Still Life

In search of those who remember -- and preserve -- the culture of southern whiskey-making

The turn-off is only a few miles from the main highway, an unassuming little paved artery that winds back into the verdant hills like a snake chasing a mouse through a pile of mulch. Take a left at the half-mast stop sign, and after you've swerved through some five miles of densely-thicketed ridges and God's own pastureland, you'll swear you've passed the place you're looking for.

Then, without warning, it emerges from the wood, a dusty patch of gravel with an old trailer perched on blocks, a neon beer sign leering from a front window, and its name scrawled in cursive along the side. You pull into the lot (which has room for maybe 25 cars, at the outside) and enter the house through a cubby-hole doorway at the top of three short wooden stairs.

Inside, the trailer is faintly lit, but the ambiance is warm, genial. In front of you sits a little bar attended by five or six stools; to the side, a handful of booth seats and tables. The walls are plastered with yellowing snapshots of smiling patrons, the ceiling with the paper currency of a dozen-dozen nationalities. On a busy night, you might find 10 or 15 people sprawled in the booths or at the bar chatting with the friendly 60-ish couple who tend the place--an odd mixture of impassive locals and venturesome city folk who've heard the rumors from friends.

But none of that really matters, because you don't come here for the atmosphere, the decor, the clientele, the hot dogs or nachos, or the complimentary bags of popcorn. You come for the drink menu, an impressive roster of thirty-some-odd homespun alcoholic beverages--assorted fruit brandies, homemade wines, and even a homebrew lager or two.

And more than anything else, you come for the house specialty, a potent little concoction dubbed, delectably enough, Panther Piss--a high-octane white whiskey that folks say will burn a hole in your throat and spew right out the back of your neck if you drink too much too fast. Sip it from a mason jar, or munch on red cherries that have been pickled in the stuff; but whatever you do, watch that first mouthful--otherwise you might not want the second.

For obvious reasons, you won't find this particular establishment touted in splashy back-page advertisements or marqueed on broad, smiling billboards complete with exit number and directions. By the same token, its whereabouts are only nominally secret, known to slumming yuppies and intrepid college kids all across East Tennessee. Rumor even has it that more than a couple of local officials have been spotted exiting the infamous trailer, tell-tale mason jars tucked furtively under their arms.

The sort of loose-lipped, wink-and-a-smile secrecy that seems to keep this self-styled saloon simultaneously out of trouble and in-the-know is telling. Once both a big business and a fine art, a hazardous trade that sent many of its practitioners to prison or worse, the manufacture and sale of homemade whiskey is now little more than a quaint Old South taboo, a fermented relic of a simpler, but perhaps much harsher, era.

How much have things changed? Federal records show that in 1967, Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms agents raided more than 6,000 moonshine operations in the eight-state ATF district that includes Tennessee. In less than a decade, tectonic shifts in the social and economic bedrock of the South effectively rendered moonshining impractical as a business endeavor, relegating it to little more than a time-consuming hobby, more point of pride than source of product. By 1977, fewer than 500 stills were ferreted out across that same eight-state region, and today, Tennessee officials estimate that fewer than 20 stills are confiscated statewide in any given year.

"Chasing moonshiners was still 95 percent of our work in the early 1970s," says Knoxville's Grant McGarity, a 26-year veteran of the ATF. "Now it's pretty much dead as far as any large-scale trade is concerned. The ATF has moved on to other things; if we do get any information on a still, we just pass it on to local law enforcement."

Although moonshining will doubtless never again be the same proud, perilous profession that sent deathless mountain men screaming down dirt roads at midnight, gallons of southern liquor freighted in tons of northern steel, its traditions--both noble and less so--live on in the old 'shiners and bootleggers who once made a hard living off distilled sugar and corn and in the memories of the children of the impoverished South who grew up well-fed thanks to illicit whiskey traffic.

