Moonshine: Prohibition Forces Distilling into the Woods

Introduction by Nancy Craun, Founder of Taste of Blue Ridge.

Years ago growing up in the Shenandoah Valley, I spent my summers as a child on a farm right next to what is now Massanutten Resort.  My grandfather had a sawmill and pulled logs out of the mountain above their house.  One of my fond memories was taking walks up the mountain looking for blackberries and other hidden treasures I could explore. One day on a walk with my Grandfather, I came across a huge tree that had spikes in its side all the way up as far as my eyes could see. The spikes began way too high for me to begin the climb which was a good thing since I would have come back to see how high up I could get. They were also too far apart which meant they were definitely put up for an adult to do the climb.  I did not understand at the time what my grandfather was talking about when he used the term “moonshine.”  He told me it was not legal and those who were producing it had to keep their eyes out for the sheriff.  Enjoy reading Scott’s article on the legacy of moonshine in American history.

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The importance of moonshining…

Up until now, we’ve learned about the legitimate history of the cocktail, including the Archaic Age (1783-1830), when people are largely drinking punch and juleps, the Baroque Age (1830-1885), when people are drinking simple gin and whiskey cocktails, and the Classic Age (1885-1920), when cocktails and mixology flourish nationwide.

It is easy to dismiss moonshining, and many books do. But Moonshining, though illegal, is an important part of our American heritage, and no serious discussion on the alcohol history in America is complete without discussion on this still-present branch of alcohol production.

The 1920’s distilling on the farm and prohibition…

By 1920, there were many hundreds of medium to large distilleries in the United States (for example, Pennsylvania alone had over thirty). It was also legal to distill on your farm, and many farmers distilled their grains to spirits as a source of revenue. Excise taxes, which were established in 1789 (remember the Whiskey Rebellion?), remained very low and were not a significant hindrance in alcohol production from 1789-1920.

On January 17, 1920, the Volstead Act, establishing Prohibition in the United States, went into effect. Producing liquor anywhere (at home or in business) became illegal. Most breweries and distilleries went out of business completely. Some breweries scraped together a business selling root beer and soda pop (Yuengling). A few bourbon distilleries survived by selling prescription whiskey and industrial alcohol.

Most went out of business forever. Every single distillery in Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Virginia went under, except one: Laird’s. Many successful American bartenders (for example, Harry MacElhone) found themselves in the midst of a career that was now illegal, and moved to places like Paris, London and Havana.

Lots of alcohol production went underground, or to the hills, rather.

The Appalachian region already had a large population of Scots-Irish immigrants, and these highly independent, clan-based people were already producing liquor from corn, rye, and other grains. Because of the remoteness of their region, and the poor quality of roads and access, it was easy for many of them to continue producing alcohol and making their living without being noticed.

When Prohibition ended in 1933, home production remained illegal, and all distilling had to be registered with the Federal Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms (today the Tax and Trade Bureau). Their regulations and bureaucracy are of such an intimidating nature, that home production is essentially impossible. Home production remains illegal to this day. (No exceptions for personal consumption, despite this common misunderstanding.) State laws vary, but echo the federal rules. Virginia is one of the most controlling and policing states in the nation.

Three-tier system – end of prohibition…

In 1933, with the end of Prohibition, the three-tier system was born, separating the producers from the distributors from the retailers, and it remains law to this day. Roughly a third of the US states retain full or partial control of the distribution and retail operations of alcoholic beverages (e.g. VA, PA, NC).

Obviously, there is no Federally defined label category for moonshine. Any alcohol sold as moonshine legally in the US is either a corn whiskey (100% corn, clear whiskey, no barrel), a grain spirit, or a lightly aged truewhiskey where the barrel was barely used (not economically feasible).

How distilling was done  – mash recipes…

The mash recipes of the original moonshiners were simple, as they are for us here at Catoctin Creek:
• Mashbill – some percentage of corn, rye, wheat, barley malt, and usually additional white sugar (sometimes “other stuff” like hay, horsefeed, and God-forbid, even a dead chicken now and then)
• Yeast
• Water

Fermenting was done in a big vessel like a drum or a wooden hogshead, usually with an open top or a modest cover like a tarp.

Distilling was done on a pot still, usually with a stripping run, and then a second (and possibly a third) spirits run on the same device. Most stills were copper pots direct-fired with wood (or today, propane), with a copper worm in a barrel of ice cold water, or tap water today. Most moonshiners learned through the oral tradition, and their methods for distillation varied widely. Today, the Internet actually has quite a lot of information on how to do it. But don’t do it!

Distillation included a heads cut (called the foreshots), a hearts cut (the middle sweet spot of the run), and optionally a tails cut at the end to remove funky fusel oils. The hearts would be collected in Mason jars, usually at full distillation proof, around 140-160 degrees proof.

Don’t distill your own…

Potential Problems:
• Heating flammable liquid under pressure – one little leak and… BOOM!
• Inexperienced moonshiner – Didn’t know about making a heads cut.
• This means large quantities of methanol and acetone in your liquor, and the liquor will make you go blind or kill you. If the moonshiner had poor hygiene (dirty tools, dirty fermenters, wooden vessels), the amount of methanol could be up to 30% of the distillate.
• Poor equipment – Much of the repurposed equipment (car radiators) contained high amounts of lead.
• Dementia and a slow death
• High proof liquor – Delivered at 140-160 degrees proof means you’re drinking something at 70-80% alcohol.
• One shot = two. Two shots = four. Four shots = eight and you’re in the hospital with liquor poisoning.

