But That’s Another Distillery

November 9, 2012

Several liquor stores in my area have begun selling something they call "moonshine". I hate it when people play fast and loose with the language like that. If it’s produced, bottled, and distributed by legitimate businesses it’s not moonshine. Moonshine is made in hollers and gulleys by men missing fingers and eyes because their stills occasionally blow up. If it’s got a fancy label and is sold in broad daylight in a legitimate establishment it’s not moonshine. At best it’s a distilled alcohol product that hasn’t been subjected to a traditional aging process. If that’s too much of a mouthful then just call it really, really expensive turpentine.

Moonshine is sold in jelly jars and clay pots with XXX on the side, or at least it was before XXX was appropriated by the porn industry, but moonshine remains much more dangerous. Moonshine might make you go blind, whereas some porn will simply make you wish you were blind. Running moonshine was, supposedly, how NASCAR originated, but I find that highly questionable. I think all automobile racing originated with the invention of the automobile because even if you give two guys two completely identical cars the first thing they’re both going to think is, "Let’s find out which one is faster." And it gets worse. There are now also so-called reality shows about moonshiners. I say "so-called" not merely because, as we all know, there’s very little reality in reality television, but because shows about moonshiners must be fiction because the production of moonshine is illegal. If the reality shows are really about real moonshiners they’re making it a lot easier for ATF agents who will no longer have to wander through hollers and gullies looking for illicit stills but can just follow the film crews.

I believe these reality shows must be no more real than Otis on The Andy Griffith Show disappearing into the woods to tie one on, presumably because Mayberry was in a dry county, otherwise he would have been able to hang out in the local bar or buy a bottle of gin at the liquor store before ambling to the sheriff’s office to lock himself in his favorite jail cell. I realize the bottling and reality shows are an attempt to give moonshine a whiff of respectability, but, open-minded as I am, I don’t think moonshine should be made respectable. I’m an open-minded guy and think there are a lot of things society has kept on the fringes that should be embraced, but is moonshine one of them? Several years ago I took a friend to visit the Jack Daniel’s Distillery in Lynchburg, Tennessee. I’ve toured the distillery at least a dozen times since I was very young because my parents would often take visiting guests down there-a tradition I’m proud to have continued. Most of those times that I went Moore County, where Lynchburg is located, was a completely dry county.

For the British and other aliens I’d like to take a moment here to explain that a "dry county" is one where alcohol can’t be sold. That was part of the charm of the Jack Daniel’s Distillery: they could make it there, but they couldn’t sell it. You had to drive to a neighboring county to buy it. Except the last time I was there they had a three-foot by three-foot square in the distillery itself where you could buy a special bottle. And I felt like a small part of my childhood was gone, which, in itself, isn’t an argument for keeping things the way they were, but I haven’t really got an argument, so bear with me. Recently efforts have been made to make Moore County, well, for lack of a better term, wet, allowing the sale of liquor, including Jack Daniel’s whiskey, which would deprive the distillery of that "You can look, but can’t touch" element that makes it special. One thing that hadn’t changed, though, was the distillery’s tour guides. A side effect of visiting the distillery so many times is I became a connoisseur of its tour guides, the same way some people become connoisseurs of fine scotch, although my hobby is significantly cheaper. The first time I ever visited the distillery our tour guide was funny and outgoing. He was like Willy Wonka but looked like Jim Varney. In fact he may have even been Jim Varney. The last time I went our tour guide was at the opposite end of the spectrum, but equally superb. He was approximately a hundred and three, wore overalls and a conductor’s cap, and was perpetually hunched over. The first thing he said to us was, "Y’all git on along now." His face was contorted into a perpetual snarl, although he did smile just once when someone asked him if he got free whiskey for working at the distillery. He quietly said, "No, but they pay me enough that I kin buy it."

The rest of the time, though, he was straightforward, matter-of-fact, and very thorough in explaining the process by which Jack Daniel’s is crafted. He was clearly not a man who suffered fools, particularly when a guy with a Midwestern accent asked, "So what do they do with the bad whiskey?" It was the only time the man looked at any of us directly. He fixed the questioner with a steely glare and said, "There ain’t no bad whiskey here." They do have a term for bad whiskey in Moore County, though. They call it moonshine.

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