Moonshining survives as a craft, as well, though rarely as a business. And while men who make their liquor the hard way are fewer and farther between, latter-day practitioners (not to mention partakers) argue that the de-commercialization of moonshine was the best thing that ever happened to the fine art of backwoods distillation.

In the withering heat of an incandescent June morning, Roy D. Brown rummages through the cobwebbed clutter of the cinder block toolshed nestled next to his handsome Cocke County rancher. Within minutes, the 71-year-old Cosby native has removed and haphazardly reassembled what looks to be a miniature pot-bellied stove with a few miscellaneous attachments, perhaps some 19th-century gadgeteer's idea of a new-fangled cooking aid.

In truth, these mottled copper casings constitute the visual, if not practical, essence of Cocke County's first turnip-shaped still, a distinction perhaps best appreciated by those well-acquainted with the minutiae of distillation technology.

What can be more readily appreciated is that these weathered old parts are probably more than 150 years old; according to local lore, the 50-gallon still was assembled in North Carolina, then carried across 27 miles of unforgiving hill country from Fines Creek to Max Patch, the highest point in Cocke County, on the back of a one-armed man whose family would employ the contraption across four generations.

"He was a strong man," says Brown in a broad, venerable Appalachian drawl. "Only one arm, but he could do more with one than most could do with two. A fine man who raised a fine family--and most of 'em went to jail."

Stout and round-faced, with a ruddy complexion and sturdy work-thickened hands, Brown never made moonshine himself. But he delivered it--as a college student fresh out of World War II, he hauled cases of half-gallon fruit jars in a '40 Ford with the seats removed, a souped-up engine, and a couple of railroad ties strapped to the front axle for ramming through blockades.

Brown's brief bootlegging career was uneventful, however--he received his orders and his route plan from a sergeant in the Tennessee Highway Patrol and never saw so much as a parking citation in two summers of running whiskey to clandestine "shot bars" in Knoxville, Kingsport, and Kentucky.

Nowadays the retired Cocke Countian fancies himself a white lightning historian of sorts, steeped in local lore and author of the official county history book's chapter on moonshine.

Early 'shiners, most of them descended from the Scots-Irish settlers who brought the traditions of whiskey-making over from the home country, ran simple, low-volume operations for private and local consumption, says Brown. Their process was simple, although perhaps not easy; they converted bushels of corn, malt, and sugar into a mildly alcoholic "mash" by allowing the mixture to ferment for several days in wooden barrels. The pungent mash, which had roughly the potency of a strong beer, was then heated in small still pots (sometimes as little as five gallons) over a chestnut wood fire until the alcohol evaporated, ran through the gizmo's sundry working parts, and condensed in the worm, a coiled length of copper tubing immersed in a barrel of cold water that yielded the final product to a waiting wash-basin.

"It's some of the hardest work you ever done in your life," says Brown, explaining at painstaking length the bone-wearying hardships of carrying cumbersome parts up steep, densely-foliaged mountains, hauling hundred-pound bags of sugar and meal and keeping vigil at all hours of the day to ensure that the volatile potion doesn't turn to vinegar in the barrel or overheat in the still. "You turn into a pack horse. And of course, you're constantly looking over your shoulder for federal officers."

By most accounts, moonshine was as much a staple of daily mountain life as creek water--an all-purpose nostrum, a sure-fire sleep-aid, and a daily sunrise-and-sunset ritual. Sevier County Sheriff Bruce Montgomery (who witnessed moonshining from both sides of the badge, as a youngster growing up in the shadow of the Smokies and then as a federal marshal in the 1970s) remembers that his grandfather, a country doctor, kept a small supply of corn whiskey in his bag, leaving off a jar for house-call patients whose fevers had subsided. Other old home-medicine saws included moonshine and rock candy, the active ingredients in country-style cough syrup, and a whiskey-honey mixture spiced with ginseng root, for silencing sleepless or croupy children.

