How to make a moonshine still with free plans
distilling the old-fashioned, traditional way. Moonshining is an art.
See how it is done.
This article is courtesy of
Elliot Wigginton's Foxfire series.
The manufacture of moonshine illicit whiskey in the mountains is not
dead. Far from it. As long as the operation of a still remains so
financially rewarding, it will never die. There will always be men
ready to take
their chances against the law for such an attractive profit, and
willing to take their punishment when they are caught.
Moonshining as a fine art, however, effectively disappeared
some time ago.
There were several reasons. One was the age of
aspirin and modern medicine. As home doctoring lost its stature, the
demand for pure corn whiskey as an essential ingredient of many home
remedies vanished along with those remedies. Increasing affluence was
another reason. Young people, rather than follow in their parents'
footsteps, decided that there were easier ways to make money; and they
Third, and perhaps most influential of all, was the
arrival, even in moonshining, of that peculiarly human disease
known to most of us as greed. One fateful night, some force
whispered in an unsuspecting moonshiner's ear, "Look. Add this
gadget to your still and you'll double your production. Double
your production, and you can double your profits."
Soon the small operators were being forced out of business,
and moonshining, like most other manufacturing enterprises,
was quickly taken over by a breed of men bent on making
money—and lots of it. Loss of pride in the product, and loss
of time taken with the product increased in direct proportion
to the desire for production; and thus moonshining as a fine
art was buried in a quiet little ceremony attended only by those
mourners who had once been the proud artists, known far and wide across
the hills for the excellence of their product.
Too old to continue making it themselves, and
with no one following behind them, they were reduced to
reminiscing about "the good old days when the whiskey that was
made was really whiskey, and no questions asked." We got
interested in the subject one day when, far back in the hills
whose streams build the Little Tennessee, we found the
remains of a small stone furnace and a wooden box and barrel.
On describing the location to several people, we were amazed
to discover that they all knew whose still it had been. They
all affirmed that from that still had come some of the "finest
home brew these mountains ever saw. Nobody makes it like that
any more," they said.
Suddenly moonshining fell into the same category as faith
healing, planting by the signs, and all the other vanishing
customs that were a part of a rugged, self-sufficient culture
that is now disappearing.
Our job being to record these things before they die, we
tackled moonshining too. In the six months that followed, we
interviewed close to a hundred people. Sheriffs, federal men,
lawyers, retired practitioners of the old art, haulers,
distributors, and men who make it today for a living; all
became subjects for our questioning.
Many were extremely
reluctant to talk, but as our information slowly increased we
were able to use it as a lever—"Here's what we know so far. What can
Finally we gained their faith, and they opened up. We
promised not to print or reveal the names of those who wished
to remain anonymous. They knew in advance, however, that we
intended to print the information we gathered—all except that
which we were specifically asked not to reveal. And here it
The History of Moonshine - In the Beginning
According to Horace Kephart in Our Southern
Highlanders (Macmillan, 1914), the story really begins with the
traditional hatred of Britons for excise taxes. As an example, he
quotes the poet
Burns' response to an impost levied by the town of
Thae curst horse-leeches o' the Excise
Wha' make the whiskey
stills their prize!
Haud up thy han', Deil! ance, twice, thrice!
There, sieze the blinkers!
An' bake them up in brunstane pies
For poor d—n'd drinkers.
Especially hated were those laws which struck at the
national drink which families had made in their own small
stills for hundreds of years. Kephart explains that one of the
reasons for the hatred of the excise officers was the fact
that they were empowered by law to enter private houses and
search at their own discretion.
As the laws got harsher, so too the amount of rebellion and
the amount of under-the-table cooperation between local
officials and the moonshiners. Kephart quotes a historian of
Not infrequently the gauger could have laid his hands
upon a dozen stills within as many hours; but he had cogent
reasons for avoiding discoveries unless absolutely forced to
make them. [This over two hundred years ago.]
A hatred of the excise collectors was especially pronounced
in Ireland where tiny stills dotted rocky mountain coves in
true moonshining tradition. Kephart quotes the same historian:
The very name [gauger, or government official]
invariably aroused the worst passions. To kill a gauger was
considered anything but a crime; wherever it could be done
with comparative safety, he was hunted to death.
Scotchmen (now known as Scotch-Irish) exported to the
three northern counties of Ireland quickly learned from the
Irish how to make and defend stills.
When they fell out with
the British government, great numbers of them emigrated to
western Pennsylvania and into the Appalachian Mountains which
they opened up for our civilization. They brought with them,
of course, their hatred of excise and their knowledge of
moonshining, in effect transplanting it to America by the mid
1700s. Many of the mountaineers today are direct descendants
of this stock.
These Scotch-Irish frontiersmen would hardly be called
dishonorable people. In fact, they were Washington's favorite
troops as the First Regiment of Foot of the Continental Army.
Trouble began after Independence, however, with Hamilton's
first excise tax in 1791.
Whiskey was one of the few sources of cash income the
mountaineers had for buying such goods as sugar, calico, and
gunpowder from the pack trains which came through
periodically. Excise taxes wiped out most of the cash profit.
Kephart quotes Albert Gallatin:
We have no means of bringing the produce of our lands
to sale either in grain or meal. We are therefore
distillers through necessity, not choice, that we may
comprehend the greatest value in the smallest size and weight.
The same argument persists even today—battles raged around
it through the Whiskey Insurrection of 1794, and over
government taxes levied during the Civil War, Prohibition, and so on
right to this moment.
Moonshining - The Law vs. The Blockader
The reasons for the continuous feud implied in this heading
should be obvious by now. The government is losing money that it
feels rightfully belongs to it. This has always been the case. In
the report from the Commissioner of Internal Revenue for 1877-78, the
The illicit manufacture of spirits has been carried on for
a number of years, and I am satisfied that the annual loss
to the Government from this source has been very nearly,
if not quite, equal to the annual appropriation for the
collection of the internal revenue tax throughout the whole country.
In [the southern Appalachian states from West
Virginia through Georgia and including Alabama] there are
known to exist 5,000 copper stills.
It's different now? Clearly not, as seen in an article in
the May 3,1968 Atlanta Constitution on the interim report of the
Governor's Crime Commission. In October, 1967, there were
around 750 illicit stills in Georgia, operating at a mash capacity of
over 750,000 gallons.
This amounts to approximately $52 million in annual federal
excise tax fraud, and almost $19 million in state fraud. The
article quotes the Commission, placing the blame for Georgia's
ranking as the leading producer of moonshine in the United States on
"corrupt officials, a misinformed and sometimes uninterested
and the climate created by Georgia's 129 dry counties."
Originally arrests had been made by government officials
("Feds" or "Revenuers"), but during Prohibition much of the
enforcement was left up to the local sheriffs. This put many
of them in a peculiar position, for the moonshiners they were being
to arrest were, in many cases, people they had known all their
As it turned out, however, most of the lawbreakers were reserving
their hostility for the federal agents and the volunteers (called
"Revenue Dogs") who helped them. They had nothing against their sheriff
friends who, they understood, were simply doing their jobs.
The sheriffs, for their part, understood the economic plight of
the moonshiners. For many of these people, making moonshine was the
they had at the time of feeding their families. As one told us, "I felt
like I was making an honest dollar, and if it hadn't a been
for that stuff, we'd a had an empty table around here."
The situation resulted in a strange, friendly rivalry in
most cases. As one moonshiner said, "I never gave an officer
trouble except catchin' me. After I'uz caught, I'uz his pickaninny."
The same man told us of a time when he was caught by a
local official who was as friendly a man as he had ever met.
He wasn't treated like a criminal or an animal, but treated with
respect as another man making a living for a large
family—which he was. After it was all over, the local official had
friend instead of an enemy, and the two are still fast friends today.
During the same period of time, there was another sheriff
whom he often encountered on the streets of a little town in
North Carolina. The sheriff would always come up to him, greet him,
and ask him what he was up to down in Georgia. The other would usually
reply, "Oh, not much goin' on down there."
If, however, the
sheriff had gotten a report about one of his stills, he would
follow that reply with, "I hear you're farmin' in th' woods." The
moonshiner would know that that was a warning for him to watch his
Despite the warnings, the sheriff was able to catch him and cut down
his moonshine stills on three separate occasions, but they
remained fast friends.
