In a corner of the cow pasture, a plume of blackbirds went up. Aaron followed to the place where the cornflower weeds pressed into the frosted ground. He found there a ring of blood and the remains of a newborn calf. Its limbs were scattered and its skull had been picked to bone. Nearby lay the calf’s mother, a black and white thing moaning and rearing her head, calling to the dead newborn. She followed the boy with her strange obsidian eyes and then looked up at the birds waiting in the trees. She was bleeding from the neck and her mouth and her back-end. Her giant udder wasted pools of milk on the ground.
The birds gathered around her again. Aaron ran after them, his hands waving to chase them off. They came from nowhere; he had never seen so many of them at one time. They became bolder and hopped closer to the cow.
“Skitum!” he cried, though he was not sure how he knew this word, where he’d heard it before. It seemed to work, though. “Skitum!”
The birds flew out in every direction and perched in the trees. Aaron knelt beside the cow. He put his hand in front of her muzzle to feel her breath, which warmed his hands. She raised her head and made a low panting sound, calling to her calf. The animal seemed enormous, much bigger than he remembered.
He collected the calf’s bones and hid them behind a bush. The skull seemed too big to hide. He tucked it beneath his shirt so the cow would not see that he was taking it. He didn’t know if animals registered things like that, but he wasn’t going to take the chance.
The birds began to circle again. Aaron ran to fetch Carl. This was early March, three months after Aaron had come to live with Carl in his wood-paneled house with its small pasture and its single cow that now lay dying. He had just turned eleven and was a miserable hand with the farm. So said Carl. Aaron held the calf’s skull up for Carl to see. It left an imprint of stale blood and hair on his chest, but he didn’t want to wash it off.
Carl called the vet, and as he did, Aaron went to his bedroom and hid the skull under the bed.
“The vet will come soon,” Carl said.
“That’s good, right? That she can come so quickly?”
“I don’t know. I need to see what kind of shape the cow’s in.” Carl stood still, looking
out the screen door of the kitchen. He was a small man, made smaller by the way he slouched and kept his hands in his pockets and his head bent down. Aaron avoided standing next to him. The two were the same height and, while Carl had never mentioned it, Aaron got the feeling that he ought not bring attention to a man’s stature.
“Should we go then, to see her again?”
Carl stood still.
“But we should check, right? To see how she’s getting along?”
Aaron had never seen his guardian unmoving. Carl had the small man’s need of constant motion, and this stillness worried him.
“So . . . we should go then?” Aaron heard the whine in his own voice.
Carl turned to look at him, shoved the screen door open and let it slam behind him. Aaron followed him to the pasture, about thirty yards behind, a safe distance.
The blackbirds were everywhere, and buzzards had joined them. The pasture itself looked like a thing black and alive. Carl walked right to the cow while Aaron chased the birds away.
“Dogs,” Carl said. Dogs had attacked the cow as she birthed, and Carl figured it was the neighbor’s three, which had always been a nuisance and threat and now this. He sat down and took the cow’s head in his lap. She snuffed, reared her head, ran her legs back and forth and then collapsed with the effort. Carl forced her head down and glared past the boundaries of his property towards wherever the dogs might have gone.
“They always sniff around, here, you know?” Carl seemed to talk to no one, and Aaron was unsure of whether or how to answer. “And they’ve bit her before, you know?”
Aaron did not know, but he nodded his head.
“And they travel as a pack. When they gang up then there’s no chance. A pack is an animal . . . do you know what I mean? A new animal. And it can divide itself. And she’s only one, you know?”
Aaron nodded again.
They went to the shed where Carl kept a store of hay. They loaded Carl’s pick-up with bales of it, and drove back through the field. Carl seemed to be trying to run over the birds, so erratic was his driving. Aaron thought he might need his seat belt but knew better than to put it on. They stacked hay bales around the cow, a semicircle three feet high, though Aaron didn’t know what good it would do if the dogs came back. But the wall made the animal a queen in a sweet-smelling chamber.
The vet came. She was taller than Carl, and her slim waist was cinched with a man’s
leather belt. She tucked her reddish hair beneath the collar of her shirt and began to work. She produced what looked like a tackle box, from which she chose two small vials. These clinked softly in her hand. From the vials she drew the liquid into a giant syringe, held it up, and squinted one eye. She flicked the syringe to settle the liquid and when she was satisfied took a fistful of cow’s hide and struck. She did it again.
