Moonshine: Fast cars and white lightning

By: J.A. Bolton - Storyteller

Last week, we talked about the history of making moonshine and the first process of making the brew, which is fermentation in the mash barrel. As the fermentation is completed, a foam called the “cap” forms. When the cap gradually disappears, the remaining sour mixture called the “beer,” and has about 6 to 12 percent alcohol content. This concoction is quite different than the beer you might buy at a store, but some folks do drink it.

The next step in the process is the beer is poured into a large turnip shaped copper “pot,” or some folks call it a boiler. Pot stills are the most common, but many a gallon of moonshine has been made in an even larger “black pot” called a submarine still. Also, if’en you don’t won’t to worry about your shine scorching, some folks use a steam still.

After the brew is poured in the pot, some type of heat source is added under the pot. Old timers used dry wood, while later, most shiners used propane gas (the least smoke as possible). The brew is heated to 172 degrees and as the pressure builds, it creates an alcoholic steam. This steam is then piped into a thump-keg where it re-evaporates and any of the original mash is filtered out. Why, if’en a shiner wanted to make his brew more potent, he would “charge” the thump-keg by adding un-distilled mash or a gallon of rubbing alcohol to give the brew an extra kick.

The next step is for the steam in the thump-keg to travel through a coil of copper pipe that winds into a worm- box. To make a copper worm, a moonshiner packs sand into a piece of copper tubing before shaping it so the coil won’t crimp. As the steam passes through the coil of copper in the worm-box, cool creek water is added to the worm-box from a nearby creek. This process condenses the steam back into a liquid. Some shiners use a car or truck radiator for this process — which works, but the liquor picks up a lot of lead from the soldered joints on the radiator. Thus the old saying: “If’en the whiskey don’t kill, you the lead will.”

The last step in making white liquor is to open a valve or spout connected to the coil of copper pipe allowing the clear alcohol to run in jars or plastic jugs ready to be sold.

As you can see, the process of making moonshine is hard manual work, illegal, and sometimes dangerous. But for many years, it was a way of life and a means of survival for a lot of our countrymen. It also helped line the pockets of some unscrupulous rich folks who would water it down and sell it by the drink at speakeasies or bars.

After a moonshiner made his brew, it had to be moved from the still and sold. Some older shiners would make a prearranged sale by placing a jar of liquor inside a stump hole (thus came the name of stump-hole liquor) and the payment had better be left at the drop-off point. In the day before cars, mules and wagons were used, having secret compartments to carry the whiskey.

As cars came along, some shiners couldn’t even drive or afford a car, so they hired runners or haulers to deliver their product. A lot has been made of the connection of liquor runners with NASCAR, but most liquor runners had little to do with organized racing. The real ties between the two were the mechanics in the local garages who could modify the runners’ cars with high-powered engines and heavy-duty suspensions.

Most moonshine runners had no desire to draw attention to themselves by speeding or driving a conspicuous vehicle. Most moonshine cars added special heavy back springs and shocks to hold the vehicle level when loaded. A 1940 Ford Coupe was a runner’s vehicle of choice before the 1950s. The coupe sported a Flat-head V-8 engine, large trunk space and could be souped up to run upwards of 180 mph. Extra tanks were placed all under the car to haul as much as 180 gallons of liquor. Sometimes the back seat would be filled with cases of shine, which would be covered by a quilt or old blanket.

Moonshine runners had two different license tags: one they would run in the daytime; and the other (usually off a junk car) they would run at night. Special toggle switches on the dash were used to be able to cut off their taillights and brake lights if being chased by an A.B.C. officer. Also, some cars were equipped with small tanks of oil to be released behind the runner’s car to cause the law officer to spin out or wreck. When the law got too close, some runners would do a 180-degree turn and drive directly into the headlights of the law. Why, this scared the law so bad they just ran off the road to avoid a head-on collision. Don’t get me wrong, the moonshine runners didn’t always outrun the law and were caught, while others met their death in a fiery crash.

Since around 1970, shiners have used closed-in vans and pick-ups with a camper shell to haul their brew. Some even placed their shine in fuel tanks with hand pumps right behind the cab of the pick-up.

Moonshine was not only made to drink but it was used in homemade medical cures. A medical recipe called “bitters” used moonshine with such other things like sassafras bark, ginseng and wild cherry bark to help your aches and pains. Another good remedy for a cough was a gram or two of moonshine mixed with honey, lemon juice, ginger, and/or sugar. Heat it up a little and it worked like a charm.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, before Prohibition, some folks started what they called a “Temperance Movement” against using or making alcohol. As drugs do today, alcohol was causing a breakdown in just about every family it touched and was also cutting down on productivity of work. Some people would get drunk and lay out of work for days on end. During this movement, even women marched down the streets calling attention to the use of alcohol. Some of these women even took up axes and busted up bars and other whiskey establishments.

Local communities started building what they called Temperance Halls. One of these was built down around Wagram (Scotland County). These were halls where the teetotalers met to discourage folks from drinking or making any type of alcoholic beverage. To be a member, you had to pledge not to have anything to do with the devil’s brews. If you agreed to this, a white star was placed on the ceiling of the hall. If’en you broke your pledge, your star would be painted black and you were kicked out like a black sheep of the family.

After Prohibition turned out to be a failure in our country, liquor laws were passed by the great state of North Carolina; counties and incorporated towns decided by popular vote whether to be wet or dry when it came to the sale of legally made alcohol. Even a town within a dry county could elect to be wet and a town within a wet county could vote to be dry. Towns had to have at least five-hundred residents to have their own A.B.C. store. In the ’50s and ’60s, hardly any place outside a few cities and resorts could you legally buy liquor by the drink. My how times have changed!

The sale of legally made alcohol is overseen by the Alcohol Beverage Control Board in every county of N.C. Fifteen percent of gross income is used to pay an A.B.C. officer assigned to that county or area to seek out any forms of illegal whiskey making.

Next time, we will talk about some of the unusual occurrences that A.B.C. officers and revenuers experienced in staking out and arresting moonshiners and bootleggers.

J.A. Bolton is a member of the N.C. Storytelling Guild, member of the Anson County Writers’ Club, member of the Anson and Richmond County Historical Societies and author of his book, “Just Passing Time.”

J.A. Bolton