"There were people who took a drink of whiskey every day, religiously, and most of those people when they died still had all their teeth," says Brown. "And there were a lot of people who wouldn't be alive today if the mid-wife hadn't washed her hands in white whiskey."

"It was just a way of life," says Gay Web, a Cosby storeowner whose family tree boasts several well-respected local distillers. "Back in the day, you were either a moonshiner, you supplied a moonshiner, or you were a preacher."

But the face of moonshining was altered dramatically--most believe for the worse--with the advent of Prohibition in 1919, as what had been a private endeavor suddenly became a profitable enterprise. "That's when large-scale production began," says Brown. "People went from five or six gallon stills to five or six hundred gallon stills."

Inevitably, the forces of big-time commerce wrought unseemly changes in the delicate mountain art. "People that made a lot of it would tell you they wouldn't drink it," Brown says. "It was selling whiskey, and it was unfit to drink. A lot of them were some of the soberest men you'd ever know."

The ways in which the craft suffered are various and often in dispute (as are many of the finer points of 'shining). But in general, the new wave of mass production seems to have encouraged the use of more readily-available metals, like sheet iron or tin, in still construction (as opposed to copper, which purists argue was a better medium and added no extraneous flavor to the final product); the cutting of the brew at various points of production with potash, cheaper grains, or even rubbing alcohol; and a bottom-line mentality that led some moonshiners to hasten production by neglecting still-cleaning chores or distilling ill-prepared mash.

"There were a lot of headaches locked in that old whiskey," says one modern-day moonshiner. "You've got to distill whiskey at least twice, otherwise you leave the impurities in it. You also end up with a weaker product. The old still-men were making it first to sell, so they only ran it once."

Quality control aside, many believe that whiskey-making for profit was an essential component of the post-industrial Appalachian economy, the household sine qua non which enabled poor families with even poorer land to survive, and sometimes prosper, amid festering poverty and need.

"The ground here is rocky, very hard to farm," says Jean Shillings of Cosby, noting the infamous rock fences--the cruel harvest tilled from unyielding soil--that still line many Cocke County parcels today. "And people found out that transporting corn in liquid form was a lot easier and more profitable than transporting it out in bushels."

"Most moonshiners were upstanding citizens of the community," says Brown. "Everyone knew what they did. They attended church; their word was their bond. For them, making a jar of whiskey was no different than making a jar of apple butter, and no less of a need."

Now in his 70s, Carman Townsend is barely recognizable as the able-bodied young deputy who helped disassemble countless stills as a member of the Sevier County Sheriff's Department in the 1960s, or even the long-running sheriff who would preside over the last vestiges of the moonshine era in Dolly Parton country.

Short and plump, he sinks impossibly low in the aging velour chair in his disheveled little business office in the heart of downtown Sevierville, his round body constrained by a tight striped shirt and tie, his sleepy-eyed countenance as comfortably weathered as a favorite old pair of shoes. But he still remembers days spent tracing frigid streams up the tree-swollen ridges of Jones Cove and Cosby, searching for tell-tale water hoses or suspicious piles of brush.

"We did a lot of still-searchin'," says Townsend. "It was one of the major problems back then--people drinking and fighting and feuding, having drunken brawls. If we had an area where a lot of drunks were showing up, we'd go looking."

But even lawmen like Townsend testify that many of the moonshiners they sent to the Big House were simply ordinary men with an unwavering belief in their unassailable right to expend scant resources in any manner they saw fit.

"A lot of them was pretty good country people, but felt they had a right to make a living off their whiskey," says Townsend. "They felt the government was infringing on their rights."

"You got well-acquainted with 'em in law enforcement," says Montgomery. "They were honorable people. When officers put their hands on them, that was it. There wasn't any scuffling. And I don't know of one moonshiner who ever failed to show up in court."

