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Moonshine In KY

December 8, 2011

Moonshine, Cultural Staple or Health Threat

            When someone says the word “moonshine” many people get the picture in their minds of a bunch of backwoods Appalachian people sitting around a still with a bloodhound drunk out of their minds. But one thing that a lot of people don’t realize about the illegal substance is its effects on the economies, and laws of states. And its health effects on many of the citizens of southern states, Kentucky and Tennessee in particular. With many people holding the practice of making moonshine so close to their personal family history it is hard to stop people from participating in the same practices that their ancestors have done for years and years, often times people living in the Appalachian mountains hold moonshining about as close as they hold their religious beliefs. Grain alcohol, otherwise known by many people as “moonshine”, has become an integral part of the heritage of the south but due to its many health effects and the lack of quality testing by governmental agencies the substance known as moonshine and the process of moonshining has been made illegal.

Passed on December 18, 1917 and Ratified on January 16, 1919 (Constitution). The United States congress passed “Prohibition” the law that prohibited “the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors within, the importation thereof into, or the exportation thereof from the United States and all territory subject to the jurisdiction thereof” (Constitution). This means that there can be no alcoholic beverages within the United States and all of its territories. In the heavily mountainous areas of the southern United States the thought of the government taking away their rights to produce a livelihood for their families was not taken very well and therefore many residents of said areas continued to produce alcohol. But unlike before the alcohol produced by these backwoods stills was not tested or regulated by any authority so it started to be produced by any means. After prohibition was passed every brewery, winery, and alcohol producer in America was forced to shut down. But the want and need for alcohol started to increase, that is what sparked the practice of illegal moonshining. And with moonshing came other occupations, such as Bootlegging alcohol. Bootlegging is the practice of smuggling large amounts of alcoholic substances from the producers to the “speakeasies” or other underground drinking establishments. A Speakeasy was in essence a secret bar, open to the public if the password was known. The problem with speakeasies though, was that when they became to known they were often raided by police, government agents, or other officials. Such establishments were frequented and even owned by individuals such as Al Capone. Many organized crime families of the twenties and thirties ran speakeasies and other similar establishments and participated in a lot of business concerning the manufacture, distribution, and sale of alcoholic beverages. As is well known throughout parts of Western Kentucky that the National Park: Land Between The Lakes used to be home to dozens of moonshine stills and was frequented by Al Capone. At one point there was over five hundred gallons of moonshine that came out of that area in a one year span of time. This liquor was most likely transported by bootleggers to major cities around that location such as St. Louis, Nashville, and Chicago. The activity known as bootlegging was incredibly dangerous due to the fact that the smugglers had to be fast enough to outrun the police cruisers so they started to put incredibly powerful engines in their cars and also put extra strength shocks in the back so it would appear as though they didn’t have anything in the backs of their cars. But then the smugglers started to see who had the fastest cars so on weekends they would go out and race their cars, an event which eventually transformed into the event we know today as NASCAR.

In an interview with Freddie and Jimmy Johnson of Franklin, Kentucky they talked about their grandfathers, both of which were involved in the moonshine business we were able to get a firsthand account of the activities of moonshing and it’s effects on the population and culture of the mountain communities of the eastern mountainous parts of the state. One of the grandfathers of the men was in the business of producing moonshine stills and actually made moonshine while their other grandfather simply worked closely with moonshiners because they used his old coal mines to produce their illegal craft (Johnson, line 108). Growing up around the culture of the moonshine producers gave the brothers an outlook on it that many people that are never exposed to the society that the moonshiners hold close to themselves. One aspect that the brothers were extremely adamant about was that they wanted to stress was that the people that live up in the mountains are extremely proud of their heritage and their way of life and that among the moonshiners honesty and your word were worth more than anything else. And in the words of Freddie Johnson: “One sure fire way to get a Appalachian man to do something is to tell him that they can’t do it. Many of the citizens of the mountains would never have, uh, thought to start producing moonshine until they took away the right to. Once that happened moonshine still started popping up in the mountains left and right.” (Johnson, lines 211-213) Because they grew up around moonshine they also became experts in telling apart high quality moonshine from cheap low quality product, they even got so good that they became able to tell if the alcohol was at least a hundred proof just by shaking the container it was in. The brothers talked about how while they always knew what was going on, their grandfather never directly exposed them to the moonshine while they were young. And all of the deals were done outside of the house because of the fact that their grandmother was an extremely spiritual woman.  Which according to Jimmy Johnson was a very common situation among the “mountain folk”. They often times saw men standing out behind the house with their grandfather, they would see them drink a small sample of something from a mason jar, the men would hand their grandfather money, then they would take a few cases of mason jars full of a clear liquid from the shed behind the house and leave. A few words were spoken they would shake hands and the entire deal would be concluded that easily “In the whiskey business, your word was your bond” said Jimmy Johnson. As they both stated “Everyone in the mountains knew that a man’s honor was based on his word, and nobody was willing to risk losing their honor by a simple case of cheating someone in a deal or selling them a bad product. However, you did occasionally hear of someone coming to a moonshiner and buying cases of their product and then watering it down and selling the low quality moonshine for twice the price and making a profit off of somebody else’s hard work. “Lets just say when someone got caught doing that, they didn’t ever do it again” said Freddie Johnson.