We talked to several retired sheriffs (one of whom, Luther
Rickman, was the first sheriff to raid a still in Rabun
County), and they agreed completely. Most of the blockaders that they
encountered ran small operations, and the whiskey they made
was in the best traditions of cleanliness. Besides, times were hard,
a man had to eat.
Despite the fact that the sheriffs at that time were
paid on the "fee system," and thus their entire salary
depended on the number of arrests they made, they did not go out
stills. They made arrests only after reports had been turned
by informers who, as we shall see later, usually had personal
reasons for reporting the stills. They were never hired to do so.
Operating on the fee system, the local officials got $10
just for still. If they were able to catch the operator
also, they received between $40 and $60. Extra money was given them if
they brought in witnesses who could help convict. For the
blockader's car, they received approximately half the price the
to pay to get it back which was usually the cash value of the car. And
they were allowed to keep any money they could get from selling the
copper out of which the still had been made.
Confiscated moonshine, beer, and the like were poured out.
The sugar was often donated to an institution like a school or
hospital. The number of stills actually uncovered varied
drastically from month to month. Some months, twenty or thirty would be
caught and "cut down," but other months, none at all would be
Hardest of all was catching the men actually making a run.
In almost all cases they had lookouts who were armed with
bells, horns, or rifles, and who invariably sounded the alarm at the
first sign of danger. By the time the sheriff could get to the
still, the men would have all fled into the surrounding hills. We were
told about one man who was paid a hundred dollars a week just as a
sentry. Another still was guarded by the operator's wife who simply
sat in her home with a walkie-talkie that connected her with
he was working.
The moonshine still, which sat against a cliff behind the
house, could only be reached by one route, and that route
passed directly in front of the house. The operator was never caught
at work. On those occasions when the sheriffs did manage to catch the
red-handed, they usually resigned themselves to the fact that
they had been caught by a better man, and wound up laughing about
On one raid, a sheriff caught four men single-handedly. There was no
struggle. They helped the official cut their still apart; and
when the job was done, everyone sat down and had lunch together. When
had finished, the sheriff told the men to come down to the
courthouse within the next few days and post bond, and then he left.
The same sheriff told us that only rarely did he bring a
man in. He almost always told them to show up at their
convenience, and they always did. To run would simply have shown their
of honor and integrity, and they would have ultimately lost
face with their community and their customers. They simply paid
their fines like men, and went on about their business.
It was a rivalry that often led to friendships that are
maintained today. One of the sheriffs, for example, spent two
evenings introducing us to retired moonshiners, some of whom he had
arrested himself. It was obvious that they bore no grudges,
and we spent some of the most entertaining evenings listening to a
tell a sheriff about the times he got away, and how; and naturally,
about the times when he was not so lucky.
Today federal agents have largely taken over again, and so
the character of the struggle has changed. The agents actively
stalk their quarry, sometimes even resorting to light planes
in which they fly over the hills, always watching. In the opinion of
some people, this is just as it should be.
One said, "The operations are so much bigger now, and sloppier. If the
Feds can't get'em, the
Pure Food and Drugs ought to try. That stuff they're makin' now'll kill
And another said, "People used to take great pride in their
work, but the pride has left and the dollar's come in, by th' way."
We was stillin' one day away up on a side of a hill away
from everything, mindin' our own business, just gettin' ready
t'make a run when my partner all of a sudden sees somethin'
move in a pasture one hill over. Couldn't tell who he was. Too far
I couldn't see him at all, stuck away behind a fence post like
We went on workin', keepin' one eye out, and after we was through, and
whatever that was over yonder had gone on, we went over to see. It was
somebody there all right. I seed that checkedy sole print in
th' soft ground and we moved her out that night. It was a revenuer all
know because I ran into him again later and he asked me about
it. But know how I knew before that? Because of that boot
print, and because he didn't come down and say hello. A friend of ours
Moonshining - Hiding the Moonshine Still
Since the days of excise, moonshiners have been forced to
hide their stills. Here are some of the ways they have used.
Since cold running water is an absolute
stills are often high up on the side of a mountain near the
source of a stream. Water on the north side of a hill flowing west was
preferred by many. Some count on the inaccessibility of the spot they
Others, however: build a log shed over the still and
cover this with evergreen branches bend living
saplings over so they conceal the still.
Hiding the moonshine still under branches.This log
framework was built in the woods to conceal a still. When finished, it
was covered with branches.
A huge still operated under this shed for over a year
was discovered and cut down by federal officers.
branches continue growing and their leaves provide
cover; find a tree that has fallen over a ravine or gully and
build the still under it, adding branches, if necessary, for
additional coverage; find a ravine, dig out its bottom, place the still
in, and then set branches and saplings over the top like a roof.
They should be arranged so that they blend in with the
landscape; find a cave and cover up the front of
it; find a large laurel thicket, crawl into the center of it,
and cut and out a room right in the middle of the thicket big
enough for the still; find a large spruce and put the still under its
branches so it can't be seen from a plane.
The legend has grown that all one has
to do to find a
still is follow a likely looking branch up into a cove and
then poke around until uncovering something suspicious. Moonshiners
have countered by locating many stills in so-called "dry hollows."
They find a cove that has no stream and pipe in the water they need
higher, "wet" cove. Using all the hiding devices mentioned
above, they: buy two-inch piping, and run the pipe underground,
around a ridge and into the dry hollow; get plastic
pipe and run it under leaves, or in a trench; forget about the
cove, and put the still right out on the
top of a dry ridge, or in a laurel thicket, and pipe the water
from a higher source.
Other moonshiners get far more
elaborate and actually
dig out an underground room big enough to stand in
comfortably. Rows of beams are set in overhead, covered with dirt, and
plant materials are actually planted overhead. A small trapdoor in
the center of the roof, also covered with a growth, lifts up,
exposing a ladder which goes down into the room. A vent pipe, cleverly
concealed, carries off fumes. Some rooms are even wired for electricity.
Another way to avoid detection is by
Some men follow logging jobs, figuring that the loggers will
destroy all signs of their moonshining activities. In fact,
loggers themselves often run stills in conjunction with their logging
Some men set up in a site the revenuers
have just cut
down believing that they won't be back for at least two months
unless they get another report of activity there.
Others place their stills right in
that are not often visited, or would not normally be
suspected—barns, silos, smokehouses, tool sheds, abandoned homes or
even the basements of their own homes. Others run right in the
center of town behind a false-fronted store or in a condemned building.
One man we know, believing that the
revenuers will be
looking for his still to be concealed, has it right out in the
open, near the main highway, with only a few trees in front.
He hasn't been caught yet.
Smoke, too, is a problem, but only at
the beginning of
the run. When the fire begins burning well, it gives off heat
waves rather than smoke. Thus, often the fire is started just before
dawn and is burning well enough by daylight to escape
Others, however, worried about smoke, "burn their smoke."
A worm or pipe which runs out the side of the furnace and
back into the firebox recirculates the smoke and makes it
We also have heard of a man who somehow piped his smoke so that it came
up underwater—this supposedly dispersed
it so effectively that it could not be seen. Others counted on the
leaves and branches over their shelters to disperse the smoke. Now any
conceivable problem of smoke has been wiped out with the use
of fuels such as butane or kerosene.
A dead giveaway as to the location of
a still is a
"sign" or trace of activity. Moonshiners constantly guard
against this. An empty sugar bag, the lid from a fruit jar, a piece of
copper—all can reveal their location.
An even bigger problem is that of trails. There are various
ways if the still is in the woods, always enter the woods from
the road at a different point. Then, one hundred fifty yards up the
hill, cross over to the main trail which begins as many yards or
so off the road. enter stills that are in a cove or hollow from the
above the still, instead of coming uphill from the front.
who lives at the base of a high ridge said he could sit on his
porch on a summer night and sometimes hear the voices of men, on the
way to their still, shouting at the mules that were carrying in
the supplies. If he looked carefully, he could see their lanterns
high up on the ridge as they came in the back way to keep from
being caught. And locate the still on a stream that runs into a lake,
brush, and far away from any road.
