How moonshine became the new luxury spirit

And is fuelling a whisky renaissance.

"Moonshiners are united in a solid mistrust of the government", distiller Justin King proclaims. He’s the master with the secret recipe for Ole Smoky moonshine, also known as hooch, white lightning or, as the industry calls it, unaged corn whisky.

Diehards say the high-proof distilled spirit should only be called moonshine if produced illicitly, but the legal version, made from corn mash, is leading a whisky renaissance in America. And the mystique of moonshine is part of its popularity. Author and journalist Max Watman, who chronicled the history of it in his book Chasing the White Dog, says the cachet of illegal moonshine is the bit of outlaw it carries, yet without the stigma. 

"You get to dabble on the other side of the law, but your friends, your in-laws, your boss won’t think badly of you for doing so," he explains. "One can show up with a mason jar of moonshine and get a little frisson out of that, take a quick detour into lawlessness without serious social consequence."

Commercial distillers large and small are tapping into that. In the last three years, artisan producers in New York, New England, California and other states have been marketing their ’shine to sophisticated consumers driving the push for "farm to table" goods.

"Throughout America, there are people who want to connect to their sources. They want to eat and drink things that are produced locally, by people they can name, people they might meet. This is true at farmers’ markets as well as liquor stores. That’s a driving force for small-scale distilling," says Watman.

Another driving force for the entire moonshine market is the entrance of Jim Beam’s Jacob’s Ghost white whiskey, helping to define this new category.

"It’s a local point of pride, a big part of eastern Tennessee family tradition," says Robert Cremins, a college student from Knoxville. Many in the region identify themselves with moonshine, Cremins says. "I grew up hearing stories about moonshine."

In the land that surrounds the lush Smoky Mountains, with their towering white pine trees, moonshine — or whatever you call it — has a rich heritage. Neighbouring states also lay claim to the moonshine tradition, "but the one that centres around the Smoky Mountains is the most traditional," says Watman, who grew up in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley.

"Some regions like southern Virginia clasped on to the historical aspect of moonshine to try to promote it, but it hasn’t become as central to the character of the region as it has with the Smoky Mountains. In eastern Tennessee and the Smokies, you find people who respect the production of moonshine as a craft and its folkloric traditions. That’s what’s different about it."

That history has even been memorialised in Rocky Top, one of Tennessee’s state songs, which references moonshine stills hidden in the hills. But until four years ago, tough laws made it virtually impossible for distillers outside three counties to get a licence for alcohol production. Entrepreneur Jim Massey acted as an independent lobbyist to change the law in 2009, making it easier for small distillers to enter the market.

"It was less about alcohol production and more about a business we’re famous for, that we have a competitive advantage in,’ Massey says. His efforts were well-timed, coming as Tennessee and other states were looking for ways to generate taxable revenue and job growth to fight the recession.

Joe Baker, a criminal lawyer who traces his roots to the earliest settlers of eastern Tennessee, corralled two lawyer buddies to open the Ole Smoky distillery in Gatlinburg. Most of the town’s 4,000 residents earn their living from the tourists who come for the Smoky Mountains and the endless fudge shops. 

"I thought it would be cool if we could do something involving moonshine and tourism and share this heritage,’ Baker says. ‘We have an incredibly rich history with making liquor, and a lot of it stems from the land and the geography. It’s an important part of who we are.’ Baker’s own family moonshine recipe is 200 years old.

Of course, moonshine has long been important to the local economy. The forested mountains were a canopy for Baker’s ancestors and other moonshine distillers who made their home in the Smokies. Many of them were immigrants from Scotland and Ireland who settled in the area for its familiar terrain, well before the mountains were named a national park. Undocumented rumours have it that Al Capone used to store his liquor in the Smokies during prohibition before transporting it to Chicago.

Ole Smoky’s distiller Justin King says that beyond a traditional recipe, families also made a flavoured moonshine called Apple Pie, a more palatable version: "Every east Tennessean has their own version of Apple Pie moonshine, what it tastes like, what proof it is." The recipe is basically cinnamon, apple juice, apple cider and a few spices — it tastes like a sweet after-dinner drink. The flavouring extends to other locally grown fruits, like cherries or peaches soaked in moonshine, King says.

"For Christmas, my family always used to give out moonshine cherries," he says. "A lot of people down here are poor, so to give a jar of moonshine cherries or peaches was a nice thing. Any fruit we could find, we would use."

That connection between farmers and distillers is still thriving and has helped many battle the recession, says Max Watman. "It’s a market that’s very focused on staying local. I can’t tell you how many stories I’ve heard about peach farmers’ crops being knocked down by a storm and the local distillery buying up that fallen crop because they don’t care what the peaches look like."

