Moonshine is a strong, usually colorless liquor typically containing 50 per cent alcohol by volume, or 100 proof in strength. For most of its history, it was untaxed, unlicensed and illegal, brewed up in the mountains of eastern Tennessee, often by the light of the moon. It goes by the monikers of white lightnin’, mountain dew, corn likker or white mule. The XXX on the label supposedly signifies that it was triple-distilled for extra purity.

Excise Tax

Moonshine whiskey was traditionally distilled secretly and out of sight of law enforcement officers, or federal agents known as revenuers. In 1791, the Washington administration imposed the first federal whiskey excise tax on American distillers, which led to the 1794 Whiskey Rebellion. The tax was lifted in 1817 and reimposed in 1862. Moonshiners were offered a pardon by the federal government in 1878. By 1879, the Tennessee vs. Davis Supreme Court decision gave the feds jurisdiction in prosecuting moonshiners.


In spite of federal laws outlawing untaxed liquor making, moonshining became a lucrative cottage industry for poor Tennessee Appalachian corn farmers and mountain distillers. Corruption and apathy among local law enforcement officials allowed the clandestine stills to flourish until the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment establishing federal prohibition of alcohol in 1919. Prohibition was first enforced in 1920 and lasted until its repeal in 1933. Tennessee moonshine-making an extremely profitable venture.

Legal Moonshine

The first licensed moonshine distillery, the Ole Smoky Distillery, opened in Gatlinburg, Tenn., in 2010. The new Tennessee state law made the production of moonshine legal in 44 Tennessee counties. Previously, only three counties allowed the distillation of whiskey.

Moonshine Law Effects

Throughout its colorful history, Tennessee moonshine-making gave birth to many legends and folkloric stories. Many mountain folksongs were written about the trade and the conflicts between moonshiners and revenuers. Women as well as men were featured in the legends. Mollie Miller, of Polk County, Tenn., reputedly killed several federal agents and their informants. Moonshine blockade runners developed an amazing prowess in high-speed driving on twisting mountain roads. Many of them used their skills on the nascent stock car racing circuit.