“Who’s this?” she asked, motioning to Aaron.
“Town foster kid. Helps with the farm.”
“The farm? Do you mean this one cow? And what’s his name? What’s your name, dear?”
Aaron did not answer. She looked at him from behind her glasses as she worked over the animal, her long fingers massaging. The cow’s breathing relaxed even as the vet straddled it and lifted its head. In one movement the vet was on the ground again. She put the cow’s head in her lap, and they relaxed into each other. They stayed that way a long time. Carl began to pace around the bales of hay. He cursed the dogs and spat.
No one expected the animal to live.
As the vet rose to leave, Aaron stepped forward and announced his name. She smiled politely, nodded, and looked at Carl. “I’ll come by tomorrow to check on her.”
When she’d gone, Carl said the dogs must be killed. He did not bother going to the neighbor. Carl and Aaron gathered meat from the storage freezer to use to lure the dogs. Big slabs of it melted on the counter tops throughout the day, and, by nightfall, the rot had produced by some magic a plague of late winter flies. Carl dressed in dark colors and stood in front of the door with a rifle. He stuffed a burlap sack full of meat and dragged it behind him, careless about the mess. He turned to Aaron at the door.
“I could use help but then I doubt you can handle a gun.” He seemed to be hesitating. He was tossing his usual insults, but Aaron saw that look from the morning, the look of someone settling into paralysis.
And Aaron did know about guns. It seemed that nearly every foster home he’d been in had had one or two or sometimes many more. He’d once lived with a rich man, a hunter, for four months, and the man hired helicopters to shoot wild pigs. The man insisted Aaron come on these trips, had given him a rifle and taught him how to aim from a moving vehicle at a moving target. Aaron learned a lot from the hunter. He learned that you can hear a pig squeal over the sound of a helicopter. Killing those pigs was the worst thing Aaron had ever done. To atone, he refused meat, though no one seemed to notice. He was glad when the rich hunter found a girl who wanted children – new ones – and Aaron was passed on to the next family.
And sometimes, Aaron knew, it’s better to confirm people’s suspicions: “No, Sir. I’ve
never handled a gun. But I might try.”
“Just watch the house and don’t go about. Something’s getting shot tonight.”
The door slammed and Carl and the sack of meat thumped down the stairs. Aaron watched the pink drippings from the meat leak down the counter. He noticed a strange stillness outside the door and realized Carl had not moved, that he was in the yard staring at the moon.
Aaron opened the door. “I might string the meat for you. Don’t you think we ought to
string it from a tree?”
Carl nodded, and Aaron ran quickly out the door before his guardian changed his mind.
In the pasture, Aaron worked. It was ugly business. There was too much meat, for one thing, and it had started to smell. The thin blood was everywhere. He used the twine from hay bales and pierced the meat with Carl’s Swiss Army knife. Carl stood next to Aaron, not helping, looking over as if to ensure things were done properly, though no such thing had been done by either of them before. Aaron had to tie yards of the twine together, climb a tree while holding the meat, and string it low enough for the dogs to try for it, but high enough that they would stay in the spot just long enough to get shot. What kind of farmhand would Carl say he was now? Would this change his mind? Aaron thought of the vet, how she might do things. He thought of her with the vials and the syringe. The way she tucked her hair away. That kind of careful could be learned, and he wanted to learn.
When he climbed down, he smiled at his work.
“It’ll do,” Carl said.
They waited behind the same bush where that morning Aaron had hidden the calf’s bones from its mother. He lay on top of the pile before Carl could notice. He meant to bury the calf properly at some point. They waited for an hour, the bones poking Aaron’s stomach and legs, but he did not stir.
The dogs came. Instead of going for the meat, they went to the cow. They sniffed around the hay and then charged her. The wall Aaron and Carl had built to protect her now seemed like a trap.
“Son of a bitch,” Carl whispered. “Son of a bitch!” He seemed to be watching the scene as someone watching a TV show. Someone attached but helpless.
“Skitum!” Aaron yelled as loud as he could. He stood up and ran towards them. “Skitum!” The dogs whined, came out, separated, and began sniffing the ground.