One distinct memory that both of the brothers share was at one point when they were younger they were playing in the woods up in the mountains around their home when they saw a strange man walking through the forest, they then remembered their grandfather’s instructions in case of just such an occasion. So according to their grandfather they quickly returned home and told him what they had seen, he immediately went out to his truck and drove away, returning within 10 minutes. Then word got out that the man that went up into the mountain was never seen coming down and his vehicle never left where he had parked it. Nobody asked any questions because they knew what happened when the revenuers went up into the mountains to look for moonshine stills (Johnson).

Still today there are moonshine stills being found and moonshiners being arrested. In June of 2010 there was a still found in Clay County, Kentucky. “Police confiscated 150 quart jars of suspected moonshine and later cited a Manchester man for illegal alcohol possession” (Warren).

For this paper I had the pleasure of interviewing a moonshiner from New Concord, Kentucky. For legal reasons he requested that I not use his name in my paper so because of that request for the length of this paper, he will be referred to as Mr. Smith. During my interview Mr. Smith explained the process of moonshining and I was surprised by the simplicity of it. All moonshine starts out as water, corn, and sugar which, is at his still, is placed in large 50 gallon iron drums and heated up while the mixture it continuously stirred. After approximately an hour the same amount of initial ingredients are added into the mixture again. This same step is repeated one more time. After the ingredients have been added three times the yeast is added into the mixture and the fermenting process begins. “Now after you add the yeast is when you have to start cooking the moonshine, and that gives off a strong smell. That part of the makin’ is when I start getting’ a bit nervous, ‘cause them cops’ll be scoping through the woods all the time.” (Smith). He was not able to tell me the entire process due to legal restrictions but he was able to inform me why there is such a problem with moonshine containing lead contaminants. According to Mr. Smith, many moonshing stills are located in old abandoned gold and silver mines throughout the foothills of the Appalachians and even some up in the mountains themselves, and the reasons for the lead in the moonshine is that instead of using clean jugs of water for their moonshine they will simply pull it from the streams. And while this is not a problem in some places it poses a serious threat around mines due to the amount of lead that can be found around old mines in those areas (Smith). But after the process has been completed Mr. Smith calls his rum-runners, who I was surprised to find were some boys I went to high school with, and loads up their cars with his product and sends them to the clients who he wouldn’t disclose the names of. All-in-all it is a very organized and sanitary process which, when performed correctly, can create a safe, albeit extremely alcoholic, drink.

While moonshine was such a massive part of the Appalachian peoples community and the history of the United States it has also led to many health concerns among the populace concerning specific. Yes, moonshine is still produced today but in almost every state the act of making and selling moonshine is illegal. While prohibition was repealed by the twenty-first amendment to the constitution in 1933 (Constitution), the practice is still outlawed due to its lack of quality control and substance testing. There has been a lot of concerns in recent years to the affects of lead poisoning within people who drink moonshine on a regular basis. The stills that the grain alcohol is distilled in, generally have a high lead concentrate due to the lead soldering used to bind the stills together. This has sparked many doctors and scientists to start looking at lead poisoning. In a study looking at deaths related to lead poisoning in the United States from 1979-1998, Rachel B Kaufmann, Catherine J Staes, and Thomas D Mattie observed that there were thirty separate cases of lead poisoning leading to death. Twenty of these died due to lead ingestion through illegally produced alcohol (i.e., “moonshine”) (Kaufmann). Since eighty percent of the victims of lead poisoning received the lead from moonshine it shows the high mortality rate of persons who have ingested lead contaminated alcohol (Kaufmann).