But the moonshiners' trade was possessed of an undeniable rogue element; deaths and illnesses were sometimes associated with the consumption of untaxed liquor, some of them owing to the malignant additives a few 'shiners used to increase the volume of brew, others attributable to the capricious chemistry and rampant impurities of a process that, even in the hands of its most careful practitioners, was rooted more in tradition than science.

Still other medical problems, especially among white whiskey tipplers, were caused by moonshine processed in lead-lined still pots and car-radiator condensers. "People would occasionally call and complain about 'poison' moonshine, and that's usually what they were reporting," says McGarity. "Over the years, lead builds up and can cause something very similar to a stroke, resulting in paralysis, blindness, or even death."

Shillings is well-acquainted with the Jekyll-and-Hyde duality of the trade, perhaps more so than most. Her father, the late Ike Costner, was a veritable captain of industry in Cocke County, a county that, with its uniquely harsh and inaccessible terrain, is widely recognized as one of the old Meccas of southern 'shine.

Sitting in the quaintly musty Cosby dulcimer shop she now runs with her husband Lee, Shillings recalls the father she knew only in her adult years, stirring up memories marked at once by affection, puzzlement, bemusement, and perhaps a just a touch of filial disappointment.

Costner was in many ways a community stalwart, renowned for lending a dollar and a helping hand to needy neighbors and standing doggedly in times of trouble behind the young bootleggers who were in his employ. Despite several stints in federal prison, his family never wanted, and Costner's time behind bars was distinguished first by his study of law and then by the legal services he subsequently provided to fellow prisoners.

"Occasionally I meet people who look at me and say, 'Oh, Ike was your daddy? I did time with him down in Atlanta,'" Shillings says with a chuckle, brushing back her long gray tresses. "It was like it was the biggest honor, like a baseball fan meeting Mickey Mantle's family."

Yet that same Ike Costner was also the absentee father whom Shillings saw only twice throughout her childhood and teen years, the scheming mastermind of a bootlegging operation that shipped illegal white whiskey all over the South and Midwest, and a reputed consort of big-city gangsters, including several connected with Chicago's Al Capone. "It always seemed that he wouldn't be out of jail for any time before he did something to get back in again," Shillings says wistfully.

Costner's exploits are the stuff of local legend--cunning, audacious, astounding. Shillings remembers a high-speed chase wherein Costner reportedly led two over-matched government agents down a little-traveled local dirt byway, turned off abruptly, and watched his pursuers sail helplessly into the river. (The agents survived; their egos doubtless didn't.)

Even more shocking is the bank heist in Charlotte, N.C., she alleges her father and some of his Chicago cronies planned and carried out, motivated in large part by their frustration with the Depression-era bank closings that robbed them of their whiskey profits. The anxious thieves, desiring to keep a low profile in the wake of the crime, are believed to have stashed their loot in blue canning jars which they buried along the muddy banks of the French Broad River, a move that would prove to be comically ill-advised.

"Before they could come back and split the money up, there was a flood," Shillings chuckles. "For a long time after, you heard tales of money floating down the river and people swimming out to draw in armloads of cash."

But while Costner's adventures were extraordinary, they were far from unprecedented. Most mountain communities saw several favorite sons marched off to federal prison for whiskey-making or bootlegging; most bootleggers countered inevitable federal pursuit with hopped-up cars, wired for speed by some wily hayseed mechanic.

"I was chased many times, but I never was caught," says former Wilkesboro, N.C., bootlegger Willie Clay Call. Approaching 60, the burly, moon-faced Carolina farm boy recalls without a trace of braggadocio the brawny blue 1960 Dodge--413 horsepower engine, ram induction, four barrels on either side of the hood, its top speed in excess of 150 miles per hour--that kept him safely out of revenuers' tenacious grasp on countless late-night moonshine runs.

Clay, who is featured in Lenoir City author Alex Gabbard's regionally-published moonshine chronicle Return to Thunder Road, would eventually serve two short prison terms in the course of a moonshining career fraught with big payoffs and perhaps even bigger perils. Neither stint, however, came as the result of a car chase lost.

