Editor’s Note: This story was originally published in July 2014 and updated in December 2017.
A famous woodcut in Harper’s Weekly in 1867 illustrates a battle near Wilmington at the mouth of Whiskey Creek — then called Purviance Creek — between U.S. Revenue Officers and a boatload of smugglers, complete with thrashing oars and smoking pistols. The revenuers managed to capsize the smugglers’ boat, and three of the miscreants drowned.
It was all a matter of taxes — the government wanted them paid, and the bootleggers wanted to avoid payment.
Moonshining is malum prohibitum — wrong not because it is inherently immoral or damaging to others, like robbery or murder, but because it is prohibited by law. “Moonshining” was coined hundreds of years ago in the British Isles by distillers working at night to avoid detection.
The moonshine saga began in earnest with the greatest wave of immigration before Ellis Island — Scots Irish from Northern Ireland — fed up with landlords who drove them into poverty and the tax men who claimed a share of their whiskey.
Immigrants streamed into Pennsylvania — Philadelphia, Chester, and New Castle — nearly half a million Ulstermen with the knowledge of how to turn rye and barley into whiskey.
In America, instead of barley and rye, native corn was used. The whiskey makers spread out the corn, watered it down, let it sprout into mash, then fed it into their stills with soft creek water, cooked it once, then again, cooled it, let it run out the other end, clear and strong enough to burn in an open flame: moonshine.
The ’shine was called usquebaugh, from the Gaelic for “water of life,” which was shortened to usky, and finally Anglicized as whiskey.
The Ulstermen plodded westward in sturdy blue Conestoga wagons, carrying precious copper stills and Pennsylvania long rifles. When they reached the Alleghenies, they turned left and kept going, down the Blue Ridge into North Carolina.
Troy Ball came to Madison County from Texas. Neighbors would bring her jars of their own moonshine. “Most of the time it was just rotgut,” she says. Almost immediately she embarked on a mission: She wanted to make the best moonshine in the world. Legally.
Distilling whiskey is a relatively simple process, but like many simple things, it’s hard to do well.
I meet up with her at the Asheville distillery of Troy & Sons, located up a steep track off the Old Charlotte Road, a driveway suitable for the old bootleggers’ “whiskey cars,” except it’s paved, not slippery red clay.
She’s lively, laughs easily, and clearly knows her business. We sit in the tasting room at a hammered-copper and wood bar that would be right at home in a top-shelf Napa winery.
Troy started her whiskey-making experiments with a pressure cooker and some copper tubing she picked up at Lowe’s. She moved up to a traditional steam still that evaporated the alcohol from the mash, first to the bottom of one barrel, then to a second, and at last to a condenser.
“It was a very slow process,” she says. In traditional stills, speed is the enemy of quality.
The key, she discovered after much trial and error, lies partly in the corn itself. “There’s much more recognition in the wine world that what you’re fermenting matters,” she explains. Troy doesn’t use any sugar at all — just heirloom corn and selected grains. Traditionally, mountain farmers would grow a small stand of sweet white corn in the field nearest the house — the “infield.” This was prime stuff, reserved for family and perhaps close friends for use in corn bread, meal, and whiskey.
“It’s the kind you hide and keep for yourself,” Troy says.
The less sweet yellow corn in the “outfields” would be fed to livestock and used to make whiskey for sale to strangers.
Every barrel of whiskey that Troy & Sons distills is “small batch” — that is, each “run” has a definite beginning, middle, and end.
This is important, because not all liquor in the cycle is created equal. The “heads,” or early liquor, distilled as the mash is heating up, is full of impurities and toxins, such as methanol and acetone, that can give drinkers a headache, and sometimes worse. The “tails,” at the end of the run, feels oily, is lower in proof, and can have a harsh taste. The tails are also called “backins” because old-timers used to pour it “back in” to the still and cook it again.
According to Troy, the art of the craft lies in knowing when to cut the heads and tails, saving only the “hearts” — the strong, tasty, smooth stuff in the middle. What Troy calls keeper whiskey.
And, in fact, that requires a reliable nose — the distiller literally smells when the whiskey is beginning to run sweet and makes the first cut; then, when the sweet smell fades and the whiskey runs sharp, he cuts the tails.
Troy’s husband, Charlie, an engineer by training, helped to design and adapt the gleaming 5,000-liter German-built still that stands, monolithic, on the floor of the main room. It can distill a batch of 185 proof in one pass — the old-time still required at least two, in order to raise the proof.
Troy pours me a sample of Oak Reserve, hand-crafted from Crooked Creek Heirloom Corn, a red whiskey. It is smooth and aromatic, heady and strong, but without the slightest burn.
This is moonshine for the 21st century.
The Civil War brought acute food shortages, so in 1862, to discourage the use of corn for whiskey-making, the legislature unanimously voted to tax it for the first time in the state’s history — at the rate of 30 cents per gallon. Less than a year later, it prohibited the manufacture of corn whiskey for the duration of the war.
