Few things are more iconic of Smoky Mountains culture than Appalachian moonshine. Legendary moonshiners like Popcorn Sutton, the Brown family, and Junior Johnson bring the tradition to life. Some individuals dedicate decades of their lives to mastering this craft, while others learned skills passed down for generations and shaped moonshine culture as we know it.
Take a trip through the rich history of moonshine culture and discover the colorful characters that make it unique!
So You Want To Know About Moonshine?
Moonshine is an alcoholic beverage that is made from corn, sugar, and water. Its name comes from the fact that it used to be made illegally by the light of the moon.
Making moonshine is not an easy task. First, you have to grind up the corn and mix it with hot water to make something called “mash.” Then, you add yeast to the mash, which makes it ferment and turn into alcohol. After the mash ferments for a few days, you have to heat it up and capture the alcohol that evaporates. This is called distilling, and it’s what separates the alcohol from the rest of the mash.
Now, what makes good moonshine? Well, that’s a matter of taste, but usually good moonshine is smooth and flavorful. Making moonshine can be dangerous, so it’s always best to leave it to the experts.
Meet the Moonshiners: A Look into the People Behind the Craft
Moonshine is much more than a strong drink. It’s a culture, a tradition, and a way of life for many people in the Smoky Mountains region. Yet, have you ever wondered about the people behind the craft? The ones who spend countless hours distilling and perfecting their recipes? Take a closer look at the colorful characters behind the Smoky Mountains’ moonshine culture.
Popcorn Sutton: The Legendary Moonshiner
Popcorn Sutton is the most famous name in the world for Smoky Mountains’ moonshine. Born Marvin Sutton, Popcorn Sutton became a larger-than-life figure. He was recognized for his moonshine-making skills and colorful personality. He is best known for his signature look, which included bib overalls,which he wore baggy on his tiny frame, a long white beard, and a worn-out felt hat.
He spent most of his life perfecting his moonshine recipe. A stickler for tradition, he insisted on using the same techniques and ingredients for decades. Popcorn believed the key to making good moonshine was in the details. So, he paid close attention to every step of the process.
The man was also a talented and hilarious storyteller. He enjoyed telling anyone who would listen about his adventures in the moonshine business. His book “Me and My Likker” is a must-read for anyone interested in his experiences.
In the book, Popcorn Sutton shares his life story, his time in prison for moonshining, and his lifelong love affair with the craft. He has also been featured on “The History Channel” and in numerous documentaries about the Appalachian way of life.
“Popcorn” passed away in 2009, but his legacy lives on. His moonshine brand, “The Last Run,” is still produced today. It has won many awards for its quality and flavor. Mr. Sutton’s larger-than-life personality and commitment to tradition made him a legend in the Smoky Mountains. So, pour some out for Popcorn.
Amos Owens – The Notorious Bootlegger
Amos Owens was a legendary moonshiner and distiller known as the “Cherry Bounce King” of the Appalachian Mountains. He was born in 1822 in Rutherford County, North Carolina. He was known as a hard worker and fearless Irishman.
At the age of 23 (after already holding an occupation for 13 years) he’d saved enough to purchase a 100-acre parcel on Cherry Mountain. Five years later he went on to purchase the entire mountain!
One of Owens’ most famous creations was cherry bounce, a sweet, fruity liquor made from corn whiskey, cherries, and honey. Owens’ cherry bounce was so popular that he sold it as far as South as Mississippi and as far North as Ohio.
Owens’ moonshine-making skills were also in high demand during Prohibition. He supplied bootleggers throughout the region with his high-quality liquor. According to legend, Owens could make up to 40 gallons of moonshine a day, and he was so skilled at his craft that he made moonshine up until his last stint in jail at 70 years of age.
Owens was also known for his skills as a fiddler and a storyteller. He was a beloved figure in the Rutherford County community and his legacy lives on. The North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources has recognized Owens as a cultural icon.
Junior Johnson: From Moonshine Runner to NASCAR Legend
Junior Johnson is a familiar name for many NASCAR fans. But you may not know that he got his start as a moonshine runner in the Smoky Mountains. Born in North Carolina, Johnson grew up in a family of moonshiners and learned the trade at a young age. He gained notoriety by outrunning the police in his souped-up moonshine cars.
Johnson decided to leave the moonshine business behind and pursue a career in stock car racing. He made a name for himself by racing on the NASCAR circuit. He won 50 races and two championships (as a team owner). Fans remember Johnson for his aggressive driving style and ability to handle even the most challenging tracks.
Despite his success on the track, Johnson always remembered his moonshine roots. In fact, he credited his moonshine-running skills with helping him become a successful NASCAR driver. He once said, “Moonshiners put more time, energy, thought, and love into their cars than any racer ever will. Lose on the track, and you go home. Lose with a load of whiskey, and you go to jail.”
Johnson later started his racing team and launched a line of country-style foods. This included fried pork skins and country ham. He remained in NASCAR for many years, serving as a team owner and mentor to up-and-coming drivers.
Today, Johnson is a legend in both the moonshine and NASCAR worlds. His skills as a moonshine runner helped him become a successful driver. His success on the track helped him become an icon in motorsports. He is a testament to the ingenuity of the people of the Smoky Mountains, and his legacy continues to inspire moonshiners and NASCAR fans alike.
Appalachian moonshine culture is steeped in history and tradition, with colorful characters like Popcorn Sutton and Amos Owens at the forefront. Moonshiners like Sutton and Owens have not only kept the tradition alive but also helped create a unique identity for the region.
Junior Johnson even took his moonshine-running skills to the racetrack. The skills, expertise, and dedication of these individuals are now a celebrated part of the region’s cultural heritage.
Learn more about the history and craft of moonshining through museums, distillery tours, and other experiences. The next time you take a sip of moonshine from the Smoky Mountains, remember the rich history, tradition, and colorful characters behind the drink. These colorful characters are what make the moonshine culture so fascinating!