Moonshining, or the unlicensed distillation of whiskey, traces its Texas roots back to the "white lightning" concocted by early pioneers long before late-nineteenth-century prohibition laws boosted the market for illegal whiskey. By allowing counties and communities to prohibit liquor within their borders, the local option laws of 1876 and 1891 succeeded in closing most of the legal saloons in Texas before the end of World War I. The unintended side effect of these local initiatives, however, was the establishment of a thriving moonshine industry, which reached its heyday during the period of national prohibition, from 1919 to 1933. Though their activities were against the law, many moonshiners thought that they were unfairly persecuted and resented being treated as common criminals. In regions where the local economy provided few opportunities for material advancement or where the residents harbored a strong distrust of central authority, moonshiners occasionally attained the status of folk heroes who beat the system by earning good money and displayed guile and gall by outwitting meddlesome government agents. During hard times some Texans turned to moonshining as a lucrative alternative to low-paying manual labor or no work at all. Quite a few illicit distillers pursued their trade on a seasonal basis, running their stills during the winter months when opportunities for legitimate employment were scarce. During the Great Depression some people viewed moonshining as an honorable alternative to the humiliation of employment lines or government relief. Occasionally, the moonshiners' prosperity would irritate law-abiding or less successful citizens, but the whiskey makers frequently operated with the tacit support of the community, whose members appreciated a ready source of cheap liquor. Local law enforcers were often motivated by unofficial sympathy or well-placed bribes to turn a blind eye toward illegal whiskey operations.
Elected officials frequently maintained a hands-off policy as well, since many respectable citizens were involved in the moonshine industry as consumers, part-time operators, distributors, or providers of venture capital. Moonshine was often made on the "halves" system, in which a bootlegger or distributor would furnish the raw material, kegs, and fruit jars, and the moonshiner would supply the still, distill the liquor, and bear most of the risk of getting caught. A typical recipe for corn whiskey called for mixing fifty pounds of sugar with fifty pounds of steel-cut corn chops. About thirty-five gallons of water was added, then the mixture was allowed to "rot" for four to seven days. When the sour mash stopped bubbling after a few days and turned sky blue it was ready to be "cooked off" or distilled. The same mash might be used for four or five runs, although a little extra sugar, grain, and water were added for each additional run. An average still could produce forty-five to sixty gallons a week. "Charter moonshine," considered the best, was put in charred oak barrels for several days, where it turned dark after absorbing color and flavor from the charcoal. A variety of ingredients could be added to increase the whiskey's color and flavoring. Red oak chips, peaches, apples, caramel, raisins, syrup, rock candy, tobacco, or spoiled potatoes found their way into whiskey barrels to add zest to the brew. Dr Pepper was a popular additive. Some ingredients speeded up the process but contributed little to the character of the product or the reputation of its producer. Adding lye to the mash accelerated fermentation but caused the consumer's lips to swell painfully. Another shortcut consisted of routing the mixture through an automobile radiator and adding battery acid to the brew. This mixture could be cooked off in one day instead of the usual three or more. But lead absorbed from old radiators or improperly soldered connections could cause lead poisoning, partial paralysis or jake leg, permanent brain damage, or death. In addition to these harmful results, improperly manufactured moonshine might contain additives that tasted bad, even if they were not permanently disabling. Moonshiners and law officers have reported discovering dead raccoons, snakes, frogs, possums, and hogs floating in vats of untended moonshine.
Moonshining was often a family operation in which distinctive recipes and techniques were passed down from generation to generation or from one relative to another. Law enforcement officials have maintained that they could identify the family that owned a still by its method of construction. Family members who were not actually involved in illegal operations would frequently maintain a watchful eye for snooping law officers. Although local authorities often tolerated moonshining, moonshiners and their associates greatly feared the agents of the United States Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, a branch of the Treasury Department. A successful raid by these "revenuers" could cost the moonshiners several hundred dollars in lost equipment and supplies, not to mention a loss of income and the possibility of a jail sentence if the moonshiner failed to escape through the woods. Most moonshiners moved their stills frequently to avoid such costly disruptions and minimize losses to small-time pilferers or "beer drinkers," who wandered through the woods sampling the moonshiners' wares.
The repeal of prohibition greatly reduced the profitability of moonshining. World War II dealt the industry a double blow by sending many consumers overseas while driving up the price of sugar, a major ingredient in distillation. Though cheap imports and other legal competition have taken over most of the moonshiners' market, the practice continues in some traditional strongholds. Both moonshiners and their pursuers have adopted modern advances to aid them in their traditional game of hide-and-seek. Bottled gas has replaced easily spotted smoky wood fires as the primary heat source for illicit stills. Law enforcement agents make use of aerial surveillance and radio communications to detect stills. As detection processes have become more sophisticated, moonshining has become less of a simple backwoods operation. Moonshiners occasionally hide their stills in abandoned urban buildings and employ advanced communication equipment of their own to monitor official movements. Improved law-enforcement techniques and the increased availability of legal and illegal substitutes for bootleg whiskey have reduced the one-time flood of illegally manufactured liquor to a mere trickle. Meanwhile, the dry areas of Texas have radically diminished in number, as citizens have increasingly voted wet in local-option elections. Even in areas that have remained dry, moonshine is not in demand since bootleggers can bring in legally produced liquor from other areas. Though Treasury Department officials destroyed an average of twenty-five stills a month in the Southeast Texas-Gulf Coast jurisdiction before World War II, they averaged only twelve to fourteen stills a year during the early 1960s. The Texas Liquor Control Board discovered sixty-eight stills in all of 1962. In 1970 only six stills were confiscated, and Texas was described as having a "moderate" moonshine problem; that year the state ranked fifth in the nation (behind Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, and Tennessee). According to the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission, in 1993 two stills were seized in Texas with a combined capacity of thirty-five gallons. Despite the decrease in popularity, a few diehard moonshiners carry on the tradition in the brushy bottomlands of East Texas, and some customers still prefer "white lightning" to anything that can be purchased over a counter.
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Bill O'Neal, "Bootlegging in Northeast Texas," East Texas Historical Journal 22 (Fall 1984). Houston Chronicle, April 17, 1963. Ralph W. Steen, Twentieth Century Texas: An Economic and Social History (Austin: Steck, 1942). Henry J. Tyler [Howard R. Taylor], Backroads to Dallas (Lincoln, California: Model Quarter Horse, 1970).
The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.
Handbook of Texas Online,
accessed August 18, 2022,
Published by the Texas State Historical Association.
Original Publication Date:
November 1, 1995