“It ain’t made to drink. It’s made to sell.”
--Homer Philpott, Franklin County, 1977
The building of an illegal industry that could reach customers as far away as New York and Philadelphia took nearly a century, and it began in earnest in the late 1800s. The business involved a host of players--farmers, sugar and grain suppliers, container suppliers, still hands, still owners, liquor haulers, financial partners, law enforcement agents, and “retail” whiskey sellers. Their individual roles changed as moonshining itself changed.
From the late 1800s to Prohibition (1920), moonshining centered around wood-fired turnip stills making apple brandy or corn whiskey. The bootlegger typically set up in a secluded wooded area beside a stream or spring. He bought grain from local mills and fruit from local orchards.
In the latter half of the nineteenth century, liquor was hauled by wagon to its market destination or a railroad stop. (Oral history in Franklin County tells of individuals making day trips by train to Roanoke with suitcases filled with jars of whiskey.) By the time Virginia voted to become a dry state (1914), moonshiners were using cars and trucks to deliver their whiskey. In that era the primary markets were regional industrial towns and cities--Danville, Lynchburg, Roanoke, etc.--and coal camps in Virginia and West Virginia.
Around World War I, Blue Ridge moonshining saw the rise of the large submarine-type still. More gallons of whiskey could be made with one still, and the bootlegger could increase his output dramatically. By the time Prohibition ended (1933), moonshining was a dynamic economic force in the southern Virginia mountains, and its vitality did not lag with the reintroduction of legal alcohol sales.
When World War II rationing made sugar difficult to obtain, bootleggers distilled with molasses and more grain. At the same time they packaged their whiskey in glass jars instead of metal cans, turning the canning jar into the symbol of the trade. “Nip joints”--stores, houses, and bars where people could buy untaxed liquor by the glass, jar, or jug--were numerous in some Blue Ridge communities, but the real market remained in factory towns. Nevertheless, the nation was changing, and so too would the work of the moonshiner and the revenue agent charged with catching him.
In the 1970s the blackpot tradition took over Blue Ridge moonshining. The bootlegger saw that the big money was in producing sugar liquor, alcohol made by repeatedly adding pure sugar to leftover mash. Blackpot sites often had several submarine pots going at once, some filled with fermenting sugar and mash, others being heated. Revenuers had begun using airplanes to spot still sites in the 1950s, but having switched to oil or propane burners, the bootlegger could set up his operation under roof or even underground. In 1993 Pittsylvania County agents found Virginia’s largest blackpot site--36 800-gallon stills--inside a building.
According to old-timers today, the quality of liquor was abandoned for quantity with the introduction of blackpot distilling techniques. The bootlegger’s current market, however, is no longer the southern factory town, and contemporary moonshine customers apparently do not care too much about taste. Today’s blackpot sugar liquor goes to low-income neighborhoods in large urban areas such as Tidewater Virginia, Philadelphia, New York, and the District of Columbia.
By necessity, the largest blackpot still operations have had something of an assembly-line orderliness. This site included 24 800-gallon submarine stills. Each row of 12 pots had two caps, two thumpers, and two condensers. Franklin County, Virginia, circa 1972.