Hosea Thomas was of the last generation in the Blue Ridge to use the turnip-style boiler (center). The mash was mixed in the barrels on the right. The alcohol condensed in a copper worm in the barrel on the left. Franklin County, Virginia, 1915.

Sign for the F. DeHart Distilling Company.
Patrick County, Virginia, circa 1900.

Over the years hundreds of travel articles and books have been written about the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Many of those offhandedly refer to the region’s history of moonshining–the production and sale of untaxed liquor–without giving any sense of the reality of the illegal liquor-making industry. The image of the moonshiner put forth by pop culture and the mass media makes good press regardless of its accuracy. (The Blue Ridge Institute & Museum itself is located in a county where one of the bestselling t-shirts depicts stereotypical jug-toting hillbillies under the banner “Moonshine Capital of the World.”) Not surprisingly, the public’s understanding of moonshining is more myth than fact, and few people grasp the scope of the Blue Ridge moonshining industry over the last 150 years. Most moonshiners would not so boldly pose for a photographer while putting whiskey in jars at

Most moonshiners would not so boldly pose for a photographer while putting whiskey in jars at their still. Virginia Blue Ridge, circa 1970s.

The Blue Ridge moonshining trade has changed significantly in the last century. Far fewer people are involved in it now, though today’s bootlegger is able to distill more alcohol with less work than his counterpart of the early 1900s. Modern moonshine is made with vast quantities of sugar and relatively little grain. Contemporary bootleggers have little or no experience with the apple or peach brandy so common in the late 1800s. Stills are now often hidden under roof rather than in fields or mountain hollows. Today’s moonshine buyer is far more likely to live in a major eastern city than in the small southern mill towns and coal camps of the past. Even so, the old-time mystique of the Blue Ridge moonshiner prevails.