Sooner or later if you study and/or write about America, the South, or the Florida panhandle, you will likely find references to the making of moonshine. I did not have to find my first reference to this once shadowy endeavor, my grandfather spent a year in the Atlanta Penitentiary after being picked up for his second offense in 1937. This second time he wasn’t at his still but at a friend’s but that didn’t matter. On the same day, he was arrested, a number of other relatives were also arrested but this was their first time caught and they got probation. So, I knew bootlegging was done in the area around Oak Grove in northern Okaloosa County but until I started working on the Yellow River Baptist Church Records and talking to distant relatives about the time in the 1920s when many black community members were run out of Oak Grove (some believe a factor was some wanting more control of the liquor production by a new family to the area), I didn’t realize just how important bootlegging was to the economy of the community. And frankly, having spent some time studying the interesting relationship of alcohol to America, I have a much better understanding of its role in the lives of our ancestors.
More than a few historians that have also looked at how alcohol fits into the larger society comment on the significant intake of liquor during the Colonial era. Between the dodgy water, the storage and use of quality wines/liquors as a sign of wealth, and how it made you feel; the Colonials took to liquor like a retriever to water. Nearly all that was drunk by the elite was imported, mostly Madeira wines. What was made at home was apple and peach brandy in the early years. But the American Revolution put a real kink in the ability to import brandy and wine and the creative effort to produce something both on the homestead and in a more commercial setting in America took off. Rum was the first hard liquor to enjoy drinking success in the new America. Imported from the Caribbean Islands, early rum is reported to have been pretty nasty tasting but it found its followers anyway.
Early whiskey was made using rye in Pennsylvania but as the population moved south, corn was the more abundant crop and it became the grain of choice. The well-to-do continued to produce peach and apple brandy on their plantations, the folks that were more like my ancestors turned their extra corn into whiskey. While I’m pretty sure the high and the income were significant causes for bootlegging, it was a good way to “store” extra grain. Alcohol keeps MUCH better than grain does. And well into the early 20th century, alcohol was used as a base for making medicines (tinctures are herbs steeped in alcohol to extract properties) and to dull pain after injuries or wounds in battle. As with many things in human culture, it isn’t the alcohol that’s the problem, it is the human tendency to obsession and/or addiction that creates the problem.
The Scot-Irish brought their whiskey-making skills with them so their trails along the eastern seaboard deposited whiskey-making along the same routes. Here in the Florida panhandle, the Scot-Irish were a significant part of the early American settlement and whiskey-making quickly became a significant part of the Florida panhandle culture. Alcohol production was often paired with running a grist mill since millers would take shares of the grain in payment for grinding the grain. Settlers into the upper panhandle likely quickly discovered that the springs and water that fed many of the early wells provided a sweet, clean water that produced a fine whiskey that brought good money to those who made it.
By 20 February 1859, the production and drinking of alcohol had become such an issue in the community of Oak Grove in Okaloosa County, FL that the church issued a resolution against the excessive use of “ardent spirits”. Yellow River Baptist Church was a Missionary Baptist church in its early years and they used a form of religious community persuasion when a member was observed or believed to be living outside the covenant of the church. While there are examples of a variety of transgressions, the one seen most often in the minutes is drinking. The member would be approached by a committee, usually three male members, who would sit and pray with them and if they appeared to be sufficiently sorry, they would be forgiven. If not, they would be dismissed from the church. It doesn’t appear this decreased the production or imbibing of alcohol but it did impact membership rolls.
The War for Southern Independence brought an end to the legal production of alcohol at home, for either home consumption or for sale. The North instituted a tax on the production of liquor to pay for the war and once the war ended, that tax was levied on Southerners. I think we can all imagine that this tax did not sit well with our ancestors. It was a steep tax so the producers decided it would be cheaper to sell illegal whiskey than to pay the tax. Hence the birth of bootleggers and revenuers.
In the early 20th century, revenuers made a real effort to put an end to bootlegging. They would hunt down the stills hidden in the woods and once found would destroy the still and the whiskey and arrest the owner, if they could find them. Rotgut, one of the many names for moonshine, could be dangerous because not everyone used good quality supplies or a still that didn’t leach heavy metals. But the push to control production really was about the loss of taxes to the state, not the public health issue, though demon liquor was a rallying cry for those who wanted to see less alcoholism and better social behavior. Then prohibition came along and what had been a steady problem became a massive one. If you want to make most people want something really bad, tell them they can’t have it. Instead of removing alcohol from the American culture, it facilitated its distribution and use. The Depression increased the illegal production because cash crops weren’t bringing much cash onto the farm. And economic depressions contribute to emotional depression and alcohol certainly can deaden that depressed feeling, at least for a while.
My grandfather made rye whiskey in his still and took pride in making a good quality hooch. I never got a chance to try it. While in the Atlanta penitentiary he gave up the drinking and the production of alcohol. I can’t say that about every other person in Oak Grove that I was, or still am, related to. Given the dense woods and swamps, it remains a good place for a still or two just as it was in the past. I have tasted bootleg. I dated a guy many years ago whose Dad had a still in the swamp of south Georgia and nowadays we can find legally produced un-aged, or lightly aged, whiskey produced by descendants of early community members in the area.
I’m not particularly fond of un-aged whiskey. It feels like drinking hot turpentine, which I don’t think is all that pleasant. I have recently read of some ways to soften that burning that I might try. I do like a fine brandy and being a good southerner I find my occasional desire for alcohol to lean toward bourbon but my import tastes go to Irish whiskey and an occasional well-aged rum. I am also an enjoyer of some of our local wines and cook with wines quite often. I make herbal medicines with vodka and gin and hope to try my hand at making bitters in the upcoming months. My grandmother kept a bottle of whiskey hidden in the house for medicinal purposes. Her hot toddies were dynamite, literally. I make a pretty mean one myself. It is best to be in bed when you start drinking, otherwise, you might find yourself sleeping on the floor! You will do some serious sweating but the next morning you generally feel like you are home to a lot fewer cold and/or flu bugs.
I’m glad we don’t have to drink alcohol 24 hours a day because our water is full of bacteria and that most of us have learned to enjoy in moderation. Something is only special if it isn’t common or overdone. Next time you take a sip of some adult beverage think of your ancestors and ask yourself – did they make hooch in a still? And if they did, was it before or after the War for Southern Independence. Don’t discount the women in your line being the producer. The production of brandy and bitters was often an adjunct to kitchen activities. The resources below are for education and entertainment. I don’t advocate taking up drinking, especially to excess, and please don’t do anything without knowing the rules where you live.
Until next time
- Southern Spirits: Four Hundred Years of Drinking by Robert F. Moss
- The Home Distilling & Infusing Handbook by Matt Teacher
- Bitters: A Spirited History of a Classic Cure-All by Brad Thomas Parsons
- Handcrafted Bitters: Simple Recipes for Artisanal Bitters and the Cocktails That Love Them by Will Budiaman
- Chautauqua Vineyards, DeFuniak Springs, FL
- Peaden Brothers Distillery, Crestview, FL