Tuesday, June 7, 2022

The History of Tennessee Moonshine

By Michelle Shocklee

Moonshine. Corn liquor. Corn whiskey. Mountain dew. Rotgut. White lightning. "The Recipe" for fans of The Walton's TV show. 😉 No matter what it's called, it's all the same stuff. 

Photo from Google

Why am I blogging about moonshine, you might wonder? Because I'm an author of historical fiction set in Tennessee, and yep...you guessed it! Moonshine makes an appearance in my new book (set to release Summer 2023!). And since I had to do a little digging into the making and distributing of moonshine back in the day for one of my secondary characters ---the hero/heroine are NOT moonshiners! Ha!--I thought I'd share some of my research with you. 

The term "moonshine" has actually been around since the 15th century and was in use to refer to alcohol in England in the 18th century. (That fun fact surprised me! Did it surprise you?) Moonshine's American roots can be traced all the way back to the pioneers who settled in the Appalachian mountains of western Pennsylvania in the 1700s. Some current-day 'shiners are proud of their family trees that include the names of the original Scotsmen who are believed to be the first to distill corn liquor in the United States. 

Moonshiner (no photo credit found)
In 1791, the federal government imposed a tax on liquor made in the country, known as the “whiskey tax.” For the next three years, distillers held off the tax collectors by less-than-legal means. This brought a U.S. marshal to Pennsylvania to collect the taxes owed. More than 500 men attacked the area’s tax inspector general’s home. Their commander was then killed, which inspired a protest of nearly 6,000 people. The tax was repealed in 1801, and the events from the decade prior was known as the Whiskey Rebellion.

One interesting thing I learned was that "bootleggers" and "moonshiners" are not always the same people. Moonshiners are the folks who make the stuff, usually in a well-hidden still, tucked far back in the mountains and hollers. Bootleggers are the guys (and some gals) who smuggled the illegal liquor out of the hills and into communities. 

Bootleggers, no photo credit found

Moonshiners were among the early settlers of Tennessee. The dense forests and vast smoky mountains were a perfect location to continue making the liquor. Four distilleries that began in those early years of the state's history are still in business! 
  • Ole Smoky Moonshine where they use a 100-year-old secret recipe! 
  • Bootleggers Distillery, carrying on the Miller family tradition since the 1600s!
  • Doc Collier Moonshine, named after Doc Collier who sold his rotgut in the backroom of his mercantile!
  • Old Forge Distillery whose founders settled on the Little Pigeon river so they'd have plenty of water for their moonshine!
How are these moonshiners able to run legitimate businesses today? 

In 2009, the Tennessee government loosened liquor production laws, allowing moonshiners to move their stills from the backwoods to legitimate tasting rooms. Now, the legal high-proof spirit is big business with the number of distilleries in the state growing to more than 30.

Smith Creek Moonshine store;
photo https://www.smithcreekmoonshine.com/

I must say, I was a little shocked to see a store selling moonshine at the mall when we first moved to Tennessee in 2017! There are dozens and dozens of flavors--almost as many as Sonic has for their slushes! We've been given jars of homemade moonshine for Christmas, birthdays, and just because! Ha! I'm not fond of the stuff, but that's just me.  

So there's your lesson on moonshine! 😂

Your turn...and don't feel obligated to answer since this is a public blog! Have you ever tried moonshine? What'd ya think?

Michelle Shocklee
is the author of several historical novels, including Under the Tulip Tree, a Christy Awards and Selah Awards finalist. Her work has been included in numerous Chicken Soup for the Soul books, magazines, and blogs. Married to her college sweetheart and the mother of two grown sons, she makes her home in Tennessee, not far from the historical sites she writes about. Visit her online at www.MichelleShocklee.com


1961. After a longtime resident at Nashville’s historic Maxwell House Hotel suffers a debilitating stroke, Audrey Whitfield is tasked with cleaning out the reclusive woman’s room. There, she discovers an elaborate scrapbook filled with memorabilia from the Tennessee Centennial Exposition. Love notes on the backs of unmailed postcards inside capture Audrey’s imagination with hints of a forbidden romance . . . and troubling revelations about the disappearance of young women at the exposition. Audrey enlists the help of a handsome hotel guest as she tracks down clues and information about the mysterious “Peaches” and her regrets over one fateful day, nearly sixty-five years earlier.


  1. I attended college in TN, and there were roads I was told not to frequent because of what lay at the end of them. I was never brave enough to try moonshine, but I was offered.

    1. Linda, I've seen some roads like that! HAHA! Definitely best to go the other direction.

  2. Thanks for posting today. I've never had moonshine. I asked my husband about an old guy in Vermont he knew who made booze and he said that the guy called it "applejack" because it was basically hard cider.

    1. Connie, that's interesting! I've never heard of "applejack." Thanks for sharing.

  3. I'm a Kentucky girl and while Kentucky's known for Bourbon. We also have a history of moonshine especially in the hills of Eastern Kentucky. I have tried moonshine, though I prefer the flavor versions and it goes great with Ale 8. I also have ancestors that not only made moonshine but also bootlegged it and it was a great great grandma her daughters.