"Only time I ever worried was loading and unloading; I never worried out on the road," he continues, still the humble, unflappable country gentleman. "I was probably 30 miles per hour faster every time. I knew I had a good car."

Somewhere in the strange and murky depths of the 1970s, however, even hard-line moonshiners like Willie Clay and Ike Costner voluntarily gave up their life's calling and moved on to gentler, more mundane pursuits. "The liquor business just got real slow," says Call, now a North Wilkesboro cattle farmer, with characteristic simplicity.

According to McGarity, demand for white whiskey was choked off by several converging trends, including a mid-'70s embargo that left sugar prohibitively priced and the gradual infiltration of legal liquor stores into counties that were once strongholds of southern temperance.

"You've also got to understand that the federal tax on a gallon of whiskey didn't rise from 1954 until sometime in the 1980s, while the price of making moonshine just got higher and higher," says McGarity. "With more and more industries moving into the South, a lot of the old moonshiners simply found easier and better ways to earn a living."

McGarity says all of the old federal laws concerning the manufacture of illegal whiskey are still on the books, proscribing steep fines and stiff sentences for every conceivable aspect of production. What they lack is a new wave of perpetrators, a legal raison d'tre, a fresh purpose in a world where the idea of spoiling perfectly good corn meal in a dirty barrel, then steaming out the resulting alcohol in a crusty copper pot seems almost laughably antiquated. As Call rather succinctly puts it, "You just can't get no one to make liquor no more."

At least not a great many folks, and fewer still that care to talk candidly about it. Asked as to the whereabouts of Cosby's present-day whiskey-makers, Brown disappears into his home and returns with an old cordials bottle filled with a syrupy golden brown liquid--homemade corn whiskey, colored with a dollop of honey. The moonshine is bracing, harsh, unapologetic; its flavor runs roughshod over the gentle candied sweetness of the honey, a caustic nectar with a packhorse kick.

"That's about as close as you're liable to get to it," he says with a knowing smile, then adds, as an afterthought, "I still use a little myself every now and again."

"You've got to feel around to find it anymore," explains Mack, a practicing moonshiner speaking via the comfortable separation of a long-distance phone line. "I don't think you'll find too many people who'd sell it to you if they didn't know you."

Mack and his wife live in quiet seclusion along the Tennessee border, at the end of a snaking old country road, almost 20 miles from the nearest town. A truck driver for nearly five decades, the 68-year-old former road rambler keeps busy now with the expected litany of hill-country household chores, as well as by tending the silver-lined copper still hidden beneath the floorboards of his home.

"I've given the law some here, so I reckon they know I make it," he laughs, although he nonetheless prefers not to disclose his full name. "Someone will send a feeler out every now and again. I guess people in high places like it just as much as poor people."

Although the traditions of moonshining skipped a generation in Mack's family--his grandfather made whiskey, his father didn't--he affords this craft passed down from the ancestors who sailed over from Ireland more than 250 years ago all the careful reverence usually reserved for a favorite family heirloom. "The only reason it's not legal here is this tax-crazy government," he snorts, echoing the clarion call of any true dyed-in-the-wool 'shiner.

Mack makes his whiskey for fun, not profit; he ferments grains, sugar, and yeast in 55-gallon barrels, cooks the mash in a 20-gallon copper still-pot over the propane burners from an old furnace, and runs every batch twice--sometimes three times--to distill the smooth, sweet, 170-proof white liquor that is his signature brew.

He shares his bounty, at no charge, with friends and friends-of-friends; his whiskey isn't available to strangers at any cost. And in many ways, Mack believes modern-day moonshiners like himself are completing some strange historical loop, bringing the beleaguered art of whiskey-making back around to its close-to-the-vest, quality-minded origins.

"They still make some good whiskey out there in them woods--a good deal of it," he says with an audible smile. "You just have to know where to look."

© 1997 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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