Moonshine has gone legit.
Since South Carolina began taxing small distilleries in 2009, allowing entrepreneurs to make legal moonshine, 28 companies have registered with the S.C. Department of Revenue – some using recipes handed down by ancestors.
But despite the sheen of commercialization, there are still secretive moonshiners in the woods of South Carolina, people who cook batches of the high-alcohol brew at the risk of being found out by hunters, disapproving neighbors – or sheriff’s deputies wielding axes, as a bust earlier this month in Orangeburg County demonstrates.
It’s impossible to know how many illegal moonshiners operate in South Carolina, of course, because they don’t want to be discovered. Their customers don’t want them to be, either. Law enforcement officers don’t seem to run across them too often.
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But 46-year-old Tom Hall of Ridgeway, who learned how to make moonshine as a boy at the arm of sharecroppers on his daddy’s farm in Chester County, said moonshine remains a thriving craft.
“There’s corn whiskey being made in every dark corner of this state,” Hall said. “I grew up with characters that were making it, and still make it.”
Hall and others say a reality television show on the Discovery channel has heightened interest in making moonshine. And, like just about everything else, there are YouTube videos that instruct people with a taste for alcohol in the five-day process of making home brew.
“But there’s still a bunch of old-timers,” said Hall, a heritage farmer and bed and breakfast host just outside Ridgeway. “There’s a culture of people who are really good at it.”
Hall and food historian David Shields agree that today’s illegal moonshiners are a breed apart – South Carolinians who view moonshine as a tradition, a political statement, an artistic creation. The political statement, Shields said, involves resentment of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms laws of the U.S. government.
“There’s an independence and a spirit that keeps it alive,” Hall said, “because it’s kind of an outlaw thing to do and it’s a little bit risky. But it’s also over-glorified. It’s not that difficult.”
Still, there are levels of sophistication to making moonshine.
Shields, a history professor at the University of South Carolina, has sampled local moonshine made from sorghum, corn, even sweet potatoes. Corn is most common, he said, with serious ’shiners hoarding the best ears for the next year’s growing season.
Like cooking anything, adding ingredients – a handful of sugar, pecans or fruit – affects the flavor. Moonshine recipes are taught, not written.
“Some of it tastes smooth,” Shields said, “the really good moonshine.”
The ingredients to make a quart of moonshine that goes for $25 probably cost less than $10. The biggest part of the cost is propane for cooking.
Earlier this month, Orangeburg County sheriff’s deputies found 25 barrels of fermenting corn mash in some woods near Holly Hill. They saw the operation from a helicopter as they scanned the ground for marijuana crops.
There were no arrests – the property owner said she wasn’t responsible for the still – and officers destroyed the equipment, spokeswoman Keisa Gunby said.
The Sheriff’s Department doesn’t focus on moonshine production, Gunby said, but historically has about four cases a year when deputies come across stills. She found records of one case in 2013 and two cases each of the previous two years.
Thom Berry, a spokesman for the State Law Enforcement Division, said the agency doesn’t keep data on crime related to moonshine production. Those who get caught making illegal moonshine in South Carolina face a fine of $600 or six months in jail.
“It’s not a stereotypical backwoods, Dukes of Hazards thing,” Gunby said. “These are people who have probably had it passed on for generations, making moonshine, and it’s a way of life for them.”
Mike Dennis, director of the Tri-County Commission on Alcohol & Drug Abuse, said he hasn’t seen any indication the consumption of moonshine has changed.
He noted that making – and drinking – illegal moonshine can be dangerous. “People have suffered some pretty bad injuries and even death from drinking a product that has not been distilled the right way,” Dennis said. “There’s a reason we have regulations.”
Carl Monday is a fourth-generation moonshiner but the first in his family to make liquor legally.
In the spring, Monday paid $5,000 for a South Carolina license to open a micro-distillery, Dark Water Distillery, in Camden. The license is good for two years and allows him to make up to 125,000 cases a year.
An affordable license has fueled growth in small, handcrafted distilleries like Monday’s. Before the law changed five years ago to accommodate small batches, a license to manufacture liquor was $50,200 every two years, said Bonnie Swingle, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Revenue.
Monday said customers are drawn to the mystique of moonshine, in part because they know it’s not mass produced. “Until this law passed,” he said, “the only way you could buy it was illegally, through a moonshiner or bootlegger.”
Now, he can make moonshine just like his great-grandfather did, but sell it in a store right downtown.