They always enter the still at
night, by boat. find a cut in the road the top of which is capped with
rock ledge, and is either level with or a little higher than a
pickup truck bed.
Load or unload from this rock to prevent leaving
trails. use fuel like butane gas to prevent leaving signs such as
stumps of trees and wood chips and clipped off foliage.
Once a man was caught selling whiskey. He had painted some
of the jars to look as though they contained buttermilk, but then
he ran out of paint and had to use clear jars for the rest of his
supply. When the revenuers caught him, they confiscated the clear jars;
but so convincingly were the others painted that they did not even
bother to open them. They simply left them behind, and the salesman
was able to clear a profit, despite the loss of part of his wares.
Moonshining - Finding the Hidden Moonshine Still
Law officers have used many methods for finding hidden
stills.Each time one became popular, the blockaders countered by
hiding it in a different way. Here, however, are some of the methods
They are always alert for signs. A
brick dropped in the
middle of the woods is an obvious one. Why would it be there
except for a furnace? Spilled meal or sugar on the side of a road is
A ladder left at the top of a high cut in the road is an
obvious signal; probably it is used to load and unload supplies
from the back of a pickup. Other signs include an empty sugar bag, a
broken jar, a place in the woods where trees have been cut, a pile
of charcoal, an empty cement bag, a broken shovel handle, a
barrel stave, a burlap sack.
With an officer on either side of a
road—each two hundred yards away from the road, walking parallel to
it—they search for a place where a trail begins.
With a boat, they search the edges of a
lake. They look
for signs of activity near a place where a branch empties into
the lake. Such signs might be places where a boat has been pulled up
on shore or slick trails made by dragging heavy feed bags.
They stake out a road and watch for signs of unusual
activity in the early morning hours. They follow any cars heading up
little used roads. Or an officer might stake out a section of woods and
listen for sounds such as a hammer against metal, the sound
of a thump barrel, etc.
Usually areas where moonshine is being
made have a
distinctive smell. Law officers may detect that while walking through
forest. Many stills are found by people like hunters who spend much
time in the woods and merely stumble across one by
Others are found by searching small branches that flow from
hillsides through heavy growth. The most prevalent means of finding
remains the informer.
Often, they are people with a grudge or an axe to
grind. One moonshiner characterized them as people, "who don't have
enough of their own business to mind, and so they feel
obligated to mind th' business of other people. Th' lowest man I know,"
he continued, "is one who wins your confidence, buys your liquor, and
then turns you in. I believe there's a special place for people
like that after they die." Some informers hardly deserve such
A mother whose young son comes in drunk and inadvertently tells her
he got the whiskey might well try to do something about it. A man
who finds a blockader operating on his property without his
permission a right to ask the sheriff to remove him. A more common
motive, however, is jealousy.
us story after story in which a man whose still had just been cut down
would turn in another out of spite. "They've cut mine. I'll
fix it so they'll get some others too. If I can't be running, I don't
want them running either."
Another ex-sheriff told us the following story. "While I
was in office, a man who owned a still invited a neighbor to come
in with him and make a run of apple brandy. When the run was
finished, they ended up with thirty-nine gallons. The owner of the
still took twenty, and gave his neighbor nineteen. The more the
neighbor thought about it, the madder he got. What really irked him
was that the owner of the still already had a buyer for his twenty
gallons; he had none.
"They took their brandy and hid it in separate places. That
night, the neighbor came to me and told me that he knew where
twenty gallons of fresh brandy was hidden and wanted me to do
something bout it. So I got out of bed and went and poured the brandy
out, like I'm supposed to do. "
Later I found out that when the buyer came to get his
twenty gallons, the neighbor stopped him, told him that the
sheriff had already found it and poured it out, and then sold him his
I found out all about it from the owner of the still who came
in here as mad as any man I ever saw. I just did keep him from going
and killing that neighbor."
Sometimes the stories take surreal twists. The same officer
also told us this story, and swore that it really happened. "
man that lived around here while I was in office knew of an
underground still that was a beautiful thing to look at. He wanted the
rig himself, so one night he broke the lock on the trap door,
got into the underground room, and took it.
The next day he came to
me saying he knew where a still was that I should cut down,
and he'd even come with me to show me where it was. I was
suspicious, but I went. "When we got there, I saw right away that the
lock on the
door was broken, and when I got inside, I saw that the still was
gone too. Well, I broke up what was left in there and then came back
out and told the man that the still wasn't there.
carried on when I said that, but I knew right away what was up. He had
taken it, and wanted me to bust up the place so that the
owner would think that / had gotten his still during my raid.
"I went back to the office, and not too long after that,
the owner showed up and asked if I had gotten his still. When I told
him I hadn't, he wanted to know who had stolen it. I knew all the
time, but I never said anything. I never once let anyone know who I had
gotten information from. It just would have caused trouble.
"Finally the man who owned it asked me if I would just keep
my eyes open for it. He didn't want it back necessarily—just
wanted to know when it showed up out of curiosity. Then he told me
how he had dropped it one day and broken a piece of the collar.
Said he had put a "V"-Shaped patch on the broken place, and that's
how I'd know it was his.
"Well, I found out later that the man who had taken it in
the first place had taken it home and put it in the loft of his
barn. Two boys working for him loading hay found it up there, and
they stole it from him.
"Several days later, there was a robbery in town, and that
night I was in there looking around to see if I could pick up a
clue or something. Just keeping my eyes open. While I was in there,
these two boys came along. I got back out of the way out of
sight, and these two sat down on some steps not far from me. I could
hear everything they were saying. Turns out they were still
laughing about this new still they had gotten and wondering where they
could set it up and when they could get it running. You won't believe
this, but they finally decided to set it up on a vacant piece of
land that I owned—said I'd never look for it there in a hundred
years. They'd make four or five runs and then they'd move it somewhere
"The next day I went up on the land where the boys had
talked about setting it up—in some laurels up there—and sure
enough, there it was, and there was the patch. I got it and took it
into town to the office.
"When I saw the original owner again, I called him over.
Said I had something to show him. Boys, his eyes popped right out
of his head. That was it all right. I didn't tell him how I got
it, but we had many a good laugh over that later on."
The fact that hogs love the corn mash that whiskey is made
out of is legend. Often moonshiners were forced to put fences
around their stills to keep hogs, who were kept on "open range" then,
from falling into the mash boxes and drowning.
Once a two hundred-pound
sow fell into a mash box where she drowned. The men running the
still found her body in there several days later, but went on and
made whiskey from the same mash anyway. From then on, if whiskey
was too strong, the man drinking it would say, "That must'a had a
dead hog in it."
Moonshining Glossary of Moonshine Still Parts and Equipment
—wire or chain strapped across top of
cap to keep it from blowing off during the cooking process.
top third of the moonshine still.
It is removable so that the still can be filled after a run.
—the copper pipe
connecting the cap with the next section of the still; it conveys steam
to this section.
—the bulge in the
of the moonshine still. It is the
point of greatest circumference.
connection for the
cap and the body of the still.
pipe which is submerged in
water. Steam forced into the top condenses and flows out the
through which water is constantly
flowing for final condensation of the steam. Holds the worm,
condenser, or radiator, depending on which apparatus is being used.
material you are using to strain the whiskey. Whiskey passes through it
and into the jug or jar.
structure in which
the still sits for heating.
device which heats the fresh beer which will be used in the next run.
Long Thump Rod
copper pipe which conveys the steam into the bottom of the
thump barrel where it is released.
stick used to
break up the cap that forms over the mash and stir up the contents of
Sometimes it is made of a stick which has a crook in the end. Several
holes are drilled in this crook, and pegs are inserted to form a
comb-like device. It can also be a stick with several nails driven in
—a hickory or white
oak stick with a bundle of rags fastened to one end. The rags jam into
the slop arm thus
sealing the bottom of the still.
glass tube used to
check the bead of the
whiskey. A Bateman Drop bottle was the most popular as it held
one ounce, and was just the right shape. Others used now are
bottles that rye flavoring comes in, or a government gauge.
—the pipe connection
from the bottom of the relay
barrel back into the still.
Relay Barrel or Dry
fifty-gallon barrel with connections for the cap arm, relay arm, and a
long thump rod.
