Moonshining has often been a family operation with skills passed from one generation to another. The Ingram family proudly posed with their turnip still as liquor ran out of the condenser. Franklin County, Virginia, 1929.

When the cap of foam has disappeared, mash is ready to distill. The moonshiner can tell how far along the fermentation process has gone by feeling the foam or “breaking up the cap.” Virginia Blue Ridge, circa 1970s.

The Turnip Still

Named for its squatty turnip-shaped boiler (often called the “pot”), the turnip still dates back centuries.  In the Blue Ridge it was used into the 1930s, but few, if any, area bootleggers today have ever seen a turnip still in operation.  American turnip boilers were traditionally made of copper sheets hammered into shape and riveted and soldered together.  Making such boilers, the caps, and the coiled copper “worm” condensers in the old styles calls for skilled metalwork.

In producing whiskey with a turnip still, mash barrels or wooden boxes are filled with some recipe of ground grain (such as corn, rye, or wheat), water, barley malt (or ground sprouted corn), yeast, and/or sugar.  During fermentation of the mash, yeasts eat sugar and excrete alcohol.  Depending upon the outside temperature and the amount of yeast and sugar added, the fermentation process in the barrels takes three or four days or more.  Corn mash in cool weather may take up to two weeks to ferment.

Joel Quinn and his family posed at their mountain still site during the Depression. The turnip-style boiler sits directly behind the mash barrel in the foreground. The flake stand, the box on the right, is filled with water and holds the copper worm in which the alcohol condenses. Franklin County, Virginia, circa 1930.

A foam, called the “cap,” forms during fermentation.  When the cap disappears, the remaining sour mixture, called “beer,” measures between 6% and 12% alcohol.  (This concoction is quite different from store-bought beer, but some people do drink it.)  The beer is poured into the turnip-shaped “pot,” and the distiller starts his fire.

The mash is stirred while it heats.  When the temperature approaches the boiling point of alcohol (173°F), the metal top to the still, also called the “cap,” is secured onto the pot.  A constant cooking temperature is vital.  If the fire is too hot, the mash may scorch, or it may “puke” into the cap and run into the worm.

Alcohol-laden steam condenses in the water-cooled worm and flows into a bucket from the “money piece.” Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, circa 1960s.

The coiled copper worm sits in the “flake stand,” a box of cool water.  The steaming alcohol vapors move from the boiler, through the cap, and into the worm.  The vapors then condense back into liquid form and trickle out the “money piece,” the end of the worm sticking out the bottom of the flake stand.  The moonshine is caught in a jar, jug, or bucket.

The alcohol from a first “run” through the still is a rough-tasting product called “singlings.”  A second run of the singlings mellows the taste.  The moonshiner then “proofs” his whiskey, mixing weak and strong liquor to get the desired strength.  To remove any impurities, the whiskey is poured through hardwood ashes or a felt filter.

When run in the blackpot style, the large submarine still eliminates the need for mash barrels or boxes. Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, circa 1960s.

The Blackpot Submarine Still
The submarine-type still was in use by the 1920s, and in a few years it became the moonshiner’s favorite.  Nailed together from boards and sheets of metal (usually galvanized steel, but sometimes copper or stainless steel), the submarine still is easily made.  A large submarine pot (or “boiler”) can hold 800 or more gallons of mash, far more than a turnip still.  The general principle of distilling–boiling fermented mash to release the alcohol in steam form and then cooling the steam back into a liquid–is the same for the submarine still as it is for the turnip still.

However, in operating a submarine still in the modern “blackpot” method, the moonshiner mixes the ingredients for the mash directly in the boiler.  A typical mash recipe for an 800-gallon blackpot still includes 50 pounds of rye meal, 50 pounds of barley meal, 800 pounds of sugar, and water.  Two 80-pound sacks of wheat bran are poured on top of the mixture to hold in the heat of fermentation.

The operators of this small submarine still placed a rock on top of the cap to keep the steam from pushing off the cap and escaping. If a cap blows off or a boiler bursts, nearby still hands can be scalded by the steam and flying mash. Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, circa 1960s.

After the mash has fermented into “beer,” the bootlegger heats the boiler, usually with gas or oil burners, and stirs the mash.  When the mash approaches distillation temperature, the cap is secured atop the boiler with a chain, wire, or weight.  The alcohol vapors travel from the boiler through the cap and into a “doubler” (also called a  “thumper”), a barrel which has been filled with weak whiskey or mash beer.  The alcohol vapors from the boiler heat the beer in the doubler.  Thus the alcohol originally contained in the still goes through a second distillation, smoothing the taste of the liquor and saving the moonshiner the time and labor of running “singlings” through the still again.  From the doubler the alcohol vapor runs into the traditional water-cooled worm, condenses, and flows as a liquid out the money piece.  (In rare instances well-cleaned car radiators have served as condensers rather than worms.)

Once the blackpot still has been run once, more sugar is added to the mash that is leftover in the boiler, and the entire process begins again.  The quality of the whiskey goes down with each run.  Old-timers say six or seven runs is the limit of getting acceptable liquor out of one batch of mash.

Submarine stills operated in the blackpot technique efficiently produce large quantities of low-quality whiskey.  The sugar added to the mash recipe hastens the fermentation and produces a higher alcohol content, and the moonshiner gets more whiskey for his efforts.  Blackpot stills reflect the modern bootlegger’s emphasis on high output.

Steam boilers could be built taller than either turnip or submarine stills because the mash in a steam outfit would not scorch. Patrick County, Virginia, circa 1900.

The Steam Still
Though never as common as the turnip and submarine stills, the steam still has also been used by Blue Ridge moonshiners.  Steam stills come in varying designs, but the idea is the same in each.  A boiler containing water is heated, and the resulting steam is either released directly into fermented mash or is piped through the mash.  The mash boils, and the alcohol vapors pass into a water-cooled worm (or a thumper keg and then a worm).

One important advantage of a steam outfit is that the mash never scorches.  The flame is under the water boiler, not the pot containing the mash, and the temperature of the steam is constant.  Stirring the mash is unnecessary.  Steam stills also work much faster than the other still types.

Some moonshine drinkers say liquor made in a steam still has a superior taste. Here revenue agents are destroying the worm and flake stand in a steam outfit. When running the still, the moonshiners boiled water in the horizontal boiler (far left), forcing steam through two pipes into the mash-filled “pot” (center left). Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, 1982.