Story and Photos by CHRIS TRAMEL
The days of shotguns and revenuers may be long gone, but in the rural hills of Cannon County, a part of southern history and culture is making a comeback. Some call it “white lightning”, others call it “moonshine”, but to others it’s called opportunity.
Short Mountain Distillery won the approval of Cannon County voters, through a referendum, last November. The new distillery will make Tennessee corn whiskey and moonshine, and will not only provide jobs to local farmers, it will highlight a craft that has been perfected for over 200 years.
Moonshine has been a part of Tennessee culture since the first Europeans settled the area. Over the years the life of a moonshiner has been portrayed in movies, glamorized on television, and immortalized in song. One of Tennessee’s six state songs, and arguably the most famous, Rocky Top, recalls the fate of revenuers searching for an illegal still.
For early Tennesseans, distilling was a way to make a profit from crops grown in the lower yielding hills and mountainous areas. Farmers could easily transport their liquid crops and gain a higher price for their efforts. Turning their grain into alcohol would also ensure their crops would not spoil, their fi nal product only improving with age.
According to local farmer and historian, John Whittemore, the method of distilling corn into alcohol primarily came from the Scots/ Irish settlers. “Those were the group of people that were coming into this area. They had to learn some different methods, because they had a different environment to work with. The ease in which they could grow the corn, and the cold spring water, evolved into moonshine.
It’s actually a variation of scotch.” Billy Kaufman, the 38-year-old owner of Short Mountain Distillery, says the history of moonshine is something he is very familiar with. “People like my great grandfather, who came in from North Carolina at the turn of the century with his Indian bride; he bought or squatted on about 50 acres out in the Hollow Springs area. He had four or five kids and couldn’t make a living on growing what he was growing. He could feed his kids, and that was about it. So, he and his brother started making stills and setting them up out in the woods by the creek. He did that for the rest of his life, he managed to buy another couple hundred acres around him, put his kids through school, got them an education, and there wasn’t a mean bone in his body.”
“I guess my grandfather ended up buying close to 1,000 acres out in that area,” Kaufman continued. “It’s still in the family in various ways. It’s something I’ve always been proud of. Instead of laying up, waiting on some check from the government, those guys went out and did something and provided for their family.”
Kaufman says industry grew out of the craft and that distilleries are nothing new to the Middle Tennessee area. “There were a variety of distilleries in the area before prohibition. There were eighteen in Cannon County alone. Some of them made rye, some of them made corn whiskey, and some of them had orchards where they made various things from that like brandy.”
It’s when Prohibition hit that moonshine gained its dubious reputation. Prohibition, or “The Noble Experiment,” was enacted through the 18th Amendment on January 16, 1920 and lasted until its repeal on December 5, 1933. The “Volstead Act” outlined a definition of intoxicating liquors and penalties for its production and sale. While Prohibition sought to eliminate the consumption of alcohol, it actually had the opposite effect. The act created inflated prices, leading to a black-market and organized crime. In the large cities the demand for alcohol never ceased, and supply and demand created opportunity for those willing to take the risk.
Almost overnight the price of moonshine turned the now illegal substance into liquid gold. That and the fact that all distilleries, breweries and wine makers had been put out of business, made the operation of an illegal still a tempting proposition. Once poor farmers now found themselves with something highly sought after, and people all the way from Chicago and New York were willing to pay top dollar for their product.
The new bootlegging industry boomed during the Roaring Twenties. While many of the old-time distillers were dedicated to making top-notch corn whiskey, other unscrupulous producers looked for ways to increase their profits. Mixing cheap chemicals with the moonshine to increase its yield, lead to poisonings during Prohibition.
Other inexperienced producers failed to separate the poisonous methyl alcohol from their distillations, or used lead or iron containers instead of the required copper. Iron poisoning, blindness, and even death were not uncommon during the boom of illegal, unregulated moonshine production.
The illegal trade also produced a unique type of sport that has blossomed into a major industry today. While the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms increased its presence in the South, searching for illegal stills and the transport of unlawful liquor, moonshiners sought new ways to avoid arrest and more importantly the loss of thousands of dollars of inventory. Automobiles were modified with larger storage compartments and souped-up engines in an attempt to outrun revenue agents. The practice eventually evolved into stock car racing and what is today known as NASCAR.
On December 5, 1933, the failed Prohibition period ended with the ratification of the Twenty-first Amendment. However, licensing and regulations on the production of alcohol were put in place. Though the days of the illegal moonshine still were far from over, the days of big profits were waning, and the risks were beginning to outweigh the benefits of the bootlegging trade.
Kaufman says Short Mountain Distillery is a chance to bring history full circle. “This is part of the culture of the area. We can take what my great-grandfather did in getting started in this area, and now use it to keep people in this area.”
According to Kaufman it will be at least a year before even a drop of whiskey is produced, but with a building only in the planning stages, the first fields have been plowed for next year’s corn crop. “We’re going to make aged whiskey, and that will take a while. To start out we’ll probably employ less than a dozen people directly, but we hope to see it grow into something bigger.”
However, Kaufman says his company will also have a commitment to the community by growing organically and using local resources as part of their operation. That commitment will mean more jobs not directly related to the distillery.
“We’ll only be buying local corn. It’s all going to be coming out of this area. We don’t want to put a single thing in our whiskey that’s not local. I feel more strongly about buying local than growing organically.
The farmers we’ll be using will be a big part of our operation. They’ll be able to make a profit.” Kaufman says the distillery is even looking for the nearest company to produce barrels for their operation.
“We’re going to make this a tourist attraction as well,” he continued. “That will mean a lot to the local stores and businesses.” Kaufman says the distillery will be planning on holding events, perhaps offer catering, merchandising and barbecues.
“There’s a vaccum here, people want to do something, they want to show people what farming is like, they want to show people the great history that’s still here.” Whittemore added, “What we’re really trying to put forward is this is going to be genuine pure corn whiskey, and not have some of the other things found in those type products. There’s a huge difference in what most people consider moonshine and what real corn whiskey is. It’s the difference between the illegal moonshine and good corn whiskey.”
Regardless of opinions of the pros and cons of the consumption of alcohol, there is no doubt that the legacy of the moonshiner is a part of Tennessee history and culture. The people of Short Mountain Distillery say they want to celebrate that part of our history and make a true Tennessee product that the oldtimers would be proud of.