Meanwhile, the Confederate War Department hired Burke County residents and founded its own distillery at Salisbury to furnish whiskey for the Confederate medical corps.
In Washington, D.C., the federal government established the Office of the Commissioner of Internal Revenue. Its mission was to raise money to pay for the war by taxing “luxuries,” including and especially alcohol — at the rate of 60 cents per gallon.
Thus was born the infernal “revenuer,” the nemesis of moonshiners and the villain or hero of popular lore, depending on your taste for white whiskey.
Among those who helped Troy on her quest were two very different men.
One was Jerry Rogers, an old-school moonshiner in his younger days. “He was the first guy who showed me how to mash and distill,” Troy says.
I catch up with Jerry in Asheville. He has the weathered face of a man who has spent his life working hard — he drove trains for 33 years. As we talk, he chaws tobacco and periodically spits into a Coke bottle — careful to replace the screw cap each time.
Jerry is long out of the moonshine business — the risk of selling bootleg liquor just isn’t worth it. He was born about 120 miles from where we’re enjoying coffee, in Cherokee County. In high school, he bought a ’54 Chevy for $100, fitted it with GMC truck tires so it could handle rough logging roads, and started bootlegging whiskey. He would haul one case per trip, six gallons in half-gallon jars, making a profit of $5-6 per case. In 1964, two weeks shy of graduation, he was nabbed by the sheriff. He avoided court by joining the Marine Corps, was sent to Vietnam, and was wounded twice at Khe Sanh.
Jerry grew up among people who made liquor the old-fashioned way, and he learned the trade from his father.
“He would set his 35-gallon copper still in a laurel thicket, and we’d carry the mash,” Jerry says. (Corn mash — corn that’s been wetted; warmed under, say, a manure pile; allowed to sprout; then ground and mixed with a barrel of water — is the essential ingredient of moonshine.) “You’d go in a different way than you come out — you don’t want to make a path” — a telltale for the revenuers.
Same with the firewood. “He used dried chestnut or oak wood,” Jerry says. “It wouldn’t make no smoke.”
They’d “work” the mash in July and August, adding yeast and allowing it to ferment in barrels of soft water, the “puke” floating on top of the “beer.” One bushel of corn would make 60 gallons of mash. “And only spring water,” Jerry insists. “None of that fluoride stuff.”
Jerry can trace his heritage through the Rogerses and Browns all the way back to before the Civil War. “The Rogerses, they were good people,” he says. “The Browns? Mean, nothing but outlaws,” he says flatly. “The original moonshiners. They always had a grudge, a feud.”
North Carolina didn’t wait for the 18th Amendment to usher in national Prohibition in 1920. In 1908, by a statewide referendum vote of 62 percent to 38 percent, North Carolina became the first Southern state to prohibit the making and sale of alcoholic beverages.
After national Prohibition went into effect, the chief enforcement official complained, “We have more illicit distilleries than any other State in this Union, and the number is increasing.”
And not all the stills were in the mountains. The East Lake community, a defunct logging community on the Alligator River, consisting of 200 people in Twiford, Lake, and Buffalo City, was notorious for its stills. It was claimed that nearly every family operated a still, cooking a superior brand of whiskey from rye and towing it upriver in barrel trains behind boats, so the contraband could be cut loose in case a revenue cutter appeared.
Occasionally, moonshining brought violence. On July 29, 1924, U.S. Deputy Marshal Samuel Lilly and Detective Sgt. Leon George of the Wilmington Police were gunned down on a back road in Brunswick County while hunting for stills. A father and his son, Charles William Stewart and William Elmer Stewart, were executed for the murder in a grisly electrocution.
Nonetheless, when the other states voted to repeal Prohibition in 1933 by a vote of 70 percent to 30 percent, North Carolinians voted 3 to 1 against repeal.
Troy’s second mentor was John McEntire. He operates Peaceful Valley Farm in Crooked Creek Valley, near Old Fort, an area that once home to five stills. Troy had learned he was growing heirloom white corn with a pedigree going back 140 years. She called him and asked if she could buy some — 100 pounds. John laughs about that first meeting. “Here she comes, a blonde-headed lady in a white Mercedes, driving in, and I thought, ‘What in the world does that woman want with a hundred pounds of corn?’ ”
They struck up a bargain. If Troy would complete all the necessary paperwork to start a legal operation, John would help her experiment by making mash and distilling whiskey in one of his barns.
John tells me all about it as we sit on the porch of the white clapboard farmhouse where he was born and raised, on a hill overlooking a country road. “I could sell the house,” he admits, seeing as how he no longer lives here, “but I don’t want to give up the porch.” Across the road are the fields he leases to grow his Crooked Creek Corn. He’s a warm, friendly, softspoken man with a passion for his crops.
Crooked Creek Corn was tested by scientists at the University of Tennessee and found to be extremely high — off the charts — in fat content, a key to why it tastes so good. But John McEntire already knew that.
Moonshine continued to flourish in dry counties well into the present day.