Catches "puke" from the still during boiling and conveys it back into
the moonshine still.
the beer is placed for
boiling. Also called the Evaporator, Boiler, Kettle, or
Cooker. The name
can also refer to the entire operation from the evaporator
the flake stand.
Swab Stick or Toothbrush
hickory stick half as thick as your arm and long enough to reach from
the top to the bottom
of the still. One end is beaten up well so that it frazzles and makes
a fibrous swab. This is used to stir the beer in the still while
waiting for it to come to a boil, thus preventing it from sticking to
sides of the still, or settling to the bottom and burning. If the
the whiskey will have a scorched taste.
—a barrel which
holds fresh beer, and through which steam from the still
thus doubling its strength. The strengthened steam moves from
here into the short thump rod which carries it either into the
box, or into the flake stand.
—a copper tube, usually
sixteen to twenty feet long
which is coiled up so that it stands about two feet high and
inside a barrel. Water flows around it for condensing the
steam which passes
into it from the still.
A Glossary of Some of the Expressions and Terms used in
singlings and low-wines—what results after
run through a thumperless
operation once. They have a good
percentage of alcohol, but they
won't hold a bead.
fermented liquid made from corn meal bases which,
when cooked in the still,
produces the moonshine.
who made moonshine. The name is a holdover
from the days in our history
when blockades were common, as were blockade runners. Also
gave rise to the expression
Blubber—the bubbles which
result when moonshine in the
proof vial is shaken violently.
—an expression used at the moment when the
whiskey coming out of the
flake stand turns less than 100%
proof, and thus will no longer hold
beads in the proof vial which indicate
that the whiskey has been proofed
sufficiently. Stop adding water or
backings at the moment shaking the
proof vial produces dead devils. Dog heads—when the beer
is almost ready to run, it will
boil up of its own accord in huge, convulsive bubbles which follow each
other one at a time.
Doubled and Twisted
—in the old stills, all the singlings
were saved and then run through at
the same time thus doubling their
strength. Whiskey made in this
fashion was called doubled and twisted. aints—dead beer; or
backings that steam has been run
through in a thumper to strengthen a
run. These are drained and replaced
before each new run.
good bead that holds a long time in the vial. High Shots—untempered,
unproofed whiskey. At times it is
nearly as strong as 200 proof.
meal made from grinding sprouted corn kernels. It
is added to the barrels of
mash to make the beer.
meal made from grinding unsprouted corn kernels.
It is put in the barrels, mixed
with water, allowed to work until
it is a suitable base for the
addition of the malt.
expression meaning to run the contents of the still through the whole
operation once. It gave rise to
expressions like, "There's gonna be a
runnin' tomorrow," "He'll make us a
which is left in the still after the whiskey will
no longer hold a bead at the end of
the worm. It is too weak to
produce and so it is dumped at
once. Left in the still, it will
bum. Some people use it for hog
feed, others in mash.
made with pot-tail.
that has been made with pure water. The
first run through the still is
made with sweet mash.
mixture that is half whiskey, half brandy.
It is made by mixing mash that is
one-quarter fruit content. Then
proceed as usual with the
beer-making, and running.
process of adding water or backings to the
whiskey to reduce its strength to
about 100% proof.
Various names are given to
moonshine include ruckus juice
(pronounced "rookus"), conversation
, corn squeezin's
, white lightening
, etc. "Busthead
" are names applied to
whiskey which produces violent
headaches due to various elements which
have not been removed during the
Carver kneels behind a one-gallon still he made for the
The moonshine still is authentic in every detail from the flue of the
furnace to the tin-locked copper joints in the cooker and condenser to
the chestnut barrels Bill Lamb made for the model.
How to Build a Moonshine Still with Plans
First find the proper location
operation. The next
step is the construction of the furnace. The following pages
include diagrams and photographs of two furnace styles which were
extremely popular during the days of Prohibition. Only a few of them
are seen today.
used was almost always a hard
wood such as oak or hickory.
Ten- and twelve-foot logs would be fed into the
bottom of the furnace with their ends sticking out in front. The fire
was started, and as the logs burned, they were slowly fed into
the furnace. Since the furnace was made to burn wood, the firebox was
263) A moonshine furnace made of rock and red clay. A
fire has been started in the firebox, the cap has been sealed on with
rye paste, and the operation is ready to go.
platform above the firebox kept the bottom of the
still from ever coming in direct contact with the fire. This
prevented the contents of the still from burning or becoming
All heating took place around the sides of the still in an area
that was completely enclosed except for the flue. The sides of the
furnace touched the still at only one point, and that was above the
cape at the point where the sides of the furnace tapered in to seal
flush against the top half of the still (Plate 265)
had to be sealed tightly to prevent heat escaping from below.
was most carefully constructed
for maximum draw.
One man told us of a furnace he had built in which the draft
was so strong that it would "draw out a torch." Natural stone was used,
chinked with red clay. The first
furnace illustrated is the "return" or "blockade" variety (Plate
. The second is called the "groundhog" (Plate
264 In both of the above diagrams: (1)
cap, (2) the flue at the front of the
still through which hot air from
the firebox escapes, (3) the
bedrock platform built into the furnace
wall on which the still rests. As is shown in Diagram A,
is not wide enough to extend all the way to the back of the furnace. A
large space is left to allow passage of heat from the firebox around
the sides of the still. (4) is the
firebox. In earlier days, the ends
of hardwood logs were used to start the fire, and as the ends burned
away, the portions of the logs that extended outside the furnace were
gradually fed in to provide constant heat. The arrows in Diagram A show
the direction of the heat as it goes around both sides of the still and
out the flue. (5) is the furnace wall. It
was usually built of natural
stone chinked with red clay which would harden through successive
burnings. (6) is the still itself—usually
made of copper.
An abandoned furnace. Often the copper cooker (the "pot")
was removed and hidden in a laurel thicket after each run to prevent its
being stolen before the operator was ready to make another run.
266 - Diagram A illustrates
an interesting variation on furnace design which was once fairly
popular. Called the "groundhog" or "hog"
still, it was unique in that the still sat directly on
the ground, and the furnace of mud, clay, and rocks was built up around
it with the flue at the back. (1) is the
cap, (2) the still, (3)
the firebox. The heat was drawn to the flue (4)
and circulated around the still in the space left between the furnace
and the copper wall of the still. The arrows show the direction of
heat. (5) is the back of the
furnace—sometimes this was against a bank, and sometimes the furnace
hole was dug directly into a bank. The surrounding earth, in the case
of the latter design, was extremely effective insulation. When cleverly
built, this furnace could also be much easier to hide than the stone
furnace which sat right out in the open in most cases.
The construction of the actual still was
process. Everything had to fit correctly or the still would leak.
retired practitioner described how the best moonshiners made their
Three thin sheets of copper were purchased.
The copper had
to be absolutely smooth and of good quality. The sheets
purchased were approximately thirty inches wide and five feet long. As
money was at a premium, every part of the operation had to come out of
these three sheets—still, cap, cap arm, slop arm, condenser
walls and caps, washers—everything. Planning before cutting,
therefore, was essential.
On two sheets of copper, the top and bottom halves of the
still were drawn. This was accomplished with the use of a long
string which was anchored at a point below the sheet being marked
A top arc was drawn so as to be tangent with
the mid-point of the top edge of the sheet. The lower arc was drawn so
as to intersect the bottom edge of the sheet at points ten
inches from each bottom corner.
The third sheet was used for the bottom of the still, the
arc from which the cap would be made, the cap head, and the
slightly tapered rectangles from which the arms would be rolled.
When this was finished, any blank areas on the sheets were used for
drawing small items such as washers. Then everything was cut out.
Holes were also cut in the cap, and in the bottom half of the
still to make room for the arms which would be attached later.
Next, the two halves of the still were assembled. If the
copper being used was too thick to be pulled around by hand, then
it was taken to a place in the woods where people would be
unlikely to hear what was going on. A large tree was felled in the
bottom of a hollow so that the sounds of the construction would go
straight up in the air instead of out all over the countryside. The
stump of the tree was rounded out to a smooth, concave surface,
and the sheet of copper was placed on top.