Baker sources his corn locally and employs more than 150 people. And there are tangential economic impacts — such as the glass jars and paper labels he buys for his spirits from local producers and the truck drivers paid to deliver the goods. The packaging is decidedly simple: glass mason jars, in which moonshine was traditionally served, celebrating the ritual of ‘passing the jar’ round at gatherings of family and friends. 

As for Baker’s hopes to marry tourism with moonshine heritage, the proof is in the dozens of tourists sitting in rocking chairs outside Ole Smoky’s bottle shop on Gatlinburg’s main street, toe-tapping to the daily bluegrass band — no purchase necessary. Inside, hordes of people crowd the tasting room. Baker has created one of America’s most visited distilleries, distributing to 49 states.

For moonshine proponents such as Massey, Ole Smoky’s success is the ultimate payoff. "Just look at Ole Smoky,’ he says. "They have more tourists coming through their craft distillery than Jack Daniel’s in Lynchburg."

Amy Guttman is a writer at Spears. This piece first appeared in Spear's Magazine.

"Moonshiners are united in a solid mistrust of the government". Photograph: Getty Images

This is a story from the team at Spears magazine.

Photo: Getty Images
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The hidden crisis in the National Health Service

Hospitals are no longer safe places for their staff, warns Simon Danczuk.

It feels as though not a week can pass without the media warning of a fresh “crisis in the NHS”.

But while funding shortages and the impending junior doctor strike are rightly cause for concern, another major crisis is going largely unnoticed.

Figures show that 43 per cent of A&E staff have been physically assaulted at work. Every eight minutes there is some sort of violent incident in a UK hospital.

This is unacceptable, but unfortunately cases of violence against NHS workers seem to be on the increase while the government turns a blind eye to this problem of its own making.

Plotting a graph would show a startling correlation between insufficient NHS funding and the number of doctors and nurses being attacked. As NHS budgets reach breaking point, so too do many patients.

The issue, which will be highlighted in the documentary A&E: When Patients Attack, which airs tonight on Channel 5 at 10pm, is a national scandal.

Health experts suggest that the problem can be directly linked to longer waiting times and staff cutbacks, leading to growing frustration and tension in A&E and other departments. With winter fast approaching, and the notoriously busy festive season to come, incidents of violence look set to get worse. Nobody, least of all our overworked NHS doctors and nurses, should face the prospect of going to work to be attacked, spat at or insulted.

Based at the Queen Elizabeth in Birmingham, one of the country’s biggest hospitals, When Patients Attack follows a security team which uses uniformed guards and a bank of CCTV monitors to keep hospital staff safe.

The sight of a uniformed private security team in an NHS hospital is visually jarring, it would look more at home in a high-security prison than in a place of care and compassion. But the sad reality is, guards like this are a necessary part of the NHS under a Tory Government.

A&E centres across the UK, including the one in Rochdale, are being closed or consolidated creating extra journey times for patients and more pressure on those that remain.

But there is a gaping logical flaw here. NHS trusts are spending money, which should be on patient care, on employing security staff to deal with the fallout from cuts in care.

Seeing the level of physical, verbal and racial abuse that doctors and nurses have to endure makes When Patients Attack hard to watch at times. What is clear is that many of the patients featured are not lashing out for some malicious reason, they are vulnerable and bewildered people in need of care.

Many have learning difficulties or mental health problems, others are disorientated or in pain, there are those under the influence of drink or drugs and some just have nowhere else to go. A significant amount on the security team’s time seems to be spent convincing patients who have been discharged to leave the premises.

Here we see a less obvious example of how Conservative cuts are impacting on our NHS. Hospitals are always open and always welcoming. The duty of care means that no one is turned away. As a result, they are filling the void left by homelessness shelters and local government social services.

David Cameron has made much of the Government’s plan to put mental and physical health on an “equal footing”. But this will remain little more than empty rhetoric as long as those suffering from serious and complex mental health issues continue to seek help at A&E because of a lack of any alternative.

It is not just cuts to councils and the health service that have created this epidemic of NHS violence. In my constituency of Rochdale alone, Greater Manchester Police has been forced to withdraw 150 officers from the beat because of budget cuts. Business owners and members of the public have told me that Police response times have increased dramatically since 2010. It is important that violent incidents are diffused as quickly as possible and while an in-house security team is helpful, the additional support of trained Police officers is vital. Each additional minute that NHS staff have to wait for the Police increases the risk that a situation will escalate and become more serious.

Jeremy Hunt speaks of a seven-day-a-week NHS. But these grand plans ring hollow when we see the reality on the ground in the NHS today. This government cannot even guarantee that staff can work without the fear of physical harm. Our doctors and nurses are among the hardest working people in any community. The very least they can expect is to be able to care for us in a comfortable, supportive, and above all safe, environment.


Simon Danczuk is Labour MP for Rochdale