This is not to say that there’s not good moonshine out there. There is. I’m just not sure if I would trust it unless I knew who made it.

A couple of anecdotes:
• NASCAR – souped up engines, beefy suspension, and a big trunk
• Loudoun County judge’s daughter is getting married. Gilbert’s Corner.
• Christmas Day – The Chemist’s War, 1926 (see article in Slate, Deborah Blum, Feb. 2010)
• “Jimmy” and the horse-feed ‘shine.

Moonshine would be typically made into a variety of home-based drinks. Here are a couple:
• Fruit like peaches, cherries, strawberries, apples, would be added to the clear liquor to flavor it and hide any harsh alcohol burn. When the liquid was drunk, the fruit could be used for pie or just eaten.
• Apple Pie – a common drink where you combine apple cider/juice, moonshine, white sugar, and cinnamon.

Catoctin’s version of moonshine…

Our version of moonshine, legally produced, is called Mosby’s Spirit. It is a 100% rye grain spirit that represents what people in Virginia were drinking around the 1860s—white lightning! We’ll experiment with it in four cocktails that hearken back to the classics we’ve studied in previous classes.

In our tasting room, we often hear that our Mosby’s Spirit reminds people of blanco tequila. Funny thing is… In 1939, an American golf resort in Mexico recreated a popular American cocktail (called the Whiskey Daisy— whiskey, orange liqueur, sugar, lime, and soda) using the locally available spirit… which, of course, was tequila. The drink in English was known as the Tequila Daisy. And the Spanish word “daisy” is? …

Cocktail #1 – The Catoctin Creek Margarita (Warren Bobrow)

3 oz Mosby’s Spirit
1 oz Cynar
½ oz raw Agave syrup
1 oz Tuaca Vanilla/Orange liqueur
4 oz freshly squeezed lime juice
Mexican Molé Bitters from Bitter End

One day, we were invited to pour cocktails for a sailboat dinner cruise on the Chesapeake. It was a sunny, warm Sunday afternoon, there was fresh blue crab and hot corn on the cob. We needed something appropriate to drink. We created the following cocktail, and it’s been a big hit. It is now a staple in our tasting room.

Cocktail #2 – The Colonel Langdon (Emily Landsman)

1 oz Mosby’s Spirit
½ – ¾ oz fresh lemon juice
½ oz Langdon Wood barrel aged maple syrup
3 oz seltzer
lemon peel garnish

One of our favorite things at Catoctin Creek is when we receive cocktails from you, the general public. We happily post these on our web site to share with the whole world. This cocktail came to us from a home-based cocktail writer. It illustrates the versatility of Mosby’s Spirit, playing the key role as a whiskey in this cocktail:

Cocktail #3 – Wonderland White Manhattan (Molly Sheridan)


2 oz Mosby’s Spirit
½ dry vermouth
½ oz Bénédictine D.O.M.
2 dashes Woodland bitters (or aromatic bitters)
cherry garnish

Our final cocktail, comes from the big screen: James Bond. Everyone knows that James Bond’s favorite drink is a vodka martini, shaken, not stirred. Ho-hum… I consider myself a real Bond enthusiast. That is, I am one who has read all the books and bristles at how the movies diverge from Ian Fleming’s original stories—egad, Moonraker! So, I never quite enjoyed the whole vodka martini thing.

From Chapter 7 in Casino Royale, Bond orders his famous drink for the first time:

“A dry martini,” [Bond] said. “One. In a deep champagne goblet.”
“Oui, monsieur.”
“Just a moment. Three measures of Gordon’s, one of vodka, half a measure of Kina Lillet. Shake it very well until it’s ice-cold, then add a large thin slice of lemon peel. Got it?”
“Certainly, monsieur.” The barman seemed pleased with the idea.
“Gosh, that’s certainly a drink,” said Leiter.
Bond laughed. “… This drink’s my own invention. I’m going to patent it when I can think of a good name.”

In the next chapter, he names it the Vesper, after the femme fatale of the story. The words “shaken, not stirred” never appear in a single book. So it was with much delight, when Daniel Craig reprised the Bond role in the recent movie, Casino Royale, and he was asked by the bartender if he wanted his drink “shaken or stirred.” Craig, as Bond, replied curtly, “Do I look like I give a damn?!” Awesome!!!

In our version of the original cocktail, Mosby’s substitutes for vodka, as it so often does in the tasting room at Catoctin Creek. (e.g. Bloody Mosby’s, Mosby’s Mule, Mosby’s Martini, etc.)

Cocktail #4 – The Ghost of Vesper Lynd (Chad Robinson, with respect to Ian Fleming)

1 oz Mosby’s Spirit
3 oz Watershed Gin
½ oz Lillet blanc
twist of lemon peel

Final Thoughts: We hope you’ve enjoyed this discussion on moonshining and Prohibition. Follow our series on the Art of the Cocktail. This article is part of the series:ART OF THE COCKTAIL by Scott Harris, Founder, Catoctin Creek Distillery  (https://catoctincreekdistilling.com

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