In another study performed by Truitt Ellis, BS, and Roger Lacy, MD, they looked to see if the consumption of moonshine is a significant cause of lead poisoning among adults in the Southeastern part of the United States. During their study they evaluated three different samples of moonshine confiscated by the authorities, the extremely high levels of lead found in the alcohol suggested that certain items that are high in lead content such as car radiators still play a very high role in the production of grain alcohol, “moonshine” (Ellis). In another study along the same lines Lacy and Wintemitz conducted in 1984 that 9.2% of patients admitted to the West Alabama Regional Referral Center for a diagnosis of alcoholism over a 3 year period (from 1979 to 1982) had a history of moonshine consumption and of that number 62.5% were positive for lead poisoning (Ellis). In Ellis and Lacy’s study they looked at the charts of five patients documented moonshine consumption and had a male to female ratio of 4:1, and also found that four of the patients lived in a rural or small town setting (Ellis).

According to a report published in the Journal of Toxicology looking at victims of lead poisoning within the state of Kentucky performed by Richard Montgomery, MD; and Ryan Finkenbine, MD, “Lead toxicity is the best-known complication of moonshine consumption and may cause peripheral neuropathies, hematological disturbances, gastrointestinal problems, and endocrine dysfunction.” (Montgomery). According to their study there was over twenty cases of lead poisoning directly from moonshine consumption (Montgomery). They also say that poor water quality can account for trace amounts of lead. However larger quantities come from the different parts that make up the distiller, such as using a car radiator as a condenser, or using lead solder at tubing joints (Montgomery). Other contaminants such as copper, zinc, arsenic, and paraquat have all been reported to be associated with the consumption of moonshine (Montgomery). There are many diseases besides lead poisoning that are associated with the consumption of moonshine are Wilson’s Disease (Copper Toxicosis) and the cognitive blunting associated with arsenic poisoning. While arsenic is not nearly as widely reported as lead poisoning with grain alcohol they are still a prevalent threat among consumers of moonshine. There are several organs in the body that are affected by arsenic poisoning are the skin, the kidneys, liver, and the lungs. Arsenic Poisoning has may steps until the eventual coma and death, the effects of arsenic poisoning begins with drowsiness, confusion, headaches, and diarrhea. Later on if not treated the poisoning will continue on until the subject will start to have pigment mutations on their finger and toenails and even until convulsions. When the poisoning of someone becomes acute there are several distinct symptoms that occur, starting with vomiting, cramping muscles, bloody urine, stomach pain, hair loss, violent convulsions, and diarrhea (Montgomery). Several long term effects of arsenic poisoning are heart disease, possible stroke, cancer, chronic lower respiratory diseases, diabetes, and deficiencies of vitamin A.

While moonshining has been an integral part of the culture of many of the parts of the Southern States, Kentucky in particular, it has still been outlawed from the United States for many health reasons. Many studies have shown the health risks of moonshine consumption, and the effects it has on the human body, simply the lack of testing the substances leads to them being illegal.

Works Cited

Ellis, B.S., Truitt, and Roger Jacy, M.D. “Illicit Alcohol (Moonshine) Consuption.” Southern Medical Journal 91.9 (1998): 858-60. Print.

Finkenbine, M.D., Ryan, and Richard Montgomery, M.D. “A Review Of Moonshine Use.” PsychiatryOnline. Silver Chair, 01 Aug. 1999. Web. 21 Nov. 2011. <;.

Hanson, PhD, David J. “Kentucky: Prohibition, Moonshine, Bootlegging and Repeal.” Alcohol. Bitglyph, 28 June 2007. Web. 08 Dec. 2011. <;.

Matte, Thomas D., Catherine J. Staesb, and Rachel B. Kaufmanna. “ScienceDirect – Environmental Research : Deaths Related to Lead Poisoning in the United States, 1979–1998.” ScienceDirect – Home. SciVerse, Feb. 2008. Web. 19 Nov. 2011. <;.

Smith, Mr. “Moonshining.” Personal interview. 18 Nov. 2011.

Warren, Jim. “Moonshine Cache Found in Clay County | State |” Lexington, KY Local News Provided by the Lexington Herald-Leader Newspaper |, 18 June 2010. Web. 08 Dec. 2011. <;.

“The Constitution Of The United States” Amendment 18 & 21

Images Cited

Cora Wilson Stewart Photographic Collection, ca. 1900-1940: pa58m25: digitized 1-20-2002

Postcard Collection, circa 1890-1990: 2008ms016: B & W : digitized 9-13-2010


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