Next, with a wooden
mallet made of dogwood that had been well-seasoned, the copper was
beaten until the flat sheet curled around and the two ends touched. One
edge was pounded more vigorously than the other so that the
sheet would curl unevenly to make the taper. Then holes were punched
along the ends of the now-tapered sheet, and brads were inserted
to fasten the ends together tightly. The same was done to the other
half. Often, to ensure that there would be no leakage at all,
these joints would be tin locked.
Now holes were punched along the cape, and the two halves mated and
bradded together. The cape edge of the bottom half was crimped
slightly so as to fit inside the cape edge of
the top half. The arc for the cap was curled in the same manner, and
ends joined as before.
Next the bottom of the still was fastened to the bottom
half. (This could also be done before the two halves were mated.)
The outside edge of the bottom piece was crimped up so that it
would fit outside the wall of the bottom half. The bottom half
was set down inside the bottom piece, and the two were fastened
together. The tapered slop arm was now rolled and fastened. Its wide
end was crimped up. Then it was fed into the still, narrow end
first, and out the hole provided for it earlier.
wide end would catch inside the still wall. A washer made of copper
slid the length of the arm and fitted snug at the wide end of
the arm, but outside the still wall. Holes were punched through and
the brads inserted, thus mounting the slop arm firmly to the bottom
half of the still. (To taper arm, it was wrapped around tapered
In like manner, the head of the cap was mounted, the cap
arm, and so on until all the parts had been shaped and fastened
in their proper places. Then all the joints were sealed with
liquid metal so that they would not leak.
The still was now ready to carry to the woods and mate with the
furnace. The worm was made
there by coiling the pipe around a stump, then slipping it
off. The following pages present a portfolio of diagrams which
illustrate most of the still varieties we have found. They are
arranged in roughly chronological order.
The very first illustration, for example (Plate 268)
the simplest still of all, and the oldest of the ones we have
seen. This is the variety which produced much of the best
moonshine ever made.
268 Above: (1) the still
(the furnace, bedrock platform, firebox and still cap will be
recognized from a previous diagram). (2)
the cap arm.
This copper pipe (often four inches in diameter, but
sometimes tapered from six inches at the cap end to four or less at the
other) conveys the steam from the still to the copper worm.
(3) the worm. This pipe is about three quarters
of an inch to an inch in diameter, and is coiled tightly to get maximum
length of pipe into minimum space. The steam condenses into
liquid in the worm.
Sometimes the worm is simply fixed in midair, and the steam cooled by a
water jacket which surrounds the pipe and into which fresh, cold water
is continually fed, but more often the worm is fixed inside a water
tank of some sort—in this case a fifty gallon barrel (4)
—through which cold water is constantly circulated. (5) the
end of the worm.
alcohol which flows out here is usually strained through hickory coals
to remove the fusel oils (barda grease)—thus the funnel above
the jug in the diagram at the end of the worm. (6)
the pipe, or trough from the cold water source—usually a mountain
stream. (7) the slop arm.
spent beer is drained out this copper pipe (which passes directly
through the furnace wall) after each run. (8)
the plug stick. This is usually a hickory or oak limb with a wad of
rags attached firmly to the end to keep the beer from draining out
during a run. (9) the container for the
slop (spent beer).
PLATE 270 - BLOCKADE STILL
269 Mickey Justice holds a section of a wooden water
trough found at the site of one of the earliest and most famous stills
in Rabun County. The
trough carried fresh water from a spring far up the hill to the still's
270 Refined to the ultimate, this version—Diagram
A—of the Blockade Still
works as follows: The steam (arrows) from the beer boiling in the still
(1) moves into the cap (2),
through the cap arm (3), and into the dry
or "relay" barrel (5). Beer which bubbles
over or "pukes" into the relay barrel is returned to the still via the
relay arm (4). From this barrel (usually
a fifty-gallon one which is mounted so that it slants slightly back
toward the still), the steam moves into the long thump rod (6)
which carries it into the bottom of the fifty-gallon thump barrel
(7) and releases it to bubble up through the fresh beer,
which was placed there earlier via inlet (8)—now
closed to keep the steam enclosed in the system. The beer in this
barrel is drained after each run and replaced with fresh beer before
the next. Picked up again at the top by the short thump rod (9),
the steam moves into the heater box or "pre-heater" (10)
which is also filled with fresh beer. Here the steam is not set loose,
however, but is forced through a double-walled ring (11)
that stands about nine inches high, is thirty-four to forty inches in
diameter, and mounted so that it stands about a half inch off the floor
of the heater box. The top and bottom of the ring are sealed so that
the steam cannot escape. Heat from the steam is transferred to this
cool, fresh beer thus heating it to make it ready for the next run when
it will be transferred into the drained still via a wooden trough
connecting the two (not shown here). The steam then moves via another
connecting rod (12) into the flake stand (13)
and into the condenser (15)—in this case
another double-walled ring, higher and narrower than the previous one.
The steam is condensed in this'ring by the cold water flowing into the
flake stand from (14) and exiting by
outlet (18). As the steam is condensed
into alcohol, it flows through a strainer and funnel (16)
into the container (17).
PLATE 271 -
Blockade Moonshine Still System
still from which this diagram was drawn was a "fifty-gallon rig." The
still and all three barrels each had a fifty-gallon capacity. The
heater box was twenty-eight inches long, twenty-eight inches wide, and
stood twenty-four inches high. The relay barrel and the heater box were
both tilted slightly in the direction of the still-cooker for proper
Diagram B shows the heater box from
the top, sliced in half. The dots represent beer; the steam is
represented by arrows. Diagram C shows
the flake stand from the top. In this case the condenser was held in
place in the center of the barrel by twigs (23)
which were cut green, then bent and wedged against its sides. The dots
At the end of each run, the plug stick (20)
is pushed in, thus releasing the
slop or "pot-tail" which flows through the tilted slop arm (21)
and trough (22) into a bucket. The spent
beer from the thump barrel (faints) is also drained and replaced. The
plug stick is replaced, the cap removed, the still filled with hot beer
from the heater box, the cap is replaced, the heater box is filled with
fresh cold beer again, and the process is begun all over.
PLATES 271, 272 The still shown in Plate
271 is another of the highly refined Blockade variety.
In this case, however, rather than being stretched out for convenience
of illustration, the diagram's shapes match those of Plate
271 so that you can decipher the photograph itself.
It is basically the same as the previous operation, but in this case it
is possible to see the trough which connects the heater box with the
still. Part (8) is hinged to part
(9), and when the operator is ready to move the beer, he
takes the cap off the still, swings (8)
down so that it is in line with its lower half, pulls the gate up via
the gate handle (10), and lets the beer
In the diagram, the log supports which hold up various parts of the
operation and which can be seen in the photograph, are not shown as
they would create too much confusion. Instead, they are indicated by
dotted lines in those places where they pass in front of a portion of
The flake stand, in this case, holds not the condenser which was used
still on the previous pages, but a radiator from a Chevrolet truck. The
radiator is just as effective a condenser but often not quite as
The numbers on the diagram refer to the following parts of the still
1) the furnace
2) the still
3) the cap
4) the cap arm
5) the relay arm
6) the relay, or dry barrel
7) the long thump rod—its
connection with (15) is hidden
8) top half of trough from heater
9) bottom half of trough
10) handle for heater box gate
11) heater box
12) copper connecting rod
13) flake stand—water filled
14) outlet from condensing unit
15) thumper, or thump barrel
16) bucket for slop, or "pot-tail"
17) slop trough
18) slop arm from still
19) handle of plug stick
273 The beer in this cooker is being heated prior to
sealing on the cap. The swab stick resting in the cooker is used to
stir the beer while it is heating to keep it from sticking to the sides
and burning. Both this and the next three photographs were all taken at
the same operation.
274 The thump barrel and heater box. The drain pipe,
when lowered, carries warm, fresh beer from the heater box to the
cooker, the top of which is visible in the foreground.
275 The heater box from the other side, showing the
connection between the heater box and the condenser which is mounted in
the metal drum.
276 The whole operation from the heater box, condenser
end. The wooden barrels on the right are filled with fermenting mash.
