Moonshinin’ In the Pines
By Dana Goolsby
ETX- Moonshine is an unmistakable spirit known by names such as white lightning, hooch, and mountain dew. Moonshining is the unlicensed distillation of whiskey and has deep roots in the Deep South, dating back to long before the Nineteenth Century. The corn whiskey takes its romanticized name from the days when moonshine moved through the Pineywoods by the light of the moon.
Allowing counties and communities to prohibit the sale of liquor resulted in an unexpected side effect. Prohibition boosted moonshine sales from 1919 to 1933, creating a thriving secret moonshine industry. Prohibition outlawed the production and consumption of alcoholic beverages, making moonshiners local heroes during tough times in East Texas. Moonshining was not only very profitable at one time, but was also considered to be an honorable task and trade, of which was in higher demand than many would care to admit. Either way, selling moonshine for a living sure beat checking in at the Poor Farm or the humiliation of standing in line for a government handout.
Many East Texans appreciated moonshiners for providing a quick and easy source of whiskey. Locals, law enforcement, and elected officials turned a blind eye however, because many respectable citizens were heavily involved with moonshine manufacturing. Moonshine teams went in on “halves,” a system in which a bootlegger or distributor provided raw materials, as well as kegs and fruit jars and the moonshiner would supply the still and distill the liquor. Moonshiners assumed most of the risk as far as getting caught was concerned.
The moonshining industry generally consisted of a close knit family operation. Even the family members who did not actively participate in the production and distribution of moonshine kept a watchful eye for snooping law enforcement officers hoping to bust up a business. Cowbells tied to trip wires were popular alerts. Debris left on the ground were also used to detect if snoopers had been in the area. If the debris was shifted by careless agents visiting a site, the moonshiner would know upon return and would quickly disband and abandon the site forever.
While most East Texas law enforcement officers tolerated moonshining, the United States Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms kept moonshiners moving. Moonshiners would move their stills on a regular basis to avoid getting caught. The average moonshine still produced over 50 gallons a week.
Moonshiners would gather about 50 pounds of sugar and about 50 pounds of cut corn. Roughly 35 gallons of water was then added to the sugar and corn and left to “rot” for about a week. Old timers say the sour mash bubbled until it turned blue. When the rotting concoction turned blue it was time to be distilled.
Moonshine connoisseur taste buds differ but there were several ways to increase the whiskey’s flavor and coloring. Moonshiners added ingredients such as oak chips, peaches, apples, syrup, caramel, raisins, tobacco, rock candy, and potatoes to their brew to add a bit of zest. Dr. Pepper was a common additive used in East Texas moonshine. Moonshiners in a hurry added lye to their brew to speed up fermentation. Moonshine with lye is said to cause awful swelling of the lips, but beats the alternative of routing the mash through a radiator and adding battery acid to the brew. This process could shave off several days, enabling a moonshiner to produce a batch in one day, but would likely cause paralysis, permanent brain damage and even death to consumers due to lead poisoning.
The art of making good moonshine was passed from generation to generation, and be it right or wrong, some East Texans are still making moonshine in secret deep in the Pineywoods to this day. Many East Texans over the age of 30 have probably tasted or drank moonshine, most likely from a Mason jar, at some point in their life. If nothing else, they have seen a jug of moonshine, or heard tales of distant relatives who brewed moonshine in the Pineywoods before their time.
In July of 2008, Angelina County deputies and agents with the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission (TABC) arrested an East Texas man on charges related to the manufacturing and selling of moonshine. Agents and local law enforcement officers found a large amount of moonshine, which the man had been selling for $30 per quart.
In January 2010, an East Texas man from Smith County was arrested for moonshining. Agents of the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission and Smith County Sheriffs raided a residence out in the country and seized a 55-gallon still, copper tubing, burners, two propane bottles and approximately nine gallons of moonshine.
While moonshine is no longer popular, and with the convenience of liquor stores bootleggers and their services are no longer in high demand, however, there are many East Texans that prefer the taste of Pineywoods brewed white lightnin’ more than any liquor that can be purchased in any store. Making small limited amounts of beer and wine are legal, however it is against the law to manufacture distilled spirits without a TABC Distiller’s Permit or to sell alcoholic beverages without a permit.
Today moonshine is making a comeback, but not as a cocktail. Moonshine has become the alternative fuel known as ethanol.