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
Show Hide image

British mental health is in crisis

The headlines about "parity of esteem" between mental and physical health remain just that, warns Benedict Cooper. 

I don’t need to look very far to find the little black marks on this government’s mental health record. Just down the road, in fact. A short bus journey away from my flat in Nottingham is the Queens Medical Centre, once the largest hospital in Europe, now an embattled giant.

Not only has the QMC’s formerly world-renowned dermatology service been reduced to a nub since private provider Circle took over – but that’s for another day – it has lost two whole mental health wards in the past year. Add this to the closure of two more wards on the other side of town at the City Hospital, the closure of the Enright Close rehabilitation centre in Newark, plus two more centres proposed for closure in the imminent future, and you’re left with a city already with half as many inpatient mental health beds as it had a year ago and some very concerned citizens.

Not that Nottingham is alone - anything but. Over 2,100 mental health beds had been closed in England between April 2011 and last summer. Everywhere you go there are wards being shuttered; patients are being forced to travel hundreds of miles to get treatment in wards often well over-capacity, incidents of violence against mental health workers is increasing, police officers are becoming de facto frontline mental health crisis teams, and cuts to community services’ budgets are piling the pressure on sufferers and staff alike.

It’s particularly twisted when you think back to solemn promises from on high to work towards “parity of esteem” for mental health – i.e. that it should be held in equal regard as, say, cancer in terms of seriousness and resources. But that’s becoming one of those useful hollow axioms somehow totally disconnected from reality.

NHS England boss Simon Stevens hails the plan of “injecting purchasing power into mental health services to support the move to parity of esteem”; Jeremy Hunt believes “nothing less than true parity of esteem must be our goal”; and in the House of Commons nearly 18 months ago David Cameron went as far as to say “In terms of whether mental health should have parity of esteem with other forms of health care, yes it should, and we have legislated to make that the case”. 

Odd then, that the president of the British Association of Counselling & Psychotherapy (BACP), Dr Michael Shooter, unveiling a major report, “Psychological therapies and parity of esteem: from commitment to reality” nine months later, should say that the gulf between mental and physical health treatment “must be urgently addressed”.  Could there be some disparity at work, between medical reality and government healthtalk?

One of the rhetorical justifications for closures is the fact that surveys show patients preferring to be treated at home, and that with proper early intervention pressure can be reduced on hospital beds. But with overall bed occupancy rates at their highest ever level and the average occupancy in acute admissions wards at 104 per cent - the RCP’s recommended rate is 85 per cent - somehow these ideas don’t seem as important as straight funding and capacity arguments.

Not to say the home-treatment, early-intervention arguments aren’t valid. Integrated community and hospital care has long been the goal, not least in mental health with its multifarious fragments. Indeed, former senior policy advisor at the Department of Health and founder of the Centre for Applied Research and Evaluation International Foundation (Careif) Dr Albert Persaud tells me as early as 2000 there were policies in place for bringing together the various crisis, home, hospital and community services, but much of that work is now unravelling.

“We were on the right path,” he says. “These are people with complex problems who need complex treatment and there were policies for what this should look like. We were creating a movement in mental health which was going to become as powerful as in cancer. We should be building on that now, not looking at what’s been cut”.

But looking at cuts is an unavoidable fact of life in 2015. After a peak of funding for Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service (CAMHS) in 2010, spending fell in real terms by £50 million in the first three years of the Coalition. And in July this year ITV News and children’s mental health charity YoungMinds revealed a total funding cut of £85 million from trusts’ and local authorities’ mental health budgets for children and teenagers since 2010 - a drop of £35 million last year alone. Is it just me, or given all this, and with 75 per cent of the trusts surveyed revealing they had frozen or cut their mental health budgets between 2013-14 and 2014-15, does Stevens’ talk of purchasing “power” sound like a bit of a sick joke?

Not least when you look at figures uncovered by Labour over the weekend, which show the trend is continuing in all areas of mental health. Responses from 130 CCGs revealed a fall in the average proportion of total budgets allocated to mental health, from 11 per cent last year to 10 per cent in 2015/16. Which might not sound a lot in austerity era Britain, but Dr Persaud says this is a major blow after five years of squeezed budgets. “A change of 1 per cent in mental health is big money,” he says. “We’re into the realms of having less staff and having whole services removed. The more you cut and the longer you cut for, the impact is that it will cost more to reinstate these services”.

Mohsin Khan, trainee psychiatrist and founding member of pressure group NHS Survival, says the disparity in funding is now of critical importance. He says: “As a psychiatrist, I've seen the pressures we face, for instance bed pressures or longer waits for children to be seen in clinic. 92 per cent of people with physical health problems receive the care they need - compared to only 36 per cent of those with mental health problems. Yet there are more people with mental health problems than with heart problems”.

The funding picture in NHS trusts is alarming enough. But it sits in yet a wider context: the drastic belt-tightening local authorities and by extension, community mental health services have endured and will continue to endure. And this certainly cannot be ignored: in its interim report this July, the Commission on acute adult psychiatric care in England cited cuts to community services and discharge delays as the number one debilitating factor in finding beds for mental health patients.

And last but not least, there’s the role of the DWP. First there’s what the Wellcome Trust describes as “humiliating and pointless” - and I’ll add, draconian - psychological conditioning on jobseekers, championed by Iain Duncan Smith, which Wellcome Trusts says far from helping people back to work in fact perpetuate “notions of psychological failure”. Not only have vulnerable people been humiliated into proving their mental health conditions in order to draw benefits, figures released earlier in the year, featured in a Radio 4 File on Four special, show that in the first quarter of 2014 out of 15,955 people sanctioned by the DWP, 9,851 had mental health problems – more than 100 a day. And the mental distress attached to the latest proposals - for a woman who has been raped to then potentially have to prove it at a Jobcentre - is almost too sinister to contemplate.

Precarious times to be mentally ill. I found a post on care feedback site Patient Opinion when I was researching this article, by the daughter of a man being moved on from a Mental Health Services for Older People (MHSOP) centre set for closure, who had no idea what was happening next. Under the ‘Initial feelings’ section she had clicked ‘angry, anxious, disappointed, isolated, let down and worried’. The usual reasons were given for the confusion. “Patients and carers tell us that they would prefer to stay at home rather than come into hospital”, the responder said at one point. After four months of this it fizzled out and the daughter, presumably, gave up. But her final post said it all.

“There is no future for my dad just a slow decline before our eyes. We are without doubt powerless – there is no closure just grief”.

Benedict Cooper is a freelance journalist who covers medical politics and the NHS. He tweets @Ben_JS_Cooper.