The furnace is hidden behind the heater box. The plastic gallon milk
jar in the foreground is often used in place of glass jars for the
277 This page reveals a heater box and a thump barrel in
more detail. The barrel in the foreground of the photograph is the
thumper. The pipe extending in the foreground is the long thump rod
coming from the cap of the still. (This particular still did not have a
dry or relay barrel). The large wooden box behind the thumper is the
heater box. Arrow I points to the outlet
which is blocked by the gate behind it. Arrow 2
points to the handle of this gate. Arrow 3
points to the wooden trough which is mounted into place when the
operator is ready to transfer his preheated beer to the still for a new
run. In the background, behind the thump barrel (bearing
the number 4) can be seen the corner of the flake stand.
278 (1) is the cap—usually
a fifty-gallon barrel.
(2) is a huge barrel (the still) which sits right on the
ground. It has, in this case, a
capacity of five hundred gallons. The sides are made of huge sheets of
copper, and both the top and bottom are made of plywood. There are
three 2 by 4 supports inside the walls of the still which help support
its great size (6).
(3) is the firebox. The source of heat, in this
case, is a huge gas burner mounted so that the flames point toward the
Heat is drawn in, around the lower walls of the still, and out
the flue (4).
(5) is the furnace which in this
case is a double row of
concrete blocks sealed over (dotted line) with clay, or some other form
of tight insulation. Space, of course, is left between the
inside wall of the blocks and the outside bottom wall of the still for
of heat. The cap arm connects to a large thump barrel which connects
with the flake stand. There was no heater box in this particular model.
It is possible, by the way, to use a fifty-gallon barrel as the housing
for the gas jets (3). It would be turned
on its side with its end toward the
still, and sealed to the concrete-block wall of the furnace with the
rocks, mud, and concrete.
Those who use them say that the groundhog stills are much hotter than
other varieties, and thus make better stills.
279 These diagrams illustrate perhaps the simplest still
of them all—the "dead man" or "flat moonshine still." In all cases
(Diagrams A and B) : (1) is the cap, (2)
the still itself—a rectangular box, (3)
the bottom of the box (the diagonally shaded area), (4)
the firebox or source of heat, and (5)
the flue. There are several differences between them, however, that
make them interesting.
In A, the cap is a
twenty-five-gallon barrel, and in B, a
The firebox in A is simply a channel cut into the earth. The still sits
ground directly over this channel. A hole is left at the back to serve
as the flue.
In B, however, two 7 inch pipes sit
inside the still box, surrounded by beer, with their ends protruding
out both ends of the box. A long gas line is fed into each of these
pipes, and its top surface is perforated in the manner of gas burners
on stoves. This design supplies heat directly to the beer thus making a
In A, the still stands two feet
high, and six to eight feet long. A thin sheet
of copper lines the outside of the bottom, and rises up two to three
inches all around the sides. The rest of the box is made of wood.
In B, the box is made of two 4-foot-square wooden boxes.
They are mounted side to side, and the common wall is removed leaving a
box four feet high, four feet wide, and eight feet long. The bottom is
lined with copper as before.
Diagram A at the bottom shows how
concrete blocks could be used in lieu of digging a trench in the
ground. The dotted lines represent the insulation (mud, rocks, cement,
It was also the most time-consuming of all the
operations, and yielded the smallest return for the time involved. All
the beer was run through, a stillful at a time, and the results of
each run ("singlings") saved at the other end. When all the beer had
been run through once, the still was thoroughly cleaned, and
then all the singlings placed into the still at one time. Then the
stillful of singlings was run through.
The result was the doublings,
or good whiskey. It was also called "doubled and twisted"
whiskey, the first because it was double strength, and the second,
because it twisted slightly as it came out of the worm. Using this rig,
could get about two gallons of whiskey per bushel of corn, or a
final yield of about twelve gallons after proofing.
By way of contrast, there are operations running today
which yield as much as three hundred gallons per run—a far cry from the
The two previous stills show what happened as moonshiners
got more and more impatient with the slowness of the first
Perhaps the most revolutionary addition was the
thump barrel. Steam bubbling up through the fresh beer in this
barrel was automatically doubled thus removing forever the
necessity of saving the singlings and. running them through again to
double their strength.
The still in Plate 278
effectively what happens
as man's desire for quantity overtakes his desire for quality. The
yield from this still is immense; the quality, questionable. A truck
radiator serves as the condenser.
The dead man still in Plate 279
purely modern variety
with a tremendous yield. The beer, rather than being made in separate
boxes, can be made right in the still in this case. Twenty
bags of sugar are used. One run can produce forty-five cases.
There are six gallons in each case, so the total yield is 270
gallons. Early this year, the whiskey from this still was commanding
$30 to $35
a case from the bootlegger's hauler. If the operator had had to
haul it to the bootlegger, he would have added $10 more to the final
price of each case.
The operation of a steamer still similar to the one in
Plate 280 was described thus by one operator:
"It takes four men—a chief, a helper-pumper, and two
haulers. We make our beer in six 4' by 8' boxes, and use two
thousand pounds of sugar for every load. If we don't get
twelve cases out of every box, something's wrong. And that's only
seventy-two cases a day. That's not bad, but when I was
running eight boxes I
got ninety-six cases a day. And sometimes I could sell it for
$60 a case. Not now. Price goes up and down—it depends.
"We use what we
call 'mule feed' for malt, and we add
beading oil to make it bead good. We use a radiator out of a Dodge
truck in th' flake stand, cleaned out good, of course. "I just want to
move th'stuff out—get it to th'bootlegger
quick as it's made. That's why I use haulers. I admit it's not
good liquor. It'll give you a headache. But it won't hurt you.
drunk it myself before."
Several things make a steamer still
difficult. One is the
amount of beer that must be on hand to begin with. From each
190 gallons in the Hodges Barrel, the yield will be approximately
seven cases. Thus, in order to run off the ninety or more cases
that can be run in a day, the main barrel has to be emptied and
refilled about ten times.
One man we talked to accomplished this with a
and hose apparatus that he had rigged up. Contrast this with
the old method of dipping the beer into the still with five gallon
buckets and one can see how much things have changed. It still takes
time, however, to prepare the beer. Thus a still like this one must
lie unused for days at a time waiting for the beer to be ready to
Sugar presents another problem. Since anything over a
hundred pounds must be signed for, sugar has to be bootlegged
just like the whiskey.
In addition, the very size of the operation makes it more
dangerous to run. Every effort is made to minimize the risk.
for example, told us that he never uses pegs in the outlet
holes of his barrels. He has converted everything to valves.
"Men who use pegs get in th' habit of hitting them three times
whenever they're putting them back in th' holes. They hit that
peg soft th' first time, a little harder th' next time, and on th'
third time they really whack it. You can hear those three licks on th'
thumper peg for miles."
Once two men were fixing a leak in th' side of their still.
One of th' men was inside th' still, crouched down, giving
support from th' inside; th' other was outside with a hammer pounding
away at th' patch he was adding. Suddenly th' man on th' outside saw
law headed straight for him. Without a word to his partner inside
th' still, he turned and fled into th' woods.
Th' federal man came up to th' still. Unaware that anyone
was inside it, he took th' pick with which he demolished
stills and gave it a terrible whack, piercing the side. "Now you've
ruined it," th' man on th' inside screamed in anger.
How the Best of the Best Moonshine was Made - How to Make
As told by the men who made it.
For this section, two men who are reputed to have made some
of the best moonshine to come out of Georgia tell exactly how
they did it. The process for making "pure corn" is the base of the
discussion. Use of sugar in a run to increase the yield is also
included, but in parentheses, as the addition of sugar would not allow
mixture to be labeled as pure corn whiskey. Use of a thump barrel is
included for it does not diminish the quality of the product, and
thump barrels were used during the old days.
Both of the men are now retired, and watch production today
with increasing disdain. Here's how they made moonshine, from beginning
to end, using a fifty-gallon still and seven 50-gallon barrels:
Go to the woods and find a good place.
Make a mudhole
which contains plenty of good, thick red clay for use in the
furnace. Also construct any water lines needed for the flake stand.
Choose the corn. Do not use a hybrid or
yellow corn. Use
a good, fresh, pure white corn like Holcomb Prolific which
will produce about three quarts of whiskey per bushel. Inferior brands
will only produce about two and a half quarts per bushel. Get nine
and a half bushels.
