Bootleggers & Distillers a Short History: Revolutionary War to Prohibition

Stills, as in distillation contraptions and the art of home liquor-making came to America with the early settlers. The Scots, English, Irish, French, Dutch, Germans and Spanish all had a taste for alcohol, and with them they brought stills, expertise and generations of knowledge on how to ferment, brew and distill. One of the most beloved carry-on’s aboard ships sailing to the New World was yeast for the bread and beer and liquor and other eau de vie. The wild spores of America were untested by Europeans, so to be safe they scraped the lees and dregs from the bottoms of homeland vats and transported those strains abroad to be assured of some consistency in their alcohol. People carried on happily brewing and fermenting and distilling until war changed everything.

As a result of the Revolutionary War, the American government was overcome with debt. In an effort to generate revenue, it applied a federal alcohol tax to help manage the financial fray. Home distillers were furious. The Revolutionary War was fought, after all, to free Americans from being subject to British Imperialist taxation, so citizens were furious when the Distilled Spirits Tax of 1791 was created. Most Americans who had distilled continued doing so despite the taxation laws and refused to pay. As a result, the government sent forth tax collectors to obtain their share of the alcohol profits — tax collectors who were greeted with beatings, tarrings and featherings, and who subsequently trod lightly and forced collection halfheartedly. Distillers and farmers, many of whom were one and the same, remained furious, and in July 1794 the Whiskey Rebellion began. A militia force was sent by Alexander Hamilton to eradicate the rebellion, but, in reality, it served to drive distillers deeper underground.

In 1802, Thomas Jefferson repealed the whiskey excise tax and Americans were once again free to legally distill. From 1812 to 1817, the liquor tax was enacted to fund the War of 1812; post war, the tax was repealed. In 1861, burdened with debt from the Civil War, another liquor tax was imposed and has remained ever since. Making liquor (legal or not) was deeply ingrained in the culture of the American South, and for many people, it was the only means by which they had to make a living. The alcohol taxes applied post-Civil War were viewed by Southerners as an extension of Yankee tyranny. As such, local Southern politicians did little to enforce the laws on moonshiners.

Push ahead a few years to an experiment in piety also known as Prohibition. As it turns out, Prohibition was anything but dry — in fact, it’s where ‘shiners really revved up and made a name for themselves, profiting immensely from the low supply of legal alcohol. In the Southern United States, the number of moonshine stills quadrupled and illegal liquor production was at all-time high. To avoid the law, men modified their cars to outrun the police so they could transport moonshine to distribution points. Some of these drivers were the earliest stock car drivers who created NASCAR.

Source: The Airship

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