbill uses local corn, red wheat, two-row barley and rye ground at Suber's Mill, built in 1908; the region's only surviving waterwheel mill.

"Our whiskey mix uses 82 per cent corn, the remainder being adjunct grains. Our water supply originates from two Blue Ridge Mountain springs. We work to echo the spirit of old time Dark Corner, concentrating on the use of locally sourced grains and native botanicals."

One brew is South Carolina’s first hand-mashed Bourbon since Prohibition and is already winning awards. In the works are peach and apple brandies, pepper-laced moonshine and gins; popular bevy in these parts since the days of drafty outhouses, horses and carts and corn-cob pipes.

“Our work is an extension of folk art. We are self-taught, steeped in cultural identity as defined by a region with a very colourful history.” Joe concludes.

Colourful indeed…
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