I’ve never made a secret of the fact that some of my family originally came from the Kentucky hills. I can’t say that I know a lot of specifics about them, but in that area in those days it’s a good bet that there was a bootlegger or two among them. After all, it’s been a regular part of the history of rural America, especially in the south.
The making of moonshine has been around almost as long as the distilling of spirits, but bootlegging can take different forms. When prohibition-era gangsters like Al Capone came to power, it was based on profits made from smuggling illegal booze to thirsty customers. That’s one type of bootlegging, also known as ‘rum-running’, but not the kind we’re addressing today. We’re exploring the kind that featured good ol’ boys cooking it up in hidden stills, and then delivering it in Mason jars.
Historically, distilled spirits were already popular everywhere in the early 1800s, but it’s thought that moonshine originated in Appalachia when Scots-Irish immigrants started cooking up whiskey based on their own heritage. It might have started as something similar to traditional whiskey, but it didn’t take long for the process to be streamlined. Nobody wanted to take the time to age the whiskey when the raw alcohol gave you all the jolt you wanted, so clear, white un-aged whiskey became the standard for moonshine or ‘mountain dew’.
Even though it especially flourished during prohibition, the cooking of ‘white lightning’ in hidden stills has pretty much been with us for a long time. Often the aim was to avoid paying liquor taxes, but sometimes it was the natural suspicion of the hillfolk for authority, or just their contrary nature in general. Of course, cooking it was one thing but delivering it to customers was a whole different matter.
It wasn’t enough to just transport the stuff. You also had to evade or outrun the authorities. In the early years that might have meant charging up and down the primitive roads on wagons pulled by teams of horses or mules, but eventually the job fell to powerful trucks and souped-up cars. Some of those drivers became well-known and admired for their ability to duck the dreaded revenuers, and some would later go on to become professional race car drivers.
Naturally enough Hollywood got into the act by featuring bootlegging in movies, and one of the best was 1958’s Thunder Road, starring renowned tough guy Robert Mitchum. He played a fella who returned from the Korean War and took over the family business — moonshining. You can imagine how that worked out, but the most memorable thing from the movie might be the theme song, “Ballad of Thunder Road”. It was co-written by Mitchum and when he later issued a single of the song it became a smash hit.