Sunday, March 8, 2009

No More Alembics

It goes by many names:  Moonshine.  White lightning.  Stump water.  Corn squeezings.  Apple jack.  Peach brandy.  The citizens of Al Capps’ Dogpatch call it ‘Kickapoo Joy Juice.’  When they testify in court, federal agents call it “untaxed white liquor.” 

It can smell faintly of the fruit or grain from which it was made—apples, pears, peaches, corn; but whether it goes down as smoothly as a good brandy or burns off the lining of your throat, it is crystal clear and it has the kick of a determined mule with a grudge.  A little dab will definitely do you. 

Here in the pine woods of my part of North Carolina, moonshiners used to be about as common as chiggers.  Stills were tucked down in the middle of any good-sized stand of trees, along the creek banks, in the marshes.  A smart whiskey maker never went to his still  the same way twice so as not to break a path that any revenuer could follow.  Or he would string a thread around the main entry area.  If the thread was broken the next time he visited his operation, he wouldn’t go near it until he was satisfied that it had been broken by a deer and that no one was waiting with an arrest warrant.  Almost every hunter could tell about stumbling across stills by accident.  Most just backed out the way they came and kept their mouths shut.   

These days, the woods have thinned so much in our county that hiding a still has become almost impossible.   The last still site that I had personal knowledge of now has a couple of hundred houses sitting on it.  Years ago, though, the boiler fire got loose in a marshy bottom.   The volunteer fire department turned out, but the owner of the woods refused to let them take the truck down the lane.  “It’s my gee-dee woods,” he said, “and if I want to let it burn, it’s none of y’all’s gee-dee business.” 

Everyone in the neighborhood knew why.  Fortunately, the fire burned itself out before more than an acre or two of slash pines were destroyed. 

After Bootlegger’s Daughter was published, a friend gave me a still he’d found when cleaning out his daddy’s barn.   Constructed of solid copper by someone handy with a blowtorch, that pretty little boiler couldn’t have held more than five gallons of mash.  It was probably used by a man who made just enough for his own personal use with a little extra for his closest friends.  The copper worm was beautifully coiled without a single crimp.  Unfortunately, an ATF friend warned me that it was illegal to own a working still, so my husband put a large hole in the bottom and I eventually gave it to our local heritage center.   


When this country was founded, every halfway prosperous homesteader had an apple orchard and an alembic.  In researching one of my books, I came across several wills that specified that the older son was to inherit the alembic, but that the younger son was to have use of half the orchard for ten years, presumably till he could get his own orchard started.   With the rise of prohibition, home brewing became illegal, but the laws against making anything alcoholic have been somewhat relaxed over the years.  You may now make 200 gallons of wine or beer a year for your own personal use (Dwight Bryant brews a mean lager!), but you still can’t make a quart of distilled beverage. 

Somehow, that seems a shame.

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