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Underground Spirits and Beer

A Personal Recollection of the Days of Prohibition – Making Home-Brew, Moonshine and Bathtub Gin

Christine Graham • 2/15/10        Print This Post Print This PostComment Bookmark and Share


< The Graham/Rogers moonshining clan with a customer bringing their stash out of the West Virginia woods circa 1928!

My father lived during the time of Prohibition as part of an enterprising family living in the area around Ohio and West Virginia where he got an education in an early life of crime which, fortunately, did not extend into his later life.  He used to write book reviews, as well as some articles on whiskey and beer for The Underground Wine Journal.

For a change of pace, I asked him to recount some of his experiences during this time of crime and upheaval in the United States.  – Christine Graham

By Harry B. Rogers

Prohibition in the United States is the period from 1919 to 1933, during which time the production, sale and transportation of alcohol for consumption were banned nationally by the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.  The Volstead Act was ineffectual in enforcing the law and the distillation of illegal spirits and “bootlegging” (driving the spirits to reach consumers) became very widespread.

During this period, I had some first-hand experience, having been a high school student during the later years.  Wine was quite popular with the Italians, who made their own powerful, so-called “Dago Red.”  For just everyday drinking, beer was the most popular.  It was easily produced as home-brew which, if carefully made as my father did, resulted in a good brew, as attested to by his co-workers who often assembled at our home for a beer party, much to the chagrin of my mother.  My brother and I had the responsibility for bottling the brew when father said it was ready and then dating and storing it in the fruit cellar, leaving little room for mother’s canned fruits and vegetables.  My father also made hard cider (fermented apple juice) which had a terrific wallop and which sometimes resulted in overnight stays by some of his friends.

Government “revenooers”

The availability of whiskey created more of a problem than beer since a still was needed to produce the whiskey, which was made from grain.  This had to be carefully undertaken because the government “revenooers” were always about looking for telltale signs of a distillation in process, which usually produced a plume of smoke.  My grandfather distilled some very good whiskey which was in great demand by some doctors living in a nearby town who used it for “medicinal” purposes.  My grandfather lived in a fairly remote area of the West Virginia mountains.  When we visited, Grandpa often put me to work helping him on the still.  He usually slipped me a hot toddy, with the remark:  “don’t tell Grandma or she’ll kill me.”  I enjoyed helping him feed his pigs with the remains left from the distillation process (fermented grain) which the pigs loved.  They would get into a squealing frenzy that brought Grandma madly chasing Grandpa around the yard with her broom.

My Dad and Grandpa (Mother’s Father) were great drinking buddies.  When arriving for a visit at Grandpa’s, it sometimes happened that he was fresh out of whiskey so we got in the car and went a short distance down a little used road to an area that had been cleared, leaving a tree stump standing in the middle of the clearing with no surrounding signs of life.  Some coins were placed on the stump and we immediately left the area but returned after a short time to find a jug of booze where the coins had been placed.

Grandpa’s farm was next to a large wooded area where he often hid any extra supply he might have by digging a hole and completely burying the jug but leaving a short piece of rope tied around the neck.  The rope was just long enough to tie it to a wooden peg driven next to the hole.  Everything was then covered up, leaving just a little of the peg showing.  One time after drinking up the supply at the house, Dad and Grandpa went looking for some that had been stashed away in the woods.  Sometime later I was sent to look for them and found them crawling around on their hands and knees unhappily cursing their inability to locate the peg which somehow had gotten covered up.  There may be some jugs of whiskey still buried there after over 80 years.

Bathtub Gin and Moonshine

As can readily be discerned, during most of the Prohibition period, the availability of beer, wine and whiskey was not a real problem in our home and homes of our relatives and friends.  But, in the larger cities of the East and Midwest, there was often a problem in obtaining any alcoholic drink.  There were many speakeasies (hidden or camouflaged bars often with an alley entrance) serving whiskey but it was relatively expensive if you weren’t satisfied with the available so-called “rotgut” which was well-named.  Gin was very easy to produce illegally, needing only “good” alcohol and juniper berries plus any spices and other botanicals handy and a convenient place where it could be mixed, i.e., a bathtub, resulting in the infamous name “bathtub gin.”  While home-distilled alcohol was called bathtub gin in northern cities, it was called moonshine in the rural areas of North and South Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee. And, whether it was called rotgut, white lightning, bathtub gin, corn liquor, or moonshine, it was always made in secret and was always illegal.  Nevertheless, they became very popular during Prohibition.

