In 1620, the Rev. George Thorpe sent a letter from a plantation near Jamestown, Va., to England describing a "good drinke of Indian corne" that he and his fellow colonists had made. Historians have speculated that Thorpe was talking about unaged corn whiskey, and that his distillation efforts on the banks of Virginia's James River might have produced America's first whiskey. Nearly 400 years later, Belle Isle Moonshine, just 30 miles away, up the river in Richmond, is again producing unaged corn whiskey — what it calls moonshine.
Across the nation, moonshine is booming. Sales have increased by 1,000 percent nationwide between 2010 and 2014, according to the market research firm Technomic. Some places, like Gatlinburg, Tenn., even use moonshine as a tourist draw. But the revival has been especially strong in Virginia, where many of the twists, turns and car chases that are a part of moonshine lore took place.
But first, what is moonshine, exactly? "Technically, moonshine is any distilled spirit produced illicitly, although in modern times it is often used as a catch-all phrase for clear, unaged corn whiskey," says Kevin Kosar, author of Moonshine: A Global History.
In the late 1700s, Scotch-Irish immigrants settled in what is now known as Appalachia, and they almost immediately started distilling unaged whiskey, swapping corn for the barley they had previously used. This tradition thrived in the hills of Virginia until the dawn of the 20th century, when some Virginia counties began banning the production and sale of alcohol.
When Prohibition became nationalized in 1920, Virginia's backwoods distillers were forced underground. Moonshining in the Blue Ridge Mountains became so notorious that Franklin County, in the southwest corner of Virginia, was dubbed the "Moonshine Capital of the World," after it was estimated that 99 out of 100 county residents were involved in the moonshine trade.
Before Prohibition, "getting moonshine in areas like Franklin County was not much different from buying eggs or milk," says Matt Bondurant. Bondurant's novel, Wettest County in the World, is based on his grandfather's moonshining exploits in Franklin County. Matt's brother Robert now runs Bondurant Brothers Distillery, which distills unaged whiskey not far from Franklin. "But when Prohibition came around, then it became a potential money-making possibility," says Bondurant.
Money led to crime, which in turn led to the dramatic law-enforcement raids, car chases and prosecutions that so many Americans associate with Prohibition-era moonshining. Moonshiners were forced to operate in remote Appalachian regions like Franklin to avoid detection, and they went to great lengths to hide their efforts — including burying their stills underneath fake graveyards back in the mountains.
"My grandfather got involved in moonshining during Prohibition and sold his whiskey up in D.C.," says Chuck Miller of Belmont Farm Distillery in Culpeper, Va. "One time they had the road blocked up there for him, and he just ran through the road block. But they shot out the back window of his car."
Miller was the first craft distiller in America, registering his brand in the late 1980s. But even he has been surprised by the renewed interest in moonshine. "Gosh, I guess 10 or 15 years went by before it started to grow," he says. "Then all of a sudden, boom; man, it seemed like everybody was having it."
Moonshine's rebirth can, in part, be attributed to one of Miller's business partners, Tim Smith, the star of the Discovery Channel's Moonshiners show. The show has brought moonshining back and made celebrities out of Smith and his fellow 'shiners, as they tramp around the backwoods of Virginia setting up stills. Smith started out as an illegal moonshiner — learning from his father — but he has now "gone legal," working with Miller to sell his brand of "Climax Moonshine," named after his hometown in rural Virginia. "My goal is not to be a high-paid movie actor or YouTube celebrity," Smith says. "My goal is to market moonshine, and let people know it's safe to drink."
Not only is it safe, but unaged corn whiskey is starting to expand its presence as an upmarket, premium spirit, with bottles reaching into the $30 to $40 price range. "People are generally understanding that moonshine isn't what it used to be," says Gregg Brooks of Belle Isle Moonshine, which produces organic moonshine for the foodie generation.
Belle Isle Moonshine has its own connection to moonshining history. The island of Belle Isle sits in the James River, near downtown Richmond, and was once home to Old Dominion Iron and Nail Works. During the Civil War, when bourbon distilling was temporarily prohibited, the company produced copper stills that allowed southern soldiers to continue distilling illicit corn whiskey.
"People want to experience something that at one time was dangerous and illicit," says Vince Riggi, CEO of Belle Isle Moonshine. "There's a story component to it. Everyone wants a good story."
Jarrett Dieterle is a fellow at the R Street Institute in Washington, D.C., and is the editor of DrinksReform.org.