When Aaron turned around, Carl was in front of him. The two stood eye to eye. Had it not been for the dogs, which seemed to be forming their pack again, Carl would have hit him; Aaron was sure of it. He’d seen the look before, and he’d been hit before.
“Do you even know what you’re saying? Those are hunting dogs. Skitum like Sickem means attack, you little idiot.”
It seemed like Carl had wanted to say something like that ever since Aaron arrived, and now that it was out, Aaron felt his time with Carl and his one-cow farm drawing to a close.
“Get to the house,” Carl said.
That was the thing about being in foster care. People said “Go to the house,” not “Go home.” Aaron walked towards the cow. He had an urge to curl up with her and feel her hot breath and smell the hay all night. He wanted to sleep that way, just once. He had a wild sensation that that kind of thing would last him his whole life.
“I said go to the house.” Carl was talking through his teeth.
The dogs found the meat and began leaping for it. Carl raised his gun, and Aaron turned to walk away. The dogs went still, watching Aaron. As he walked, he had the feeling of all eyes pointing at him - all eyes and the barrel of a gun. He walked quickly.
He took his time cleaning the mess in the kitchen, sopping up the pink meat drippings with a dish towel, wringing it out slowly, and then starting again. He waited to hear the sound of three shots.
From Carl’s liquor cabinet, Aaron took two shot glasses. He opened a window, set the calf’s skull on the sill, and began to roll the shot glasses in his hand. He was trying to produce the sound of the vet’s medicine vials, the clinking sound, but he could not make it work. For two hours he waited for the dark to make some noise, but all was quiet.
That night he slept with the calf’s skull next to him, and by morning it had attracted the flies. While Aaron fixed his toast, Carl sat at the table with his head bent low over his breakfast. His hands were filthy.
“Did you shoot the dogs?”
Carl said nothing at first. “Don’t worry about it,” he said finally, not looking up.
So, they were still alive, and though Aaron knew he would not have to worry about them anyway, he would have liked to have had some assurance.
The vet came and they went to the pasture. Aaron followed behind, spellbound by the length of her reddish hair swinging freely. As she approached the animal, the vet began to loop her hair and tuck it beneath her shirt. She held the tackle box like a mechanical arm.
They found that the animal had begun to stink. The sores on her throat oozed a pale green mess; her eyes were slackened; her mouth was frothed in yellow. Aaron rushed to her but did not know where to put his hand.
“You’re nice with animals,” the vet said. She was being generous, and it did not suit her.
She knelt beside Aaron. “It might be your business one day.”
He was not sure what she meant, but he knew that he was being coaxed away.
She stood, impatient.
Before she could speak, Carl said, “You might do it like she was going to sleep.”
The vet frowned. “That’s not … practical. There are easier ways.” She bent down to get something from the box, and on her chest Aaron saw freckles like pebbles beneath a brook rushing away. “Here. Use mine,” she said, and handed Carl a pistol.
Carl put his hands on his pockets, looked at the thing as though he’d never seen one, and
then looked away. His eyes were dark and furious.
She went to Aaron, and he thought she might ask him to do it. He inhaled to gather his courage. He believed that he could do it. He could show Carl how to do it. But instead the vet took Aaron’s shoulder and moved him gently around so that he could not see the cow. She treated him like a child, and he felt at once shame and gratitude. He plied the earth with his foot and forced himself to see the cornflower weed’s interior. He remembered to bury the calf.
The shot blast made him jump.
Then they set her on fire. The hay bales made the whole thing rage. She burned and would not stop. If the vet said goodbye or waved, Aaron could not remember. Anyway, she was gone. Gone through a haze of smoke as clean as white as dry as bone.
Anecdote of the Jar
I placed a jar in Tennessee
And round it was, upon a hill,
It made the slovely wilderness
Surround that hill.
The wilderness rose up to it,
And sprawled around, no longer wild.
The jar was round upon the ground
And tall and of a port in air.
It took dominion everywhere.
The jar was gray and bare.
It did not give a bird or bush,
Like nothing else in Tennessee.
- Wallace Stevens, 1919
It comes in a Mason jar. It appears as harmless as water, but it sets your throat on fire. You can buy it at Walmart, but if you make it yourself you commit a federal crime.
