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Distiller's Dough: Black people in moonshine

I believe media is bad for intentionally leaving black folks out of barbecue culture and “heritage” but there is something worse. Look no further than a tradition that go lock and step with barbecue, and that is bootlegged liquor culture. As black people we should not think of this activity as totally illegal post emancipation through the civil rights era, because the system was not going to give a black person a license to make liquor and in rare cases to sell liquor, primarily due to the economic empowerment it enables. So, there was a term old people use to described taxed liquor and it is referred to as “SEALED liquor, but blacks’ folks dealt mostly in unsealed liquor made and sold by a local bootlegger in the community. Most of the Southern United States identifies this unsealed liquor as moonshine. This liquor also was also in demand to the likes of Al Capone, even ones made by black bootleggers. The actual distiller, was also called a bootlegger but that person was unknown to most except no one knew his real job, maybe farmers, they tend to be good citizens, have money, and tended to send their children to college for a better education. The definition of bootlegger has multiple meanings depending on the where and when used 1) A person who sold liquor at unlicensed facility 2) a person that made liquor (black people did not use the word moonshiner in years past). When I look at books, articles, and stories on moonshine culture, I see black people are left out and I know they are there because of the receipts they left behind. This moonshine culture is just as oral as barbecue and I was fortunate to see instances of It growing up due to the proximity to barbecue and farming in the black community. Note, I did not refer to moonshine as the spirit, growing up, it was stump, stumphole, and corn liquor growing up as we say in the country.

I have been to multiple museums and distilleries over the past few years as Covid would allow to learn what I could on the subject manner or to see if it goes with what I experienced or lived from community practices. When I did, I saw many gaps in black people representation. What I do know that black people had a deep knowledge of distilling spirits that started on the continent, in making mead, Ogogoro, Palm Wine, etc. The actual distilling equipment may have gotten more elaborate from old worlds when various groups of people came into the new world bringing in aspects from their home areas and it evolved as capabilities improve. However, what is a safe assumption is while slavery was ongoing in the United States or the Caribbean, the people operating, iterating, and building future stills were enslaved black people as the work to distill spirits is a hot and laborious job from processing the grain to the actual distilling. The desire to produce more, because alcohol can be seen as currency as people will trade goods for alcohol, similarly to paper dollars. I have heard bootleggers, say that alcohol is like cash in the bank.

There are limited recorded examples that have been shared like George Washington and his six enslaved people that ran his distillery filled with pot stills operated with wood fires. There are likely some tax or property role books that say differ, but the owners of those books of record don’t often share that information as it may tell a story that people don’t want to acknowledge. During slavery pot stills being heated by wood fires dominated. From cooking barbecue, I know managing a wood fire is hot dirty work, so to get a boiling liquid in a huge pot under control is an art form. One doesn’t want to overboil the liquid so the condensing process can occur and not to scorch the liquor. Like barbecue, making quality spirits is also a thing of patience. As such, just like barbecue, the plantation owner was not cooking the barbecue similarly to distilling the spirits. Yes, as America became more industrialized distilling became more complex with boilers and columns, although not necessary, even though it increased efficiencies. From a place of science, distilling is simply separating alcohol from a fermented (derived from some type of sugar source) liquid by using it differences in boiling point temperature to create vapors and then condense into separate parts. Yes, we do know now about one black person legacy in distilling spirits as Mr. Nearest Green and his story where he taught Jack Daniel how to distilled is being showcased by the work of Fawn Weaver. I am sure that many distilleries from the 1700 and 1800s had enslaved people working the stills and not the Colonel or Lieutenant as many mentions today as the owner. However, post emancipation there are many gaps in the story with black people operating craft “micro distilleries” on going from Slavery to I know today, even if not as prevalent as it was 50 years ago, heck 30 years ago. Descendants of those enslave people continue to make spirits all over the American South, and moonshine was the beverage that economically created and sustained a community to survive in a racially oppressive world. Nearly everything about this culture is passed orally and through apprenticeship where “Trust” is paramount.

Additional evidence that is unrecognizable to many, is when I saw Distiller’s Dough being used from the residues from joining stills in moonshine busts in the newspaper. While I saw it mention in distillery museums, I read people talking about a mixture of rye flour and water as the dough to seal joints. In making spirits moonshine or whiskey, it is essential that vapors are not lost during the distilling process as that is lost product, hence money, and it is dangerous. Even more surprising, is that they were using a food grade solution to form seal when running the alcohol through copper. I was privy to see a mixture made of grind corn meal, flour, and water used to stop such vapors and at that moment I knew then that what is known about black people in spirits has not been really written because it is not in a textbook, it is in heads. This was different from the rye flour and water, but it served the same principle. The dough allowed one to seal joints in a low-pressure system, to make sure the vapors go through the condenser so the alcohol is captured. While you may say the cleanliness of the woods is not like a facility, from a point of science if you boil water, it kills bacteria. Further alcohol, once distilled over a certain proof, alcohol is a germ killer. There are some things that make it safe but there are other things that make moonshine unsafe, because a bootlegger or even a new legal distiller because they don’t understand the full science in distillation. I am not saying I know all the science, but I did take a considerable amount of biology, chemistry, organic chemistry and microbiology and working in a facility that require a certain amount of cleanliness with a system, has its advantages. A lot information on black moonshining cultures is in the woods of the American South and cemeteries, but I eventually I will share more about the subject as I translate what I know from head to paper. From a point of culture and my love of science, this subject intrigues me.


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