Tell people you’re going to North Carolina and many of them will picture pristine beaches or mountains filled with colourful fall foliage. Others will conjure up images of jars of illegal moonshine marked “XXX” and stills manned by grizzled men in old-fashioned hats. All of that’s true, there are beautiful beaches and stunning autumn leaves within an easy drive of Raleigh, and though most of the moonshine in North Carolina is made on the up and up these days, you’ll find the descendants of some legendary bootleggers using their granddaddy’s recipe in modern distilleries.
Moonshine (corn liquor produced illegally in copper stills hidden away in mountain coves, thick piney forests, and swamps, often by the light of the moon) has been a staple product of rural North Carolina since its earliest days as a colony, though the practice of distilling “white lightning” hit its peak during Prohibition in the 1920s. From that time right up until the 1960s, even into the early 1970s, men fixed up cars with supercharged engines, fortified springs, and secret compartments to carry, conceal, and swiftly deliver moonshine from hidden stills to discreet distribution points.
The roots of NASCAR, the professional stock car racing organization headquartered in Charlotte, are intertwined with these moonshine deliverymen as they’d take great pride in their automobiles, racing on deliveries, and eventually settling disputes on dirt racetracks. Junior Johnson, NASCAR legend from Wilkesboro (a hotbed of mountain “˜shine just over two hours west of Raleigh), got his first taste of car racing running moonshine. He even did a little time for his transgressions before becoming a professional racing driver. Today, he’s come full circle and produces Midnight Moon, a legal moonshine available throughout North Carolina and across the South.
Though the title is claimed by other locales across the South, Wilkesboro calls itself the “Moonshine Capital of the World.” Today, the Call family run Call Family Distillers, producing moonshine from an old family recipe. The family’s history in mountain whiskey started with Daniel Call, the man who taught the legendary Jack Daniels how to make whiskey, and the current distiller’s father, the late Willie Clay Call, who was one of the most notable moonshiners and haulers in the state.
To the South of Wilkesboro, in Rutherfordton, the Cherry Bounce Trail leads you on a drive along roads often travelled by bootleggers on delivery runs. One of the notable stops is at Blue Ridge Distilling Co., where they make Defiant Whisky, an amber-coloured whisky made in the spirit of the earliest mountain liquor.
Moving east towards Raleigh, you’ll find no shortage of stills and fast cars to keep thirsty customers happy. In Benson, only 30 minutes south of Raleigh, Broadslab Distillery produces some of the best moonshine in North Carolina, as well as whiskey and rum. Broadslab’s Owner and Master Distiller, Jeremy Norris, got his recipe from his grandfather, Leonard Wood, who was renowned for his moonshine. Norris says his family’s involvement in moonshine and illegal liquor goes back to his great-grandfathers on both sides of his family, but he’s legitimized their legacy.
East of Raleigh, in the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge, the swamp has reclaimed the last remnants of Buffalo City, a town built for logging cypress and cedar trees, but known for making moonshine, or as they called it in that area, “Carolina swamp juice”. A tugboat loaded with sugar and grain would navigate the creeks and supply dozens of stills with what they needed to make their “˜shine.
All along the coast, the story’s the same. Moonshiners and purveyors of other contraband substances set up deep in the piney woods and swamps. These places were hard to reach, often populated with alligators and poisonous snakes, and filled with the usual folklore of ghosts, mystery lights, and strange creatures.
There are no panthers, puma, or mountain lions in North Carolina, but there is the supposed Beast of Bladenboro. This huge, elusive cat had been part of the folklore of the area for years. Stories popped up from time to time, told over a passed quart jar of moonshine around many a campfire or still. People tried to catch the Beast or shoot it, to no avail. Then, in the 1950s, evidence of the Beast came to light: two dogs were “torn to ribbons and crushed,” according to a police deposition.
No matter what tale you hear about moonshiners, ghosts, lost colonialists, strange lights, or frightening beasts, in the hills and hollows and throughout the swamps and piney woods of rural North Carolina, there are secrets to be found.
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Have you sampled moonshine in North Carolina? Did you visit any of the sparkly new stills? Let us know in the comments section below.
Written by Jason Frye