Hooch. Mountain Dew. White Lightening. Moonshine. Whatever you call it, illegal liquor has been around since the US government created the whisky tax shortly after the Revolutionary War. More than 200 years later, the federal government collects $13.50 per proof gallon of liquor. By comparison, the federal tax on beer and wine per gallon, respectively, is $0.58 and $1.07. This difference might be why you’re allowed to brew beer and/or ferment wine for personal use. You can even invite your friends over to help you drink what you’ve made (this is an excellent way to make friends).
Though distilled alcohol is the redheaded stepchild of the Libations family, people continue to make it themselves. And that’s strange, considering that corn whisky is readily available for purchase. So why don’t people drive down to the liquor store and buy it? And for those folks who make moonshine to sell, many illicit substances are easier to peddle. I want to know why - despite the risk, the effort, and lengthening obscurity of moonshine - do some people bother?
To address this question, I go home. Not to my house in Florida, but to the place where I grew up, where my family lives, where I still visit at least a half dozen times a year. I hail from East Tennessee and spent nearly every weekend of my young life hiking the Appalachian Mountains. But if on my walks I ever came across the remains of a still - there were always strange, ancient contraptions in the woods, those rusted artifacts melded to the ground and forming part of the permanent landscape – I didn’t realize it. I never tasted moonshine, had no clue how it was made. I stuck to trail maps and gave little thought to what lay beyond the worn path. So, this territory is new, and I find myself a stranger in my own home.
For long stretches of the drive through the Smokey Mountains, the only evidence of civilization is the gray ribbon of road curling out before me. It seems that around any sharp curve the road might end and abandon me to the wilderness.
The slovenly wilderness.
I arrive in Copperhill, a town with one stoplight and a Piggly Wiggly, which is apparently the grocery store of choice for decaying mountain towns. Once upon a time, when the copper mines were in full swing, this place thrived. Situated on the southeastern tip of Tennessee and bordering Georgia and North Carolina, the town is guarded by mountains on all sides. The Ocoee River rages nearby and once provided distillers with the most essential ingredient for their whisky: a reliable source of water. All this and a pool of thirsty copper miners meant that Copperhill was an ideal place to make and sell moonshine.
I’m introduced to a friend of a friend, a chummy middle-aged woman who, by virtue of our shared interest in moonshine – mine academic, hers libationary - becomes my friend, once removed. She takes me to Sue’s house, instructing me along the way: “Do not ask her about making moonshine. In fact, don’t even use that word. Just act real casual, like you’re definitely not there to get moonshine.”
Why shouldn’t I be casual? I know this area, and I have family right down the road. The truth is that I don’t feel casual, though, and so I agree to act as instructed.
Sue’s a physical therapist, and my new drinking buddy works with her at the nursing home. Sue has all the requisites of a chic matriarch: perfect posture, trim figure, loose but stylish clothes, wisps of brownish-blond hair falling over eyes of cobalt blue, and that enigmatic expression of calm that only the truly masterful can wear. But her hands betray her age – thick,weathered, and strong.
I wait in Sue’s kitchen, a standard affair with fruit bowl wallpaper and, over that, an ivy wallpaper border – the kind of clashing and migraine-inducing patterns that, oddly, bespeak pleasant domesticity. I smell the slightest hint of baked bread, but in this kitchen that odor is fitting. The window over the sink is covered with lacy white curtains, and at the center of the oak table is a large circular doily, which, I’m told by my friend, Sue made herself. It feels like we should be waiting for a piece of fresh-baked cobbler, but instead we’re waiting to taste Sue’s homemade moonshine.
“Here,” Sue says, and sets down a shot glass in front of me. We have an unspoken
understanding, Sue and I. I am only here because I know a family member who knows someone who knows someone else who knows Sue. This is the only way it works. You do not show up in the Appalachian Mountains and say, “Hey, do you know where I can get some hooch?” You’ll have better luck procuring pot or meth or just about anything else your consumptive heart desires. There is something about the stuff that is jealously guarded.
I tried for weeks to secure an interview with a moonshiner. I followed leads, cold-called strangers in Appalachian towns with names so absurd that I suspected someone was playing a joke on me (Turtle Town? Townville? Horneytown? Whynot?). I hounded anyone I know who drinks in excess - Hey, you seem like a drunk, do you know any moonshiners? Several people promised to meet with me, and then promptly ignored my calls or changed their minds. I learned that the word interview is a taboo, and to get in you must simply show up, preferably with a friend to help you get inside.