In 1964 alone, state and federal revenuers seized 3,174 illegal stills in North Carolina — only a fraction of those they believed to be operating. A moonshiner could produce a quart of whiskey for about a quarter and sell it for $4. U.S. Treasury officials estimated that the moonshining business was costing almost $700 million a year in state and federal taxes, not including unpaid income taxes.
And although traditional moonshiners always prided themselves on running clean stills, a few unscrupulous operators sold liquor contaminated with methanol, acetone, even formaldehyde.
In the 1960s, the U.S. Government declared war on moonshining, enlisting celebrities such as Andy Griffith to warn the public not to drink illegal whiskey. A public relations team disseminated TV and radio spots, short films, and lurid posters. A typical ad depicted a pot still: THIS IS A TYPICAL MOONSHINE WHISKEY STILL. ITS PRODUCT BLINDS, PARALYZES, AND SOME PEOPLE CALL MOONSHINE — ‘DEATH IN A JAR!’
A task force headed by Louis E. Howell, one of Eliot Ness’s famed “Untouchables,” blanketed 19 states, including North Carolina, with agents.
On January 6, 1967, the Morganton News Herald reported, “Whiskey Still Destroyed,” illustrated by a photo of ABC officer Fred Hennessee, a legendary revenuer of the day, and a deputy sheriff pouring out 60 gallons of whiskey from Baxter “Duck” Brittain’s still on Johnson’s Bridge Road near Icard.
In 1973, again near Icard, officers discovered a still hidden under a chicken coop, along with almost 2,000 gallons of mash belonging to moonshiner Pearly Workman. The News Herald reported, “While officers set about destroying the still and emptying 1,950 gallons of mash, an observer said, ‘Pearly reached in the mash box, got himself two handfuls of mash, and drank it right out of the still.’ ”
Workman lamented, “When the government gets you, you’re got.”
The relentless pressure of enforcement, along with the growing number of counties that allowed legal liquor sales, effectively ended the heyday of moonshining, though it is still carried on, mainly for personal use.
Meanwhile, more than 50 micro-distillers have taken advantage of North Carolina’s moonshine legacy to concoct their own signature spirits.
Scott Maitland came to moonshine not as an outlaw but as a law student in Chapel Hill. He opened Top of the Hill Restaurant and Brewery in 1996 mostly to thwart a chain restaurant’s plans to grab a chunk of prime real estate on Franklin Street.
I sit with Scott in his office in the old brick Chapel Hill News building, now home to TOPO Distillery. He’s both energetic and relaxed, in a tieless button-down shirt and jeans. His new venture is defined by what the operation has achieved: It is the first certified organic, green, grain-to-glass distillery.
“Spirits are more defined by the process used than the raw ingredients,” Scott says. “You can make a vodka from anything, as long as you take it to 95 percent alcohol by volume. And as I kept exploring different spirits, I kept bumping into soft red winter wheat — soft red winter wheat being the thing behind the best spirits in the world. I thought, I wonder if we grow that here? I found out we do, and that’s when I got really excited.
“And I thought, my God, I can make world-class spirits from all local ingredients — that’s cool.”
With his associate, Esteban McMahan — who holds the position of “spirit guide,” arguably the coolest job title ever — he outfitted a distillery. Esteban gives me a tour of the facility, which features a gleaming array of stainless steel and copper equipment, taking me through the process of distilling liquor to an exacting standard.
Scott Maitland is about what he calls “advancing the art.” He is trying to pioneer not just higher-quality whiskey, gin, and vodka but a profound shift in the attitude of his customers. “I’m pretty sure that not many people have ever thought, ‘Well, where’s my liquor come from?’ Not just who made it, but who grew it?”
It takes about three weeks to distill 5,000 liters of mash made from 4,000 pounds of wheat using a state-of-the-art CARL distilling apparatus. When it’s time to bottle the result — 600 liters of vodka, 700 liters of gin, or 800 liters of whiskey — friends and family pitch in, hand-bottling the run using a vintage 1949 five-spigot milk bottler, then affixing the labels that identify the TOPO brand and USDA organic certification.
“The organic label may get someone to try our liquor. But it’s the quality that will bring them back for more,” Esteban says. The proof is in the taste. TOPO gin has none of the piney floorcleaner taste of typical gins — rather, it tastes refreshing, with a subtle, complex taste of vanilla, mint, and citrus. The vodka is clean, without any burn, and the whiskey is smooth and just sweet enough — all hearts.
So, in the end, with all its precision methods and modern distilling technology, TOPO, like Troy & Sons, is taking us back to a storied yesteryear, when whiskey makers bought their ingredients from their neighbors and crafted their liquor with care and pride, knowing their friends and neighbors would be their customers, their community the ultimate judge of the quality of their liquor — and with it, their character.
Only now, of course, they pay plenty of taxes.
505 West Franklin Street
Chapel Hill, NC 27514
Tours most Wednesdays through Saturdays, times vary. Cost $20.
Troy & Sons
12 Old Charlotte Highway, Suite T
Asheville, NC 28803
Free tours Fridays and Saturdays, 5 and 6 p.m.