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Moonshine: From the Woods to Wal-Mart

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Still, one law enforcement officer explains, "These days, there's more money in marijuana."

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MINYANVILLE ORIGINAL A wise man once said, "If it's legal, it ain't moonshine. If it's moonshine, it ain't legal."

As of July 4, 2010, what Joe Baker's family once distilled under cover of darkness in the mountains of Tennessee is now sold legally in 40 states -- and on the shelves of Wal-Mart (WMT) -- as Ole Smoky Tennessee Moonshine.

"My family's got a long history here in Tennessee, 200 years' worth," Baker tells me. "In this part of the country, there are still remnants of prohibition; we live in an area where certain people tend to frown on spirits."

Indeed, there was resistance before the Tennessee legislature passed a bill in 2009, allowing "white whiskey" (it's only moonshine if it's against the law) to be distilled in the state.

"A state senator said to us at one point: 'Wine is good because Jesus drank wine. But beer and whiskey are bad, because Jesus did not drink those,'" Darek Bell of Nashville's Corsair Distillery told the Nashville City Paper a few years back.

But when another representative backed the idea, saying, "[I]f it will help the farmers in my community sell more corn, then I am all for it," the "opinion turned," according to Bell.

Now Baker, an attorney, along with partners Cory Cottongim and Tony Breeden, employ roughly 80 people in Gatlinburg, where they distill Ole Smoky at the "first federally licensed distillery in East Tennessee." (Gatlinburg is "wet," while the county in which it sits, Sevier County, is dry. Believe it or not, there are still more than 200 dry counties in the United States.)

Out in the Open

"The only difference is that we're not hiding anything now," Baker tells me. "It's the same drink, the same spirit, only now we don't have to look over our shoulders."

Believe it or not, there are still moonshiners operating today -- even with liquor available everywhere from Costco (COST) to Target (TGT) to Safeway (SWY) to Exxon Mobil (XOM) stations.

"Moonshine still exists; we still make cases from time to time," Mark Hutchens, Chief Law Enforcement Officer for the Tennessee Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission, tells me.

Baker says he believes the market consists of "some good ol' fellas who are having fun with it more than anything else," and doesn't think "many people are making a living off of it."

Others say the moonshine market is akin to the micro-brewing movement; an artisanal product distilled for sophisticated palates that crave tradition.

"It's more like a craft brew, rather than a way to get booze," says one Kentucky native who has sampled his fair share of moonshine over the years.

However, Roddy Moore, Director of the Blue Ridge Institute and Museum at Virginia's Ferrum College, says moonshine is still part and parcel of the Appalachian economy.

"I guess there is some craft distilling going on, but in this area, over the years, it has been looked upon as a business," Moore tells me.

To this end, Moore says Virginian moonshine "has historically been transported out of the area."

"In the '20s, '30s, '40s, '50s, moonshine went to textile areas or mining areas in West Virginia," he says. "Today, it could be going up north -- Baltimore, Philadelphia, where it's sold less expensively, in after-hours places or nip joints."

Nip joints?

"They sell it by the shot," Moore explains. "The type of place where you could buy one cigarette."

Going legit, Moore says, is far beyond the financial means of many moonshiners.

"Buying the permit is not necessarily that expensive, but getting the correct equipment and operation is," he tells me. "Look at a distillery today, it looks like a dairy."

Moonshine Still Vital for Folks Who Remain in the Shadows

Beyond the prohibitive economics of setting up a lawful distillery, there are other issues that keep moonshine alive. A friend in the Florida Panhandle (who prefers to remain anonymous) tells me about the folks who sell 'shine to his nephew:

We're talking non tax-paying, huntin' and fishin' for supper, living deep in the woods/swamps, off the grid, many of whom are wanted criminals or ex-cons. If you're asking about "why he's buying it," he's getting it from the "friends" he made while at the three-hots-and-a-cot hotel for six years. Those rumors about cons sticking together is true...some NEVER go to town, or anywhere where cameras could see them, they have others do their shopping.

I'd imagine most is COP, "consumed on premises," or bartered for store-bought goods. Bartering is big in the country, they don't pay no f'in taxes, never will.

While moonshine was once a way to make more money from one's corn crop (not to mention liquor being easier to transport and fully shelf-stable), there is another crop now displacing white lightning for similar reasons.

As Mark Hutchens of the Tennessee Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission says:

"These days, there's more money in marijuana."

The Ole Smoky Distillery is located at 903 Parkway, Traffic Light #8 in Gatlinburg, TN. It is open daily from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., though Tennessee law doesn't allow sales on Sunday.

Good thing there are still a few backcountry stills up and running, no?
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