Commentary

Old moonshine rivalry is back on

Updated: December 18, 2012, 1:56 AM ET
By Ed Hinton | ESPN.com

whiskey moonshine(AP Photo/David GoldmanDistiller Bob Suchke feels a copper pipe above a condenser barrel while making a batch of genuine corn whiskey moonshine in the Dawsonville Moonshine Distillery, in Dawsonville, Ga.

DAWSONVILLE, Ga. -- The vats are full of mash, 4,000 gallons, and the fire is roaring under the 250-gallon copper still in a more-than-ceremonial rekindling of the moonshine rivalry that fed NASCAR's roots more than any other: Georgia versus North Carolina.

Across the state line that runs through the Blue Ridge Mountains, Junior Johnson is taking a wait-see attitude toward the new stuff coming out of here.

"I'm not sayin' there ain't somebody down there that can make good whiskey," says Johnson, 81, the most legendary moonshine runner of them all, who did time in federal prison before turning to NASCAR as a driver and car owner, and who remains an entrepreneur in country hams and whiskey.

It's just that he'll believe it when he sees and tastes it. For decades, Johnson disparaged Georgia 'shine, based on his years as a runner -- a "tripper" as they still say on this side of the state line.

Yeah, well, Cheryl Wood, owner of the new still here, which sits in the same building as the Dawsonville City Hall and the Georgia Racing Hall of Fame, invites Johnson to bring his North Carolina liquor down here and "we'll have a 'shine-off, right here in Dawsonville."

Both Dawson County, Ga., and Johnson's home, Wilkes County, N.C., claim the title "Moonshine Capital of the World" -- Wilkes due to the largest seizure of illegal liquor in American history, 7,100 gallons in a raid on Johnson's father's home in 1935, and Dawson due to the sheer numbers of stills destroyed by revenuers through the centuries, probably in the thousands, all told.

Hard to say which side of the Blue Ridge has been making liquor longer. The Scots-Irish immigrants of the 18th century wandered into the mountains and hollows without regard to colonial lines, lugging their copper kettles and bringing their recipes in their heads.

The difference, after more than 250 years, is that it's finally legal.

Johnson's "Midnight Moon," billed as "Carolina moonshine," made from his family's recipe, has been on the market for nearly five years and is sold in 49 states, with Alaska being the only exception.

[+] EnlargeJunior Johnson
Sam Greenwood/Getty ImagesJunior Johnson and his "Midnight Moon" liquor brand have some competition from across the North Carolina border.

Wood's "Dawsonville Moonshine," billed as "Georgia corn whiskey," has been in production for only a few months, after two years of struggling through state and federal bureaucracy -- her still was even raided once by state revenuers before they understood what was going on -- but now demand cannot be met. For now, the Dawsonville liquor is available only in Georgia, but national distribution is planned.

(None of this is to be confused, by the way, with "Georgia Moon," a liquor-store novelty sold for years in fruit jars but actually distilled in Kentucky.)

Wood uses a Georgia mountain recipe handed down from her great-grandfather, "even though they say liquor killed him," she says. "He was 109 and had 15 kids, so it just took a long time to do it."

It was Georgia moonshine "tripping" that produced the legendary stock-car driver Lloyd Seay, killed in a bootlegger quarrel in 1941, and his cousin, the rogue of Daytona beach-course racing, Roy Hall. They drove for Atlanta liquor, slot machine and numbers-running kingpin Raymond Parks.

Then there were the Brothers Flock -- Bob, Fonty and Tim, whiskey trippers all, before they became NASCAR pioneers. Tim, the youngest, a two-time NASCAR champion, often extolled the virtues of Georgia 'shine, saying it was the smoothest anywhere because it was "double-twist" -- twice distilled, for purity.

Later came Bill Elliott, "Awesome Bill from Dawsonville," who, though never a whiskey tripper, learned to drive on the same back roads the bootleggers ran.

The North Carolina contingent, led by Johnson and extending all the way to a teenager named Richard Childress who delivered moonshine door-to-door in Winston-Salem to make a living, may or may not have included the Petty clan.

The Pettys always denied any involvement in illegal liquor, but, "All I know is, I used to deliver 50 gallons a week to Lee's house," NASCAR pioneer driver Bob Welborn once said, and then he shrugged: "I don't know, maybe he drank it himself."

Wendell Scott, the African-American Virginia moonshine runner turned NASCAR driver, once said that in his days in the trade, "I heard Lee Petty had a [liquor-running] car with two transmissions in it."

In Johnson's years as a NASCAR team owner, he got tired of hearing the Flocks praising Georgia liquor, so he countered that the stuff made on this side of the state line was "the worst."

To this day, Johnson maintains that during his whiskey-running years, "Whenever you got somebody saying, 'This is the worst liquor I've ever had,' it came from Georgia."