Sue never admits to making moonshine, not even to her closest friends who drink it with
her, not even when you’re sitting in her doily-ridden kitchen and she’s serving it to you. At Sue’s house, you’re supposed to drink it and keep your fat trap shut. Nevertheless, during my short visit Sue goes back and forth from the kitchen to a mysterious addition at the back of her house no less than five times. She never looks at a watch or a clock, but she’s timing something.
“She’s making it now,” my friend whispers when Sue vanishes once more. The only evidence of distilling comes from the outside of the house: a small smoke trail curls up from the addition’s large chimney, which means she might be boiling the corn mash. The smoke trail,especially in the chilly Tennessee fall, looks just like any chimney burning. Nothing criminal about that.
I sip my drink. It’s peach moonshine, which is just regular corn whisky with a few peaches tossed in for an extended, albeit nebulous, period of time. The real treat is the peach itself, soaked with high proof liquor and able to transport you to fuzzy moonshine world with a few luscious bites. But I don’t get the peach. I’m a nobody, a transient, a tourist who will go huffing and puffing back to wherever I came from soon enough. I haven’t earned the peach.
Sue does not sell her liquor, but from time to time will trade it for fresh produce or preserves or whatever someone else has. Or so I’ve heard. Whether or not she sells it, by federal and state law, Sue is not allowed to make it. Period. Tennessee law states that an individual cannot possess even one part of a distillery, no matter how small 1. If caught, she could lose her license to practice medicine. I want to ask her why take the risk? You’re a doctor and clearly not in need of whatever it is you get from distilling your own liquor.
I want to ask her how and when she learned to do it. Who taught you, Sue? I want to talk about these things, but there is the issue of my fat trap. But without talking to her, one thing is clear: Sue knows what she is doing. Her self-assuredness makes me think she senses my own strange displacement. Or perhaps I’m just paranoid.
I finish my shot-sized ration of peach moonshine and stare silently at the fruit bowl wallpaper. I feel a headache coming on, and the culprit – the paper pattern, the frustration, the long haul into a mountainous nowhere, or the strong drink – remains at large.
As we leave Sue’s house, my friend points to her neighbor’s house that sits half an acre
away. “He makes it too,” my friend says.
“Can we talk to him?”
“No way. I don’t know that guy.”
“Then how do you know he makes moonshine?”
“I just know. A friend of mine says her daddy buys it from him…”
Given enough time, I might be able to set up a meeting with my friend’s friend’s liquor-loving daddy, and then, upon making a favorable impression on the buyer, I might sneak in to visit with the distiller himself, who I have to assume is more talkative than Sue because I haven’t met anyone less talkative than Sue.
But I’m due in Knoxville for an interview, and with someone for whom that word is ritual.
Special Agent Jason Poore is six feet four inches of brawny man, complete with full, well-trimmed beard. He looks like a lumberjack, but the sort you find posing on a roll of paper towels, not the sort you actually meet in the woods. I have girlfriends who would use the retro appellation dreamy to describe him. So, he’s like a dreamy lumberjack. Now, that’s settled.
Agent Poore has been with the Tennessee Alcoholic Beverage Commission (TABC) for nine years. He goes after the guys and gals who make moonshine and/or grow marijuana, and these days the two art forms go hand in hand. Both need a source of water, Agent Poore says, and when there’s drinking, more often than not there’s smoking too. Still, growing marijuana is gradually taking over distilling moonshine. Making moonshine properly is laborious, and the younger generation is too lazy to make it, he says.
The jar was gray and bare.
It did not give of bird or bush,
There’s the matter of public safety too, Agent Poore insists. Distilling liquor is not unlike making beer or wine, but with one extra step. That step is crucial to yielding a higher proof, but it can be dangerous. If you use lead to solder your still, you can get lead poisoning. If you don’t heat the liquor to just the right temperature, you’ll get methanol instead of ethanol, and methanol causes blindness. That’s why the government must regulate it, he says.
