The difference between a legal distiller and a moonshiner is basic: The moonshiner chooses not to license his distilling operation or pay taxes on his whiskey. The British and Scottish began taxing whiskey in the mid-1600s, and by 1700 the British were calling brandy smugglers on the coast of England “moonlighters.” In the Virginia Blue Ridge the illegal distiller came to called a “moonshiner” or a “bootlegger.”
The United States collected an excise tax on alcohol from 1791 to 1802 and then again from 1813 to 1817. Alcohol went untaxed for the next 45 years, but in the midst of the Civil War, Congress again passed a whiskey tax. By 1865 the tax was two dollars per gallon, up to 12 times the actual cost of making a gallon of liquor.
Though some people avoided taxes by running illegal stills, by the 1880s dozens of Blue Ridge distillers were operating under state licenses. With improved roads and railroads, alcohol could be shipped from the Blue Ridge to coal camps, factory towns, and larger cities. In 1893-94 Franklin County alone had 77 legal distilleries. Most of these were producing brandy from apples or peaches under three-month licenses after the fruit harvest.
As the 1800s drew to a close, the national stance against alcohol was gaining ground. Around the turn of the century, laws were passed making it illegal to run a distillery in a rural area, and through the early 1900s, one by one, Virginia counties banned the sale and production of alcohol. When North Carolina outlawed the making (though not the selling) of whiskey, some Carolina distilleries moved into Virginia. By 1909 most of Virginia and about half of the Blue Ridge was “dry.” Licensed distilleries were forced to close. In 1914 the Commonwealth voted to ban alcohol statewide. (The Blue Ridge county of Franklin consistently voted against the ban.) Prohibition was enforced nationwide in 1920, and not surprisingly in hindsight, the market for moonshine, which had been growing steadily over the years, exploded.
Money, of course, has always driven the Blue Ridge moonshining industry. Over the past century some people made fortunes in the trade. The big earners were the men providing the operating money and supplies for large operations. In the southern Virginia Blue Ridge local history tells of a few such bootleggers having tens of thousands of dollars in cash in the midst of the Great Depression of the 1930s. One wealthy Franklin County moonshiner bought an airplane so his son could fly over and see if their still sites were well hidden from the air.
Today a gallon of moonshine costs just over half the retail price of a gallon of the cheapest legal whiskey sold in Virginia’s state-run liquor stores. Obviously there is still money to made in dodging the tax.