You did what? Making moonshine the old-fashioned way
I made moonshine and distributed it in tiny cups to the folks who attended the Kingdom Come Swappin’ Meetin’ at Southeast Kentucky Community College in the early 1980s.
So what makes me want to write about it at this late date? For the first time ever I recently watched “Shiners on Shine” with my sons, Lance and Quentin, and all those old memories kept surfacing.
I was the academic dean at the college back then, and every employee was required to be responsible for something: Quilts, molasses, music, storytelling, etc.
I’ve always been an idea person, and I had already ridden a tractor to grind the cane to make molasses the year before and wanted to try something new.
My first job was to make it legal — unlike the characters on the television show who are always talking about hiding from the law as they build their still, run the ‘shine, and distribute it. So I applied to the Kentucky Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control and not only got the go-ahead to make it but also received permission to serve it to persons over 21 who wanted a swig.
I knew nothing about the second step which was to build a still and prepare the mash. Corn is plentiful in Harlan County, Kentucky, so I knew we’d make corn liquor, and not these flavors the television folks are making: Watermelon crawl, strawberry-banana, honey locust, rye, apple-blueberry and such.
My problem was I didn’t know how to make simple corn liquor. So I asked around and in no time flat I had hired two men, recently released from prison, who served as my consultants. And they were delighted to serve — in plain sight on the college campus this time and not deep in the mountains. One had met with a knife at some earlier time in his life and had a scar from ear to ear where his throat had been slit.
I’d taught college classes at the Ohio Reformatory for Women and had learned to never ask inmates, current or former, the nature of their crimes.
My “consultants” loved being in charge and had the maintenance supervisor and his staff hopping at their commands. These consultants were not to be trifled with as they were the experts.
Those who populate the “Shiners on Shine” show talk about tradition, history and codes of not writing anything down, but my sense is that they love being on camera. I’m also thinking that the pay is good.
A particularly disgusting part of our work was to periodically remove the dead rats from the mash. We stored the barrels of mash in the basement of Falkenstine Hall, and rats scouted them out and managed to get in the barrels (perhaps they stood on each other’s shoulders or walked along the ceiling beams and dropped down. Cloverlick Creek is close to Falkenstine, so maybe they had a method of transmitting the message that corn and liquor were readily available at the college). They were all probably totally inebriated at the time of their passing to the great beyond.
The consultants built the still, and periodically college students dropped by to give advice or to tell stories about their dads and granddads and their adventures in the trade.
Everything came together, the still and the mash, and then it was time to actually run the shine. We had boxes of quart-sized mason jars at the ready, and the consultants begin to try to school me on how to determine the proof of what was coming out of the coil, the bead, and so forth and the process of mixing the high proof with the lower proof. Remember, we had no directions from today’s internet sites.
What they were least interested in being involved in was the hard labor involved in stoking the fire and keeping it at the right temperature. This is where I came in, and I’ve never worked so hard in my life. We were using plain old wood logs — not any of the new-fangled gas contraptions on the television show.
We had lots of visitors to our exhibit, but the ones who will always be a part of my memory are the friends of our consultants who came by after dark with fiddles and guitars and a thirst for that shine we had made. They played, and sang, and got drunk.
At the end of the two-day festival we had lots of our product left over and I had the consultants put it in my car. I drove around to the back of Newman Hall and poured it out and went back to the still to thank them.
Their query, “Where did you put it so we can go pick it up?”
My response, “I poured it out.”
“No, all kidding aside, where is it?”
“I told you I poured it out per my agreement with the Commonwealth of Kentucky.”
The consultants were devastated.
I went home, went to bed and slept for 12 hours.
A photo of our escapade appeared in the Harlan paper: I, looking exhausted, was wearing long johns, bib overall, boots, and a floppy leather hat. One of the consultants was looking like a million bucks and sampling the brew.
The following year the consultants called me to offer their services. I told them that they had taught us well , and we could handle it ourselves. And I tell anyone who asks that making moonshine is hard work and moonshiners deserve every nickel they make.
Contact Dr. Vivian Blevins at email@example.com.