I find myself agreeing with Agent Poore, and not just because of the dreamy lumberjack situation. If someone sells a consumable, consumers have a right to know what they’re buying. They have a right to safety. But not everyone sells it. Also, I spoke with a toxicologist about moonshine safety, and here’s the thing: the most dangerous part of drinking moonshine is drinking too much of it. Moderation is not a favorite word in the American lexicon, and blaming moonshine for alcoholics is like blaming food for overweight people. It is statistically more dangerous to handle raw chicken than it is to make your own liquor. These days, it’s more dangerous to eat cantaloupe than to drink homemade, “unregulated” liquor. If it were merely a matter of safety, then none of us would be allowed to raise and slaughter our own meat or grow our own produce. But we are, which renders the safety argument null. It’s about money. It’s about that $13.50 that the government has access to as soon as whisky drips out of the still.
I want to know what his feelings are about those people who make liquor for personal use. He stiffens, and it’s the first time he sounds robotic: “The department does not consider the amount of moonshine. If someone is making it, no matter the amount, we investigate. They will be prosecuted.” He quickly relaxes, and it appears he was just in some kind of bureaucratic trance.
“But,” he adds, “we don’t hardly get any calls about that. People are real secretive, and they’ll turn in a pot grower or a meth lab but they won’t even think about turning in a distiller. It’s just too ingrained in the culture. Many people don’t know it’s illegal, even after all this time.”
As an example, Agent Poore tells me about a recent conversation he had with a Knoxville sheriff’s officer. The officer believed that an individual could legally posses up to three gallons of bootlegged liquor. Agent Poore sighs and rolls his eyes thinking of this story. It turns out that it’s difficult to change centuries of cultural perception.
“The way people see it is like the distillers are experts,” he says. “They’ve worked really hard to do this one thing well. And they’re highly respected. They know how to do something that me and you couldn’t do, not right away.”
It made the slovenly wilderness
Surround that hill.
Agent Poore collects moonshine memorabilia, and he shows off his case of books, moonshine jars, and affidavits of those caught. His most prized possession is an autobiography entitled Me and My Likker by the most infamous moonshiner in recent history, Popcorn Sutton. The book contains Popcorn’s recipe to make moonshine in a fifty gallon still:
25 lbs coarse ground white corn meal - 1/2 volume of your barrel/container
50 lbs of sugar - 1 lb per gallon of water of total volume
1 gallon of malt - can be corn, barley, rye or combination
-Boil the water and pour it over the cornmeal to cook it in really good. When it cools enough that you can hold your hand in it (about 140-150F), stir in your sugar and yeast and stir it up really good. Leave it for a day, then check to see if it's working. It should have capped up and be sizzling/frying on the top. Then you stir it in one last time and leave it to work off.
Agent Poore is quick to point out that, even though we can know the technical details of Popcorn’s recipe, this does not mean that we understand how to make his moonshine. “I couldn’t just go home and make this and have it taste like Popcorn’s stuff, you know?”
Agent Poore helped bust Popcorn. To do that, he went undercover as a member of a biker gang. But his pride at having made the incredible bust is tempered with regard for a man whose art form is fading.
The Man Who Could Do Nothing Else
Marvin “Popcorn” Sutton grew up in Cocke County, Tennessee. He dropped out of high school as a sophomore, and spent the rest of his life making moonshine and trying to outsmart the revenue officers. He was caught several times, was often fined, and sometimes wound up in jail, though never for very long. A filmmaker found him and shot a documentary called “The Last One,” which featured Popcorn’s last distillery. In the documentary the cameraman asks Popcorn why he continued to make whisky when the risk is so high. After a pause, Popcorn says, “I don’t know how to do nothin’ else.” The documentary aired on YouTube and made Popcorn a national sensation. But soon afterwards, Popcorn was caught and prosecuted. Facing 18 months in prison and the loss of his only way of life, Popcorn Sutton, 62, went to his garage, climbed behind the wheel of his beloved Ford Fairlane, started the engine, and let the fumes choke him to death. But Popcorn is still making moonshine. After his suicide last year, his wife sold the rights to his famous name to a legal moonshine distillery. Every jar of the company’s corn whisky bears his name and, supposedly, is crafted according to Popcorn’s own recipe and by men who studied under him. For Popcorn to make whisky from beyond the grave is no small deed. It means that his Likker was more than a drink – it was his legacy, his art. And like any worthy work of art, it ignores the mortal limitations of the artist.