Then Johnson laughs out loud: "But who the hell knows," he says, "whose was the worst?"

That is, in the illegal moonshine days, none of it was very good.

[+] EnlargeStill
Chuck Liddy/Raleigh News & Observer/MCT/Getty ImagesToday's legal moonshine distillers are a far cry from the days when most of the product was made in stills hidden in the woods.

Maybe Gordon Pirkle, owner of the storied Dawsonville Pool Room and founder of the Georgia Racing Hall of Fame -- and who, at age 76, readily admits to making and tripping himself in his youth -- can help sort out the dispute.

Double-twisting, or double-distilling, "was pretty common practice in the early days," says Pirkle. "It just took a little more time. Then when the demand got big -- we had a great market in Atlanta, just 50 miles down the road here -- they got to rushing it up and made it a little faster."

But now, double-twisting is back, at Wood's still.

"This," Pirkle assures, "is from the older times."

The two states' legal products taste quite different. The Carolina moonshine, essentially grain spirits, tastes like vodka and is shelved with the premium vodka at liquor stores. Johnson's brand also comes in various fruit flavors, in keeping with today's vodka market.

Dawsonville Moonshine still has a distinct corn flavor. Also, Wood's still has been running off apple brandy for the holidays -- strictly with North Georgia mountain-grown apples -- but it's not in distribution yet.

"We certainly know how to make what I would say is the best corn whiskey there is," says Wood.

"Ours is made the right way," says Johnson. "We've got a recipe that nobody else is gonna get."

"We have a recipe that I don't think Junior Johnson, or anybody else, could touch," says Wood.

Johnson has always maintained that, whenever the feds dried up North Carolina for a spell, he'd go off to Biloxi, Miss., for loads.

For such emergencies, "I had two tractor-trailers that I hauled in, all the time," Johnson says.

But more than once, the North Georgia locals maintain, Johnson's trucks were seen backed up to Ben Chastain's barn, the local clearinghouse for Dawson County moonshiners.

Johnson admits he came here, but says he was very careful about what he bought, from whom.

"I knew the people I was dealing with," says Johnson, whose father, local lore has it, met Chastain in Atlanta Federal Prison, while both were doing time for moonshining, to begin a business relationship. "If you knew the people you was buyin' from, you could get the best of whatever they had.

"That's what I did. All around Dawsonville there. I've hauled out of there a lot."

And so, the locals here imply, who is Junior Johnson to be criticizing Georgia liquor?

But Pirkle himself can confirm how picky Johnson was.

[+] Enlargecorn malt
AP Photo/David GoldmanDistiller Dwight Bearden shows off the corn malt to be used in a batch of whiskey in Dawsonville, Ga. Distillers have been making batches of legal liquor for only a few months in this small Georgia town's hall.

"When I was in high school, we'd all try to trip a little liquor and make a little," Pirkle admits. "This was a way of life back in those days. If you wanted a nice car, you'd better figure out a way to do it through moonshine, because you couldn't make that much money sawmilling and farming up here."

And so, as a young man, Pirkle one autumn made a huge batch of liquor. "I had it stashed in a pine thicket. Hundreds of gallons. Ben [Chastain] came to me and said, 'We need 100 cases of liquor to make out a load for Junior Johnson.' I said, 'Oh, yeah, I got it.'"

But, overnight, a hard freeze came to the Georgia mountains. The temperature fell to "about zero," Pirkle recalls. "The ground froze."

Next morning, "Ben and I drove into the pine thicket. The sun was shining. We uncovered the liquor, and the stuff looked blue. It was clouded. Ben said, 'Oh, no, Junior won't take that.' Boy, was I disappointed."

Days later, after the weather warmed up, "a guy from Atlanta wanted to buy some, and we went in there and pulled it out, and it was perfect," Pirkle says. As it turned out, "if it's real cold, that'll make [the liquor] turn blue.

"I've always regretted that I didn't have that braggin' right -- that 'I've sold liquor to Junior Johnson.' Junior was always a hero of mine on the racing circuit."

Since before there was a state line through the Blue Ridge, they've been making liquor on both sides. Bill Elliott's grandmother, "Miss Audie" Reece, was asked in the 1980s whether she remembered the first moonshine-running cars in Dawson County.

"Liquor CARS?" she scoffed. "Why, honey, when I was a young woman, I could sit on my porch of a evenin' and hear the men hollerin' down in the hollows, cussin' the mules, driving the liquor out on wagons."

From that, it has come to this: At City Liquors in Dawsonville, you can take your pick, from the shelves: Carolina moonshine or Georgia corn whiskey.

Now it's all legal. Or is it? Might the remote hollows and creeks of the Blue Ridge still harbor the ancient, illegal way of life?

"Well," says Gordon Pirkle. "If you look hard enough, you know …"