Grandpa was well-known in the area for the quality of his pure, unadulterated product.  Made improperly, the alcohol could kill you but Grandpa’s was so good, regular customers came from far and wide.  His whiskey, made from corn was strong, tasting hot at first, yet fresh, clean and crisp.  Dad was famous for his beer, which was considerably stronger than most beers today. His wine, made in a small barrel, was a little rough but not bad, not unlike some of the red table wines sold in gallon jugs today.   Having sampled all of these, I can readily attest to the quality of the products.

Another source of supply for Grandpa was an old, country-style general store consisting of a large room with the typical large potbellied stove and a row of coathangers on a nearby wall.  The proprietor often brought out from his secret storage area, some of his stock for quick delivery and slung the bottles from the hooks, covering them up with coats.  The store was regularly checked by the “revenooers” but they always came up empty-handed.

During that period, I lived in a small mill town in eastern Ohio, along the Ohio River.  It was a real melting pot and there was a lot of dissension among the different nationalities.  The town had a couple of so-called policemen who disappeared when fights broke out, a regular occurrence especially on Saturday nights in the bars some of us frequented — mainly to see the fights but when the guns came out we dove under the tables.  There was no enforcement of any laws restricting drinking so we took advantage of the situation.

Some of the bars had “one-arm bandits” (the original slot machines) and open gambling of every sort, all of which were ignored by the local law.  The slot machines were in separate cabinets and when the proprietor chased everybody away from the machines and closed the cabinets, you knew that he had been tipped off that the federals were coming.  They were only interested in the slot machines and ignored any other illegal activity.

The only local “law” was a Justice of the Peace, a relative of mine, who was only interested in getting his piece of the action, which was split between him and the Mayor, who was part of the Mafia who controlled the town.  There was a great deal of illegal activity going on with no noticeable effort to control it.   By this time, I think you get the picture — the town was thoroughly corrupt and, for the many years I lived there, it never changed.  Without a doubt, it was an exciting time.

And, it definitely was not just the rural areas where bootlegging was rampant.  By 1925, in New York City alone, there were some 30,000 – 100,000 speakeasy clubs.  Since Prohibition, also called the Noble Experiment, was growing increasingly unpopular during the Great Depression, the 21st Amendment was ratified, repealing the 18th Amendment.

Making Moonshine Today

While it may seem that the days of making moonshine are long gone, that is not the case.  From Prohibition era distillers to the backwoods stills of the Appalachia, moonshine will always be around in one form or another.  You can buy moonshine stills as well as manuals for making whiskey from ebay.  Do-it-yourself still designs are widely available on the internet.   If you want to learn how to make moonshine from the experts, attend the 7th Annual Whiskey and Moonshine Distilling Conference, sponsored by the American Distilling Institute, scheduled to be held in Kentucky in May of this year.

In 1999, the first legal distilled spirits plant was created in West Virginia, making a product called Mountain Moonshine.  Their publicity reads “clearly good” moonshine; “the sunshine’s best in Florida, moonshines’s best in West Virginia.”

Moonshine Recipe

There is a recipe for making moonshine from the web site www.ibiblio.org, using the basic ingredients of corn meal, sugar, water, yeast and malt.  Whiskey distilled from fermented corn mash without aging is clear and clean; with aging it is similar to bourbon.

Making good moonshine is not simple, requiring a great deal of effort before you can produce a batch that tastes good and sells.  Following is a basic recipe:

  • corn meal
  • sugar
  • water
  • yeast
  • malt

Mix all ingredients together in a large container. After mixing, move the mixture, called “mash,” into a still and leave it to ferment. How quickly this process occurs depends on the warmth of the mash.

Heat the mash to the point of vaporization at 173 degrees. The mash will produce a clear liquid, often the color of dark beer. You must watch this process with careful attention.

Trap vapor using a tube or coil. The vapor will be transferred into a second, empty container. The resulting condensation is the moonshine. It is then ready to drink or sell.

Keep mash in container. It is now called “slop.” Add more sugar, water, malt, and corn meal and repeat the process.

Repeat the process up to eight times before replacing the mash.

Post a Comment

3 comments for “A Personal Recollection of the Days of Prohibition – Making Home-Brew, Moonshine and Bathtub Gin”

  • Kelly Rogers says:

    Great article Grandpa!

  • Hi Diana,
    It seems that you missed the big Moonshiners Jamboree which is held annually in August near the Moonshine Capital of the World in Franklin County, Virginia. There is also an annual Whiskey and Moonshine Conference in May in Louisville, KY. I think it would be fun to attend these events. I hope you enjoyed the article. A book was recently published about whiskey, moonshine and Prohibition, called Last Call.

  • Extremely interesting and entertaining.

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