Friday, 19 March 2021 12:56

COLUMN: Whiskey Willie

Written by
Rate this item
(0 votes)
J.A. Bolton J.A. Bolton

Moonshining began very early in American history, shortly after the Revolution. The U.S. found itself struggling to pay for the expense of fighting a long war. The solution was to place a federal tax on liquors and spirits (don’t that just sound like our government today). Well those folks won’t gonna put up with that new whiskey tax, no siree. They just decided to just keep on making their own whiskey; completely ignoring the federal tax.

To those early settlers, paying the tax meant they wouldn’t be able to feed their families. To enforce this tax, federal agents (called Revenuers) were detached to all parts of the country. Some came back tarred and feathered while some never came back a’tall.

Why, back in 1794, folks even started a Whiskey Rebellion. This would be the first major test for our young country because 13,000 U.S. troops were sent in to stop this uprising. They arrested the leaders, dispersed the mobs, and put an end to the rebellion.

Despite the rebellion, taxes on whiskey didn’t go away until 1817. Folks had to go to the hills and hollows and make their brews by the light of the moon (thus the word “moonshiner” appeared). The old clique, “And I go to some hollow, and set a still, if whiskey don’t kill me Lord, I don’t know what will,” was the motto of the moonshiners.

Alcohol went untaxed for 45 years until the midst of the Civil War. Soon the taxes were two dollars per gallon— up 12 times of the cost to make a gallon of whiskey.

In the South, lots of the early settlers were Scots-Irish and it was in their blood to make and drink whiskey*. A lot of folks lived in the hills where the ground was rocky and hard and didn’t produce like the lush bottom lands. But every little farmer, along with their gardens, would have a patch of corn and it didn’t take but a bushel of corn, sugar and water to run off several gallons of moonshine whiskey. This was what the farmer traded with and maybe sometimes got a little hard cash for. 

Folks called their brews names like white mule, cawn liquor, firewater, rotgut, corn squeezing and just plain shine. The liquor was as clear as a crystal and when turned upside down it formed beads floating in the jug. A good moonshiner can look at the beads and tell you what percent alcohol the shine is. Seems the more times the liquor is run through the still the more percent alcohol it has in it (180 proof will knock your shoes off).

Moonshine can be made using just about any type of grains or fruit. Why, folks here in N.C. would use sorghum cane, which would make the shine a little darker. Folks would think it was aged like bourbon but didn’t take long before people started calling it monkey rum.

Old folks say the only way to drink moonshine is to hold a tin cup or dipper of spring water in your right hand and a tin cup of corn squeezing in your left. Take a sip of water to cool the throat, then a slug of corn. Quickly now, pour down a large swallow of water. Why, that puts out the blaze in your throat but don’t do much for your belly.

Rich and poor alike drank their moonshine. In a lot of cases it was used for medical purposes. There was many a home remedy which included adding a dram or two of moonshine to relieve whatever ailed you.

All types of stories abound about moonshiners and their devil’s brew, as some people call it.

One story that comes to mind is about a moonshiner who lived way back up in the Uwharrie Mountains. His name was Willie Brown and his wife or woman’s name was Mary. Willie learned the trade of making liquor from his ancestors and prided himself on making the finest brew around them parts.

When the great Civil War came around, Willie loaded up his wagon with as many barrels of whiskey as it would hold. He told Mary to keep the still fired, for he would be back in a few days for another load. Why, Willie won’t gone but about a week visiting the Confederate army camps and had sold every drop of his shine by the barrel and the jug. 

Well, the months went by and a lot of the Southern troops had moved on up into Virginia. Willie bought a bigger wagon and headed up north. He told Mary that every time she left the cabin to keep her wits about her and a gun strapped on her side ‘cause the war was getting closer.

Mary was always true to Willie no matter how long he stayed gone. Why, she learned how to fire the still and make the best shine, cut firewood, drive a team of horses and keep the farm going; all the while her man was gone.

As the battles moved all around Virginia, Willie became known as “Whiskey Willie” from Washington to Richmond. Why, when Willie showed up, soldiers would let out a big cheer and let him drive his wagon right through the battle lines as they filled their demijohns to the top.

Willie said later that Bobby Lee won’t much of a drinker and that Jackson scorned the Devil’s brew and said “The Devil will get his due.” Grant and the rest of the Yankees welcomed Whiskey Willie into their camps with jubilation.

Ol’ Willie said he never knew why our country had to have this awful spat. Said, “You got to stay about half drunk to keep killing folks like that.”

When the smoke cleared and peace was made, reconstruction took its toll. The Yankees celebrated while the Rebels lived in shame; all the while Whiskey Willie’s moonshining business stayed the same.

(*Editor’s note: “whisky” to the Scots.)

J.A. Bolton is author of “Just Passing Time,” co-author of “Just Passing Time Together,” and just released his new book “Southern Fried: Down-Home Stories,” all of which can be purchased on Amazon. Contact him at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..