Franklin County, Virginia once produced moonshine that people across the East Coast drank. A veteran moonshiner from that area will be in Richmond this weekend to show you how it was done.
Jimmy Boyd is a dying breed of moonshiner.
“I’m one of the old originals,” said the 67-year-old by phone last week. Born and raised in the Blue Ridge Mountain foothills of Franklin County, Boyd has made countless gallons of bootleg liquor–and served nearly one year in prison for doing so. He’ll be at the Richmond Folk Festival this week to talk about, and demonstrate, how he and others distilled moonshine and how the current crop of moonshiners get it wrong.
The term moonshine dates back to the 1600s, when smugglers illegally distilled alcohol under the moonlight, and their product became known simply as moonshine–a name that has carried through the centuries. Virginian distilleries began sprouting across the Blue Ridge Mountains in the late 1800s as a way for locals–who were often encumbered by a dearth of roads and limited access to markets–to make moonshine whiskey.
Fermentation and distillation are the key components in moonshining. Ground corn meal is soaked in hot water with malt and sugar, then yeast is added to the mixture (called mash) to start fermentation. A furnace below the still is brought to roughly 172 degrees, which evaporates the alcohol. The alcohol steam escapes through a pipe atop the still.1
The distillation process begins when the steam travels through a coiled pipe (called a worm) that’s enclosed in what’s called a “worm box,” a container filled with cold water often taken from a nearby creek or river. The cold water condenses the alcohol steam into liquid, which passes through a final tap before the liquor is bottled.
“Those smells will drift way down the hollow,” Boyd said, recalling the aromas of the covert mountainside distilleries so engrained in his memories.
Why was moonshine so secretive? It largely began after Congress passed a whiskey tax during the Civil War to generate military funds. In 1865, the tax was $2 per gallon, over ten times the actual cost of making a gallon of whiskey. Unlicensed distillers resorted to surreptitious whiskey-making to avoid paying the tax.
Soon licensed distillers were under legal siege as most of Virginia became “dry” by 1909. Then, in 1914, alcohol was banned outright across the Commonwealth. Distillers, undeterred by mere legalities, took to secret productions to make and traffic the illegal liquor.
Moonshiners continued their work even after prohibition laws were overturned. Part of moonshining’s allure was the fun of giving the finger to authorities who cracked down on the illegal practice (as soon as prohibition laws were erased from the books, taxes on alcohol were added, to the distillers’ displeasure).
But another allure was more lucrative. “Back when I was growing up we lived way back in the mountains, and the only jobs that could be had was 20 or 30 miles away,” Boyd said. Farmers could use their excess corn to make moonshine and “make a little extra money” on the side.
Boyd, whose grandfather was a moonshiner, turned to the practice at age 20, “soon as I got big enough to haul a [100 lbs.] bag of sugar.” He said moonshining was “habit forming.” Once you start the process by bringing the initial grain “you’re always interested in how it’s going to turn out.”
Boyd was a Blue Ridge moonshiner for roughly 15 years. Over that time he worked about 50 “field sites.” He said each site had varied equipment and outputs, but the most productive distillery he worked pumped out 720 gallons of moonshine daily.
Despite the abundance of moonshine at certain sites, Boyd was never a full-time moonshiner. “Most of the time I had another job too,” he said. “I was a body man, I worked on automobiles.” He said one of the advantages of making moonshine was that distillers could come and go from operations as they pleased, predicated on their need for money or free time.
Most of the moonshine Boyd helped produce, roughly 100 proof, would be shepherded out of Franklin County. “Lot of it went up north to the big cities up that way,” he said.
Once buyers had their first taste of moonshine, they wanted more, necessitating an ongoing production and delivery ring that included Richmond. “One of my distant relatives used to haul it to Richmond,” Boyd said. “He got caught with it a time or two.”
So did Boyd.
A thing of the past
His first jail stint, in the early 1970s, lasted just two months. Soon after he was released, he was caught again, which earned him an additional nine months. He went right back to moonshining after he got out the second time. “I stayed away from home for nearly a year, and I had several kids,” Boyd said. “When I got out I had to go back to getting my bills paid.”
The 67-year-old said he quit the moonshine business when he was about 35. Even after 30 years of being out of practice, Boyd still knows what it takes to make quality moonshine. “It’s really an art to it. You really have to know what you’re doing,” he said. “It takes years to really learn how to do it good.”
“Most of the people that try to do it now, they’re not from where I’m from. They don’t know how to make good whiskey no more, like we did in the good days,” he said.
Moonshining has returned to the public eye in the form of a new Discovery Channel reality show, Moonshiners. Does Boyd watch it? “Nah, I can’t watch that junk because it ain’t nothing like it really was.”
But he’ll show how it really was for attendees of this year’s Richmond Folk Festival. Boyd will be on hand with a container “kinda like the one they had in the old days” to show how he made moonshine, although he’ll produce the alcohol-free variety. “All I can do is boil water, but it’ll look like the real thing.”
Richmonders aren’t the only ones ignorant of proper moonshining. It’s a dying art even in Franklin County, where moonshining once thrived.
“Back in the old days you used to see about everybody around had a little dealings with moonshine,” Boyd said. “It’s a thing of the past in this neck of the woods.”
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- Solid mash may travel with the alcohol steam, which some moonshiners filter out by re-evaporating the alcohol in a second container called a “thump keg.” ↩
photo of 1936 moonshine distillery via The National Archives