I placed a jar in Tennessee
Headed to Gatlinburg, I hear three songs on the radio whose lyrics reference moonshine: “Rain is a Good Thing,” “Chug-a-lug,” and “Copperhead Road.” Never once in my Tennessee youth do I remember hearing a song about moonshine, though I may not have been listening. I had never tasted it either, until Sue. I suddenly want to go back to her kitchen to relish the experience properly. I was too concerned with getting her to talk to recognize that I was doing something for the first time.
My husband says that Gatlinburg is like the hillbilly Las Vegas (he’s from East Tennessee too). Minus the gambling, it’s hard to disagree. Nestled in what should be a remote mountain wilderness, the place is screaming with all manner of amusements. But no matter our opinion of the place, every time we go we eat and shop like fat, bug-eyed consumer zombies.
The wilderness rose up to it,
And sprawled around, no longer wild
It’s 8am, and I wait outside the Old Smokey (OS) Mountain Distillery, Tennessee’s first legal moonshine distillery, founded in 2010 2. The October morning air bites me, and I bring my sweater over my hands to warm them. There is more than the distillery: there is the “Holler,” the middle through which runs a giant fountain made to look like a river. Nestled on either side of the river are several shops that sell moonshine in Mason jars, wines such as the “Redneck Reserve,” t-shirts, shot glasses, bumper stickers that read “I don’t know Jack but I know Shine!” and anything else you can imagine a tourist might want to prove that he or she was, in fact, in the mountains of East Tennessee drinking moonshine at some point. I am one such tourist, and last night this place took me for…I won’t say how much. But let’s just say I’m moonshine rich and cash poor.
The Master Distiller, Justin King, arrives for our meeting. I’m surprised by his age. He’s
young, 27, with large blue eyes and a goatee, which, based on the couple of guys I met last night,is a popular choice of facial decoration for young men in this business.
Justin is exceptionally patient with me, sensing, I suspect, that I have no idea what I’m talking about. He takes me to the back of the building, to the distillery itself, and I am instantly struck with the smell of what I can only describe as cornbread baking, though there is a hint of alcohol beneath that. This smell, and the fact that I’m finally inside and away from the cold, warms me instantly.
“That’s the yeast,” he says without my asking about the smell. “It’s really heavy in here
because it’s been closed up all night.”
Justin opens a large sack of cornmeal, takes a fistful in his hands, feeling it, inhaling it. Here they use only food-grade corn meal, yeast and water to make the whisky. I mention Popcorn’s recipe, which includes sugar and malt instead of yeast. Justin says that malt/yeast are preferences and that sugar is only used to increase the alcohol content. He says the OS Distillery’s method is a purist way of doing things – that is, without sugar. The result is unaged corn whisky with an ever-so-slight yellow tint and that distinctive corn flavor. They also make “white lightening,” which is corn whisky that has been distilled several times, making it as clear as water and giving it a clean, almost vodka-like taste. To these basics the OS Distillery adds various flavors and produces a cornucopia of moonshine selections - apple pie, peach, hunch punch, grape, moonshine cherries, etc.
Justin’s mind is always on the whisky. He sets about tasting this vat or that one. He goes to where the still has leaked out the night’s excess and dips his finger in. I follow him around,
dipping my finger into everything, and try, in vain, to discover what it is he’s looking for. The only thing I can gather is that it seems the stuff needs constant tending, like an errant child. Moonshine is not simply prepared -- it is coaxed into existence.
When we finally stop to talk, we lean over a vat, not because it is the most convenient spot, but because it is clearly where Justin is most comfortable. He explains that he grew up in East Tennessee, and his family has history making whisky. His father “toyed with it,” as did his uncle, and he and his brother helped out since they were very young. His grandmother made it too; there were nine children and no father, and so she made the stuff in the living room and sold it to help support the family.
It is this family reputation that earned him the title of Master Distiller at such a young age. Word spread, a friend of a friend of a relative recalled his name, and when the owners of the distillery needed an operations man, they contacted Justin directly. He has never attended one day of training, but can talk about the distilling process as fluently as a chemist. He knows everything about this business - from the finance and the law, bottling and labeling, to the recipe that has made the OS Distillery, in a little more than a year, a brand name in 24 states and the recent recipient of an exclusive Walmart contract.
