American Life, Family, Food & Wine, History, Music

By the Juniper While the Moon Is Bright

Ever since I wrote You Can’t Pick Your Relatives, I’ve been getting the same 2 questions: a) We’re unclear exactly how your family got from Ireland to Kentucky, USA to Japan. Did we miss a post or two somewhere? b) What exactly is moonshine?

Happy to oblige.

Moonshine is illegal, homemade alcohol. Illegal because you were supposed to pay “whiskey tax” on it, according to verses of the most famous moonshine song, which brags: “We haven’t paid no whiskey tax since 1792.”

This was long before Prohibition (details below), but the people who made moonshine back in the late 18th century − ”My daddy, he made whiskey, my granddaddy did, too…” − were not going to let some silly little law get in the way of 5 or 6 generations of sweet tax-free income.

(Imagine if that were true today, when American exports of spirits, the majority being whisky, hit a $1 billion market value in 2007.)

Dear Inquiring Minds: bourbon is American-made whiskey, named for Bourbon County, Kentucky. We’ll call it whiskey for short.

Nowadays, there are strict regulations about how true whiskey is defined: it must be at least 51% corn, no more than 160 proof (80% of volume), aged a minimum of 2 years, with no artificial colors or flavors added. Etc., etc.

For moonshine, the rules were a little less strict.

There’s a whole genre of moonshine songs, but this is everybody’s favorite: “You’ll just lay there by the juniper (trees), while the moon is bright, and watch them jugs a-fillin’ in the pale moonlight.”

I played the guitar and we all sang, trying to remember the lyrics. Bob Dylan helped out.

The most successful drug dealers today don’t partake of their own product. My relatives definitely partook, although they favored gin − made from juniper berries − and tonic (light on the tonic) and presumably bartered their whiskey accordingly. Since you might as well cover all the social evils at once, they also grew tobacco, and partook in that with relish, too.

(Despite these questionable habits, plus never eating a single vegetable in their lives, they lived to 90 years old or so, all the while eating tomato and sugar sandwiches on white bread. For real.)

Lots of people made homemade spirits. The average housewife filled bottles of doctored wine or cider and put them in the attic or under the bed. By the end of the year, you had some nice holiday beverages handy.

People thought nothing of giving their babies a drop of whiskey for colic. Adults used it in place of Sudafed. No big deal.

The social class that emigrated from Ireland when my relatives did were the impoverished farmers. They came to the New World because there might be a better chance of controlling where your next meal was coming from…and ensuring there was a next meal.

(There were plenty of “No Irish Need Apply” signs in cities and towns around the USA, followed over the years by “No Whoever the New Immigrants Are,” who unfortunately, once they got established, visited that same unwelcoming attitude on the next group of immigrants coming behind, compared to whom they felt mighty superior.)

As a result, you did what you knew and made do with what you had. The Irish certainly knew a little something about growing potatoes, so how different could it be, growing corn? We’ve been drinking Bushmills since 1608 and we’re not about to give it up now.

Moonshine was practical because it was an early form of recycling. Everything you needed to make it was right at hand, even the equipment…which, being resourceful farming types, you could easily build yourselves with spare parts lying around.

Thus, “Get you a copper kettle, get you a copper coil
Fill it with new-made corn mash and never more you’ll toil…”

With minimal startup costs, here you have this whole new revenue stream. Wouldn’t it be ideal if this side gig turned out to be so lucrative that we could all quit our day jobs?

Farming and making moonshine were also compatible for scheduling reasons. You could rake hay during the day and lay by the juniper at night. Two shifts. Problem solved.

The government had other ideas. Here we have this relatively new country, with all kinds of new people flooding in from who knows where, and consequently all this new stuff we have to pay for. Wringing it out of the rich city guys is way too much work, so instead we’ll throw some resources at prosecuting the rural farming tax cheats.

Very likely, these Internal Revenue Service employees weren’t locals and as determined as they were to collect the tax (partly because they got a percentage of the take), the moonshiners were just as determined not to pay it. Guess who won?

This song is a proven-to-be-reliable Moonshine Producers Manual, including tips on which types of wood to use: hickory, ash, and oak. Also, tips on how not to get caught: “Don’t use no green or rotten wood, they’ll get you by the smoke.”

For goodness sake, don’t draw attention to yourself by sending up smoke signals to the tax collectors: “Yoo-hoo! Over here! Check out my operation!”

That’s not very neighborly, either, if you know what I mean.

Moonshine went the way of other small, family-owned businesses. Once Jim Beam over in Clermont started producing legal product at a reasonable price, it became the Walmart of the whiskey market in Kentucky and there wasn’t really any need or motivation to make your own.

Prohibition was a failed social experiment in the 1920s in which everybody except the US government made money, because they were trying to stop people from doing something there was just no way they were ever going to stop doing. Businessmen who ran “speakeasies” (illegal establishments where liquor was served) and “bootleggers” (who transported said goods to them) became multi-millionaires.

Eventually the powers that be realized it was preferable just to give in to sin and collect a “sin tax,” which has been funding all kinds of government programs ever since.

(Somewhere along the line, we discovered even worse sins we should be taxing, too: saturated fat and high fructose corn syrup.)

By my grandfather’s generation, the extended family was getting out of farming. They put on ties and starched white shirts, moved out of state (to California, for example), and pretended they were from somewhere else. Today, their former hometown of Golden Pond, Kentucky is known for its organic farmers markets.

I couldn’t really picture all this until I spent a weekend with my friends Andy and LeeAnn on their Georgia farm, which incidentally is not in Juniper, Mason County, Georgia. Andy’s forefathers had come over from Ireland, too, under similar circumstances. Trust both our families to arrive in a new country and immediately get into trouble.

You know how steamy hot summer days in Georgia can be. Unbearable comes to mind. The only relaxing thing to do in the evening is to seek out whatever cool air might be available, which means taking the 4-wheelers out in the twilight.

We rode out into their pastures and fallow fields, across meadows, stopping every so often to smell the peaches and the damp green. Whenever we lost each other in the near darkness (possible even with headlights), we’d sing a few bars from that weekend’s theme song.

We regrouped and went up the next hill. The tiniest slope, really; little acceleration required. “Look!” says Andy, pointing.

There, in the distance, under a full Georgia moon: a stand of juniper.

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