Put at least a bushel and a half of
corn (but not more
than two) aside to sprout. In winter, put this corn in a barrel or tub,
water, and leave it for twenty-four hours. Then drain it and move it
to the sprouting tub. Cover it with pretty warm water, leave it
for fifteen minutes, and drain the water off.
Put the tub close to a
stove, and turn the cold side to the stove at least once a day. Each
day add warm water again, leave it for fifteen minutes, and drain it
again leaving the tub close to the stove. Also transfer the corn on the
bottom of the tub to the top of the tub at least once a day to make
sure it all gets the same amount of heat.
You should have good malt in
four or five days with shoots about two inches long, and good roots.
In summer, simply put the corn to be sprouted out in the sun in two
sacks. Sprinkle warm water over them once a day, and
flip the sacks over. It is also possible to sprout the corn in sacks
under either sawdust or mule manure—both hold heat well.
Be careful, however, not to let the corn get too hot or it
will go slick. When it starts getting too hot, stir it up and give it
air to cool it.
The day before the sprouted corn is
ready, take the
remaining eight bushels of corn to the miller to be ground up. Don't
let him crush the corn or you'll have some heavy material left that
will sink to the bottom of the still and burn. Make sure he grinds it
all up fine. Take this meal to the woods.
The last three or four days
should have been spent building the furnace and installing the
still. It should be ready to work now. Build a fire under the still.
Fill it nearly full with water, and stir in a half-bushel of corn
meal. When it comes to a boil, let it bubble for thirty-five to forty
minutes. Cook it well or it will puke too much when cooking later.
has cooked sufficiently, bring one of the barrels over, put it
under the slop arm of the still, push in the plug stick, and let the
contents of the still fill the barrel. Add a gallon of yet uncooked
and let the hot contents of the barrel cook it alone. Make sure it is
stirred in well. Move the barrel aside, and repeat the whole process
all the meal is cooked, and all seven barrels are filled. Return home.
The next day, get the sprouted corn
(malt) ground up at
the mill and take it to the woods. Use a miller who knows you
and will keep your activities secret. He will take no toll for
grinding your malt. He'll take his toll out later when you are grinding
straight corn again. You can also use a sausage mill.
In the woods, thin out the mash you made yesterday. This is
done by standing the mash stick upright in each barrel. Add
water and stir it in until the mash stick falls over against the side
easily of its own weight.
When all are thinned, add a gallon of malt to each
barrel and stir it in. At the same time, add a double handful of
raw rye to each barrel, sprinkling it around over the top. This
helps to make the cap, helps the mixture begin working, and helps
the final product hold a good bead. (If using sugar, add ten pounds
to each barrel at the same time you add the malt.) Cover the barrels.
If they get rained into, your work is
ruined. Return home.
The next day, the mixtures should be working. If one
two of them aren't, then mix them back and forth with those that
are, using a dipper. You want them all to be working at the same time
so that they'll all be ready to run at the same time. This liquid
is now known as beer. Return home.
The next day, return to the site and
stir up the mixture
in each of the barrels to speed up their working. Home again.
About two days later, check again. At
the same time,
gather the wood you will need, bring in kegs, fruit jars, and whatever
else you may need. (On this fourth day, if you're using sugar, add a
gallon of malt to each barrel and thirty-five to forty pounds of
sugar to each barrel. Stir in and let the mixture work for five more
If you are not using sugar, then the
should be ready to run on the fifth day of its working. (With sugar,
it takes about nine or ten days.) You can tell when it's ready to
run by studying the cap that has formed over the beer. Sometimes
this cap will be two inches thick. Sometimes it will only be a half
inch thick, and sometimes it will just be suds and blubber, called a
"blossom cap." All of these are fine.
When the cap is nearly gone, or only a few remnants are left scattered
over the top, the mixture is ready to run. The
alcohol has eaten the cap off the beer. Don't wait to run it at this
point or the mixture will turn to vinegar, and the vinegar will eat
the alcohol thus ruining your beer. It is better to run the whole thing
a day early than a day late—you'll still get mild, good whiskey.
Appearance of "dog heads" also indicates that it's ready to run.
[Note—one variation on the above process was also popular.
Two bushels of mash were put in each fifty-gallon barrel, and
cold water added. No cooking was used. This mixture would sour in
three or four days and produce a crust. This would be broken up,
in, and the mixture left for another two or three days until it had
soured again. Then a gallon and a half of malt was added to each
and the mixture allowed to work another week. At this point, it was
ready to run in the same manner as the other we have been
Now all connections on the still are
sealed up with a
stiff rye paste save for the cap and cap arm. The plug stick is
inserted through the top of the still, handle first, and the handle
pulled out through the slop arm until the ball of rags at the other
end jams the opening. Fill the still almost to the top (leave about
off for expansion due to heat) with the beer. Put ten gallons of
beer in the thump barrel.
Build up the fire underneath, and as the beer heats, stir
it constantly with the swab stick to keep it from sticking to the
and sides of the still. Keep this up until it has come to a rolling
boil and can thus keep itself stirred. Then paste on the
cap and cap arm using the rye dough.
Chunk the fire easy, starting slowly,
building it up in intensity. About fifteen minutes after the beer
starts boiling in the still, the steam will hit the cold beer in the
barrel and start it bubbling and thumping.
On cold days, this thumping
can be heard for several hundred yards through the woods. When the
thumping quiets, the beer is boiling smoothly in
the still and doing fine. Place a container under the end of the
condenser. A funnel
should be inserted in the container which is lined with a clean,
fine white cloth on the bottom, a yarn cloth on top of that, and a
double handful of washed hickory coals on top of that. The coals remove
the "hardy grease" (it shows up as an oil slick on top of the whiskey
if not drained off) which can make one very ill.
When the thumping stops, the whiskey
starts. A gush or two of steam will precede it at the condenser end.
This will be
followed by a strong surge of liquid which quickly subsides to a
trickle. On the second surge, "she's coming for good," as one man said.
Begin catching the alcohol on the second surge. (If it is
being made with sugar, this first run will not hold a bead. Save
it anyway. Keep running the still as long as there is any taste of
alcohol in the liquid being produced.
Then drain the thump barrel. Add the results of the first
run— about ten gallons of backings. Then drain the still through
the slop arm and fill it again with beer as before.
On the second run through,
you'll have good whiskey
because the steam has gone through the backings in the thumper. It
will be double strength. Keep checking it with the proof vial,
catching it as it comes out of the condenser, thumping it in the palm
your hand, and watching the bubbles. When it's dead, pull the
You should have two to three gallons of whiskey, the
on which will be half under the liquid and half over it. (If you're
running sugar whiskey, the results from the first run on will be
and the bead will be two-thirds under the surface and one-third
over it.) Catch the remainder of the second run in another container.
These are the new backings for the third run.
Another way to tell whether or not the whiskey is still
strong enough to catch in the container of good stuff is by taking
some of the alcohol, dashing it on the hot still cap, and holding a
match to the resulting steam. If it burns, keep it running.
From the second running, you should
have two or three
gallons of good whiskey and seven or eight gallons of backings. Drain
the faints out of the thumper and "let them hit the
ground and run away." They are no good for anything. Add the
new backings to the thumper.
Drain the still, fill it again with fresh beer, and run it
the third time. This time, since there are fewer backings, you'll get
less liquor, but more backings for the fourth run. On the fourth run,
you'll get more liquor because you have more backings, but you'll also
get fewer backings for the fifth run; and so on. The yield will vary
up and down with each stillful.
Keep running until all the beer has been used up. Without a thumper,
all the backings would have been saved,
and all run through the still together on the last run.
After about seven runs, the
net result will be seven to
ten gallons of pure corn (unsugared) whiskey, for an average of
about a gallon to a gallon and a half per bushel of corn. (With
sugar, the result should be about six gallons to the bushel.)
These are called the "high shots." They are about 200 proof
and must be cut to be drinkable. To cut, either add about
one-third backings from the last run, or water. Many prefer water.
liquid you are cutting the alcohol with until it holds a good
steady bead in the proof vial. If the bead will hold steady after three
good thumps in the palm of your hand, then it will stand any amount of
jolting and bumping in shipment.