In his spare time, he experiments obsessively. He’s tried distilling everything: rice, potatoes, rye, peaches, apples, grapes, you name it. “You can distill almost anything,” he says proudly. He experiments with flavors too. He has something planned: he points to the pumpkins that decorate the “holler.” The pumpkins are so large they look fake. Not only are they real, but as soon as Halloween ends, Justin plans to take them home, mash them up, and distill them. All this experimenting is legal, Justin assures me, and part of the distillery’s agreement with the state licensing board.
But does he still know guys that do it illegally?
“Honestly, as soon as I started doing this – I mean doing it legally – none of them wanted anything to do with me. They won’t talk to me. I couldn’t tell you where to get it even if I wanted to.”
Justin is a crossover, and I find his new world very familiar - not the legal moonshine world, but the corporate world, where I served more than a decade. It’s hard to see Justin as a company man, so involved is he with his product, but that’s what he is. There’s the bottom line to tend to, all that red tape. There is very little difference between Justin and the operators at the Jack Daniel’s distillery or, for that matter, a mass-producer of any consumable. No matter how much personal attention and care – how much love – goes into his product, all recipes must be reviewed and approved by the TABC. From there, the process is stringently regulated, with about as much room for creativity as an IRS audit. It seems all his running around is out of a kind of lovesickness, where the afflicted is destined to walk beside his beloved without touching her.
“If you weren’t doing this, what would you do?” I ask.
“You mean would I do it illegally?”
That’s actually not what I meant. I wanted to know what other occupations he would consider, but it seems alternatives haven’t occurred to him.
“Yes. I’ve thought about it. I probably would do it illegally. It’s just what I know how to do. I don’t know about drugs, and when it’s time to eat you do what you know how to do.”
He strikes me as sincere, excited, even, by the thought of doing things for himself. But I wonder if Justin could ever go back. Would he have lost his contacts? Would people regard him with suspicion? Would the computer-monitored recipes have permanently damaged that inscrutable moonshine gene?
The conversation veers towards money, as business conversations do. Many of the people
Justin meets at work would love to start their own distillery, but it’s cost prohibitive. The three owners of the OS Distillery had start up capital that exceeded $500,000. Now, they have to have in escrow nearly $1 million at any given time to satisfy the federal government. If the distillery were ever destroyed, the government would still be able to collect taxes on the whisky that could have been sold. Let me repeat that: if you produce it that means it could be sold. If it could be sold, then the government could collect taxes on it. That’s why those caught making moonshine illegally are not only prosecuted for a federal crime, but they are fined a sum equal to what they would have paid in taxes, regardless of whether the whisky ever sold.
It took dominion everywhere.
An online search reveals that not only is distilling homemade liquor alive and well in Appalachia, it’s making a comeback all over the country. “Apple Pie,” is all the rage, and if you go to the Northeast, you might hear about “Nip Joints,” which are bars specifically selling bootlegged liquor. Home stills are nothing like they used to be – they look more like crock pots and are easier to use for small batches. Perhaps because of the economic downturn, perhaps because it’s something fun and challenging to do, perhaps because the word itself is taboo –moonshine refuses to go away. Which means that Agent Poore still has a job, and it means that Justin can continue to sell “moonshine” as a novelty to those who don’t care to break the law. It means you are free to produce just about anything legal. You can brew your own beer, raise your own meat, grow your own vegetables, and even generate your own power. But if you have a taste for liquor, you’re going to have to haul your thirsty ass into town. Or maybe not. Maybe you know Sue.
Back home in Florida, my husband and I used our spoils from the mountains to throw a little party. We had several flavors of moonshine and a brand new chiminea. Suddenly we had more friends than either of us remembered. A couple of those friends were also from Tennessee, and by virtue of our shared motherland, we became the life of that moonshine party. I felt like the resident expert (as Tom Waits said, “In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king”). We swapped stories, argued about which flavor was best, and passed any moments of silence by filling our cups. We got a little drunk, until gradually we each succumbed to a staring competition with the fire, until time was measured in units of logs needed to keep the fire going.
Like nothing else in Tennessee.
MARIA BURNS is a graduate student in the English PhD program at USM. Her work has appeared in Euphony, Toasted Cheese Literary Journal, The Blackwater Review, The Troubadour, and The Intentional. She is the winner of the 2015 Product Prose Prize for her story "Meat."