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Fast Cars and White Liquor

A V-8 Ford Coupe.
Photo courtesy of J.A. Bolton.

Recently, I talked about the history of making moonshine and the first process of making the brew, which is fermentation in a mash barrel. As the fermentation is completed, a foam called the “cap” forms. When the cap gradually disappears, the remaining sour mixture called the “beer” has about 6 to 12 percent alcohol content. This concoction is quite different than the beer you might buy at a store, but some folks do drink it.

In the next step of the process, the beer is poured into a large turnip shaped copper “pot,” sometimes called a boiler.

Pot stills are the most common, but many gallons of moonshine have been made in an even larger pot called a “Submarine Still.” And if the shiner is worried he’s going to scorch his product, he can use a Steam Still.

After the brew is poured in the pot, a heat source is added under the pot. Old time shiners use dry wood, while later, most shiners used propane gas (the least smoke as possible). The brew is heated to 172 degrees, and as the pressure builds, it creates an alcoholic steam. This steam is then piped into a thump-keg where it re-evaporates and any of the original mash is filtered out.

If a shiner wanted to make his brew more potent, he would “charge” the thump-keg by adding un-distilled mash or a gallon of rubbing alcohol to give the brew an extra kick.

The next step is for the steam in the thump-keg to travel through a coil of copper pipe that winds into a worm-box. To make a copper worm, moonshiners pack sand into a piece of copper tubing before shaping it so the coil won’t crimp. As the steam passes through the coil of copper in the worm-box, cool creek water is added. This process condenses the steam back into a liquid. Some shiners use a car radiator for this process, which works, but the liquor picks up a lot of lead from the soldered joints on the radiator.

The last step in making white liquor is to open a valve or spout connected to the coil of copper pipe, allowing the clear alcohol to run into jars ready to be sold.

The process of making moonshine is hard manual work, it’s illegal, and sometimes can be dangerous. But for many years, it was a way of life and a means of survival for a lot of local countrymen. It also helped line the pockets of some unscrumptious rich folks who would water it down and sell it.

After a moonshiner made his brew, it had to be moved from the still and sold. Some older shiners would make a prearranged sale by placing a jar of liquor inside a stump hole (thus came the name of “stump-hole liquor”) and the payment had was expected to be left at the drop off point. In the day before cars, mules and wagons were used, in which had secret compartments to carry the whiskey.

As cars came along, some shiners couldn’t even drive or afford a car, so they hired runners to deliver their product. A lot has been made of the connection of liquor runners with NASCAR, but most liquor runners had little to do with organized racing. The real ties between the two were the mechanics in the local garages who could modify the runner’s cars with high powered engines and heavy-duty suspensions. Most moonshine runners had no desire to draw attention to themselves by speeding or driving a conspicuous vehicle. Most moonshine cars added special heavy back springs and shocks to hold the vehicle level when loaded.

A 1940 Ford Coupe was a runner’s vehicle of choice before the 1950’s. The coupe sported a Flat-head V-8 engine, large trunk space and could be souped-up to run upwards of 180 m.p.h. Extra tanks were placed all under the car to haul as much as 180 gallons of liquor. Sometimes, the back seat would be filled with cases of shine (which would be covered by a quilt or blanket).


Moonshine runners had two different license tags. One, they would run in the day time; the other, at night. Special toggle switches on the dash were used to be able to cut off their tail lights and brake lights if being chased by an A.B.C. Officer.

Some cars were equipped with small tanks of oil to be released behind the runner’s car to cause the pursuing officer to spin out or wreck. When the law got too close, some runners would do a 180-degree turn and drive directly into the head-lights of the law. The moonshine runners didn’t always outrun the law, and were sometimes caught, while others met their death in a fiery crash.

Since the 1970s, shiners have used closed-in vans and pickup trucks with a camper shell to haul their brew. Some even placed their shine in fuel tanks with hand pumps right behind the cab of the pickup.

Moonshine was not only made to drink, but it was used in homemade medical cures. A medical recipe called “bitters” used moonshine with other ingredients like sassafras bark, ginseng and wild cherry bark to help your aches and pains. Another good remedy for a cough, was a gram or two of moonshine mixed with honey, lemon juice, ginger, and sugar.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, before Prohibition, some folks started what they called a “Temperance Movement” against using or making alcohol. As drugs do today, alcohol was causing a breakdown in families and was cutting down on productivity of work. Some people would get drunk and lay out of work for days on end.

During this movement, even women marched down the streets calling attention to the use of alcohol. Some of these women even took up axes and busted up bars and other whiskey establishments. Local communities started building what they called “Temperance Halls”, one of which was built in Wagram, N.C.

These were halls where people met to discourage folks from drinking or making any type of alcoholic beverage. To be a member, one had to pledge not to have anything to do with the brews. If he agreed to this, a white star was placed on the ceiling of the hall. If the pledge was broken, the star would be painted black and the member was removed from the group.

After Prohibition turned out to be a failure in our country, liquor laws were passed by North Carolina. Counties and incorporated towns decided by popular vote whether to be wet or dry when it came to the sale of legally made alcohol. Even a town within a dry county could elect to be wet, and a town within a wet county could vote to be dry. Towns had to have at least 500 residents to have their own A.B.C. store.

The sale of legally madealcohol is over seen by the Alcohol Beverage Control Board in every county of North Carolina. Fifteen percent of gross income is used to pay an A.B.C. officer assigned to that county or area to seek out any forms of illegal whiskey making.

Next time, I will discuss some of the unusual occurrences that A.B.C. officers and revenuers experienced in staking out and arresting moonshiners and bootleggers.

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