From nine gallons of high shots, you
should get about twelve gallons of fine whiskey.
Other Moonshining Tips and Hints:
If a wood fuel is being used, ash is
the best of all. It
gives a good, steady heat, and little smoke. Also good are
hickory and mountain oak.
Always use copper. Beer doesn't stick
to it so badly,
is less chance of any kind of metal poisoning.
3. Never let the whiskey run too fast.
Always keep it cold
while it's running. If it is kept as cold as the water it is
being condensed by, it will remain smooth and mild and not harsh to the
taste. About sixty degrees is normal.
4. Use the best water available
(many prefer streams running west off the north side of a hill). The
water can make a
difference of several gallons in the final yield.
5. Everything must be kept spotless. The
copper inside the
still should shine like gold. Barrels (or boxes) too must be kept
clean. Smoke them out after each use with several handfuls of corn
meal bran set afire.
6. Add three or four drops of rye
flavoring to each gallon
of whiskey to give it a yellow tint and a distinct rye flavor.
7. The place to make the whiskey is in
the boxes. If it's
not right there, no amount of boiling and cooking can save it.
How Good Whiskey is Being Ruined
Stills are often made of sheet iron or
instead of copper. These metals often burn the beer and give it a
The beer is often run too early before
it has a chance
to sour properly.
The whiskey is sometimes condensed in a
which does not let it slow down enough to cool off properly. This
gives it a harsh, hot taste.
Often whiskey is scorched because it is
properly, not stirred while heating, or because the fire under the
still is too hot.
If whiskey is not strained properly,
it will contain
elements that can make one violently ill.
Radiators used as condensers are
They can never be cleaned out completely, and the end result is
sometimes whiskey that can cause lead poisoning.
Potash is sometimes used to "fake" a
high bead. This is
the same material soap is made out of, and it can be poisonous.
Sometimes potash and ground up Irish
potatoes are added
to the malt to make it work off quicker and yield more.
Often vessels are left dirty, and
Instead of pure corn malt, some use
Instead of pure corn meal, some use
"wheat shorts" so
it won't stick to the still.
Many cut the final product to 60—70
proof and add
beading oil to fake quality and high proof.
It is rumored that some people set
batteries down in
the mash boxes to make it work more quickly; but another we talked
to hinted that that might just have been a rumor put out by federal
agents to hurt the sale of whiskey. We could get nothing concrete on
this one way or another.
One of our contacts knows a man who
uses a groundhog
still which he fills two-thirds full of water which he then
heats. Then he adds fifty pounds of wheat bran, four 100-pound sacks of
sugar, and two cans of yeast. That's it. No souring—nothing.
Apparently it makes "pretty" whiskey which holds a good bead, but has a
funny "whang" flavor.
The biggest problem, of course, is as we have hinted
several times before—the desire for quantity rather than quality. One
retired moonshiner said, "When I was working for th' forest service
and saw th' filth and th' nature of most of th' stills in th' woods
today, th' prouder I was that I quit drinkin' th' stuff. I don't see
how more people don't get killed."
Another claimed that he had often had people who make
whiskey themselves come to him to buy the liquor they were going to
drink. They were afraid to drink their own.
It apparently is not that difficult to get away with making
bad whiskey, because most of it is sold through bootleggers who
themselves don't know where it came from. In addition, much of it is
shipped to the poorer districts of some of the bigger cities, and
the people who buy it there have no means of finding out who made it.
Thus the operator of the still is reasonably safe, rarely having
to pay for his sloppiness.
He earns little respect among his neighbors, however. As
one said, "A man ought to be put in a chain gang with a ball tied to
him if he uses potash to make whiskey. 'Bout all you can call that is
low-down meanness. He ain't makin' it t'drink himself, and he ain't
makin' it fit for anyone else to drink neither."
Marketing Moonshine: How to Get Rid of the Final
In the early days of moonshining, it was a relatively easy
matter to dispose of the whiskey. In the first place, there wasn't
that much of it. Also, most of the neighbors knew who in the area was
busy in that pursuit, and so they knew where to go when they needed
to make a purchase.
The moonshiner knew his neighbors, usually knew
who could be trusted, and so everything worked out well. There
were no big business overtones, no high pressure sales, just quiet,
behind-the scenes, low-key transactions during which no one asked
Things began to change, however, during Prohibition. One man we talked
to could remember huge trailer trucks coming down
off his mountain loaded with thousands of gallons of whiskey and
headed north. The operation has remained the realm of the
relatively big operators.
The great majority of the whiskey produced is distributed
through bootleggers who buy it directly from the makers. They
usually hire their own haulers so that they don't have to pay the owner
of the still for moving it for them. The bootlegger usually gets it
his haulers, waters it down, puts it in jars, and then distributes it
his regular customers, making deliveries to regular customers on a
regular schedule. Sometimes these customers are store owners who
sell it again to their customers.
It is a tight, shadowy operation, sometimes run by men who
are among the most highly respected citizens in the community.
For these men, their double life also pays off in a handsome
double income. Sometimes bootleggers have ingenious ways of hiding
wares while waiting for them to be disposed of.
One we heard of
has a clothesline strung across a lake in his backyard. The line
is circular, and runs on a pulley system. The bottom half of the line
contains clips which are, in turn, hooked to the tops of fruit jars
that are full of whiskey. These jars remain submerged under the lake
the time. Once customers show up, the correct number of jars is pulled
up and old.
Another operator, this one relatively small, kept the
product he was selling in the sleeves of the clothing which hung in
his closet. The men who run the real risks, however, are the haulers,
who have perfected hundreds of ways of moving whiskey.
One man hauled only on Sundays. On
these days, he would
have eight cases concealed in the trunk, two under the hood, and
his wife and little girl in the car with him. The car was "shocked
up" so that no excess weight showed, and he rode around enough so that
no one suspected that he was in a hurry to get anywhere. He was
Another filled the bed of his
pickup truck two cases high, and then put a black plywood form on top
so that at night it looked empty. The truck held twenty cases.
Others have big trucks with
false beds in which they can fit a single layer of cases.
Some haul, even today, in
dump trucks or cabbage trucks
which have such high sides that they can't be seen into from the
road. If they are afraid of getting caught, they sometimes stack all
the cases of moonshine in the center of the bed and cover it completely
top and sides with ears of corn.
Some remove the back seats
from their cars and load them
full from the front seat all the way through to the taillights.
We heard about one man who even took out the front seat and rode
sitting on a case, with several more beside him.
Still another method is to
hire a "hot" lead car. The car containing the whiskey follows this lead
car at a leisurely
pace. When the lead car spots an officer, it takes off at a great rate
of speed, obviously driving recklessly. The officer gives chase, and
the driver in the car containing the whiskey proceeds unhindered to its
Others steal several cars,
repaint them, switch their
motors, and have three license tags for each car—North Carolina, South
Carolina, and Georgia. The tags have hooks, and are interchanged
according to which state the hauler is working.
The Conclusion to Moonshining
By any standards, moonshining has to be counted as one of
the most fascinating mountain endeavors. Few occupations can lay
claim to funnier stories—or sadder stories—than this.
Despite the glamor of it all, however, it remains one of
the most difficult activities around. Officers are getting more
concerned and more proficient daily and are pressing harder for more
In addition, the cash outlay required to get
into business, the logistics of moving vast amounts of sugar and grain
around, the difficulty of hiding the operation, the impossibility of
protection against informers, the long hours required of hot, dirty
work—it all adds up to a rather unattractive way to spend an afternoon.
And as any moonshiner will tell you, there is no burn on earth
like the burn one gets from coming in contact with boiling hot meal. It
sticks to the skin and removes it surgically in one neat piece.
The sheer fact of its ceaseless and unrelenting difficulty
perhaps adds to the glamor rather than detracts. This difficulty,
however,coupled with the fact that there really are easier jobs to be
had nowadays, may also be the most successful element in
destroying the practice as it exists today.
It at least did a textbook
of demolishing the craft as a fine art. Perhaps we have succeeded in
preserving some particle of that art for history.
We hope so.
Excerpt from The Foxfire Book Volume 1 by Eliot
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