The image of a lazy hillbilly in the shade of an old oak tree, barefoot and sippin from a corn whiskey jug, this is an image forever tied to moonshine in the Ozarks. Long before the cartoonish image of hillbilly moonshine came along, our Scotch-Irish ancestors were just doing what they had always done, making whiskey. Corn grew well in the Ozarks and the same limestone rich water valued so highly by Kentucky’s bourbon makers, flowed in these hills also. Corn would replace barley as the main ingredient, but the process would basically remain the same.
The word “moonshine” is found in a lot of the folklore and written heritage of the Ozarks. According to an article on OzarksWatch, “moonshine was made at night; white lightning was made in the day; and white mule was the stuff that was made so far back in the hills it took a mule to haul it out.” From the classic whiskey jugs in the Lil’ Abner cartoon to George Jones’ version of the song White Lightning, it is all a big part of the same hillbilly identity.
In the 1920’s prohibition caused the sudden growth of this backwoods industry, forcing the moonshiners deeper into the woods, caves and springs of the Ozarks. A man (or woman) could take some basic items (corn, sugar, yeast) and turn them into corn whiskey that would sell for 20-50 times the original cost of the ingredients.
Folklore also tells of many local Ozark caves being used as “speakeasys.” A hidden place to distribute and drink the illegal corn liquor. Many were rumored to have a “blind tiger”, just drop your money in, close the door, in just a minute your money was gone and a mason jar with moonshine was in it’s place.
Although making alcohol at home was not unusual in my family (homemade wine), I knew something was different about moonshine. Even as late as the 1970’s & 80’s, I would listen to the stories of how so-and-so’s Grandpa would leave money in a old hollow stump and return the next night to claim their prize. Only certain people knew how to get a jar of real backwoods made white lightening. It’s reputation and the fact it was outlawed always fascinated me.
I have had the opportunity to taste moonshine quite a few times over the years. Some good…some horrible…blah! The first time I tasted though. was with extreme trepidation. I grew up with stories of people going blind from a “bad batch” when they drank it. Moonshine has it’s own taste, but the slow burn as it goes down it unmistakable. I can’t say that I truly have ever enjoyed the taste of it, but I can say I have never passed up the chance to taste it.
In recent years, moonshine has made a come back. Distillers are not just making “corn squeezins” for a mason jar anymore. And although, moonshine refers to illegally made alcohol, there are many people who are now legally making it and experimenting with a multitude of different flavors and techniques. Near Branson at Walnut Shade, MO, you can find Copper Run Distillery, the first legal distillery in Missouri since the end of prohibition. Although, Ozark Mountain Moonshine is one of their many offerings (I have a glass next to me as I write this), this product is much different than the stolen sips of my youth. More aromatic and with less of a burn, I can still enjoy a sip without the worry of “going blind” or “gettin’ the revenuers” after me.
The Ozark History Buff