Made of Moonshine

Lora Smith grew up in a corner of Kentucky where bootlegging didn’t die with Prohibition. Up until the 2000s it defined their culture of drinking—and fostered a sense of belonging—that, however crooked, was theirs.

The first story I heard about bootlegging came from my grandfather about a bad batch of bathtub gin that snuck up on the men of Corbin, Kentucky.

As he told it, the local bootlegger turned out a toxic batch when he poured a fuel additive into the mix. Grandpa said that suspicion of the bad gin surfaced when all around town the men started walking funny. First it was the workers in the train yards. Then folks started seeing men turn up all over walking peculiarly—their full foot, toe and heel included, flopping to the ground at once like a stack of books.

As word spread, a raid seemed imminent. But after several conspicuous days absent from work, the Sheriff and County Judge Executive finally emerged, walking funny on their way to the courthouse. Everyone knew who’d been sipping from the bootleggers trough and no one went to jail.

During the Prohibition years, this peculiar gait became know as “jake leg” or “jake walk,” so named for an alcoholic tincture made with Jamaican ginger root, nicknamed “jake.” Categorized as a medicinal, but containing 60-80% alcohol content, jake helped drinkers sidestep the law. When authorities realized it was being used as an intoxicant and mixed into homemade liquor, they forced producers to lower the alcohol content. That’s when a pair of kitchen-sink chemists created a version containing a fuel additive and plasticizer called TOCP (tri-ortho-cresyl-phosphate) that they hoped would mask the alcohol. Initially believed to be harmless, TOCP turned out to be a dangerous neurotoxin whose consumption resulted in, among other unpleasant things, the paralysis of leg muscles. The cases of individuals affected by jake grew so large that a small canon of folk songs on the subject emerged in both white and African-American communities, from the country blues of The Mississippi Sheiks and their “Jake Leg Blues” to “Jake Walk Papa” by Asa Martin.

When Prohibition ended, bootlegging and the dangers that coincided with unregulated alcohol faded from most parts of America. But not in my corner of Kentucky.

Beyond catching a buzz, bootlegging was one way small towns created a culture of insiders and outsiders. You either knew where to buy alcohol or you didn’t. It was a crooked kind of belonging, but the shared experience kept us connected to community memory and site-specific places inside our county. By keeping a secret, we defined an identity not shared by members of the larger American experience.

Appalachian Kentucky remains dotted with “dry” counties—areas where the sale of alcohol, both packaged and served, has remained illegal. This irony is not lost on people in a state known for producing one of the world’s most-loved libations, as evidenced by local bumper stickers that protest, “Legalize Bourbon!”

A mix of religious fervor and a holdover of anti-government sentiment left places like Corbin dry for over a century and kept bootleggers in business. When a vote on legal liquor came up during those years, an unlikely alliance was struck between the bootleggers and Southern Baptists. The churches sent their large congregations to the polls, while the bootleggers bought votes.

The real lynchpin to the bootleg trade belonged to corruption within local governments. Let’s be clear: bootlegging cannot exist without corruption. It depends on a cycle of payoffs and kickbacks. In my grandfather’s account, law enforcement and high-ranking court officials were on the payroll of Corbin’s bootleggers, ensuring that the business kept up and running.  Most of the time no one said anything, and no one went to jail.

In an economically distressed area, bootlegging was accepted as a legitimate way to make a living. Most bootlegging operations were family-run businesses that spanned generations. In my father’s youth, the Swaffords and Perkins ran popular places the community relied on for alcohol.

By the time I was in high school, the place to go with a carload of friends on a Friday night to buy whiskey and beer belonged to the next generation of Swaffords still in operation.

To get to Swafford’s you drove south from town to the very end of Main Street, beyond the streetlights and buildings of town, and into the open spaces of Whitley County. Crossing over railroad tracks, you hung a right into Woodbine and continued for several miles, looking for the sign that marked the turn into Swafford’s hollow. At the turn you drove up a cut off to a large barn. There, you’d find a guy we called Old Red, a wiry Willie Nelson look-alike with long red braids sitting inside a makeshift drive-thru taking orders.

Looking back, one thing I still don’t understand about the religious crowd in those days—folks determined to keep their communities and youth dry—was that banning alcohol made under-age drinking more accessible. The majority of bootleggers didn’t care what age you were, and Old Red wasn’t exactly checking IDs.

After I left for college, things began to change. Encouraged by surrounding counties going “moist”—a term meaning that alcohol could be served in restaurants with certain restrictions—Corbin officials believed legal alcohol sales could help the town’s struggling economy.

But a shift in popular opinion was needed. The continuation of the hillbilly stereotype by the media made people in my region touchy about the issue of modernity. Most people I grew up with wanted franchises, malls and big-name stores, because they signified what the folks in larger cities had and were proof we weren’t so backwards.

It was no surprise then, that the first serious campaign to change city liquor laws was accompanied by a mass mailing of glossy postcards that included logos of Red Lobster, Applebee’s, TGI Fridays and other franchises that were allegedly waiting on legal sales before opening locations off the exit ramps of Interstate I-75.

In 2006, Corbin successfully voted to go moist and, in 2012, the town voted to go wet, permitting package liquor sales by a thin margin: 887 in favor and 789 against.

Bootleggers are now mostly gone from the county, replaced by bars and liquor stores. A Liquor King sits along the Cumberland Falls Highway, its bright red neon sign proudly declaring the town’s new ruler of alcohol sales.

While Corbin has changed, so has the broader culture. Today the world can participate in our bootlegging past through the consumption of white whiskeys marketed as “legal moonshine.” Bootlegging characters have become reality TV stars on shows like the Discovery Channel’s Moonshiners, perpetuating the hillbilly stereotype that the region can’t seem to shake. And speakeasy-themed bars serve craft gin cocktails derived from Prohibition-era recipes, providing the illusion of secrecy in an era where we voluntarily and publicly share our every move through incessant check-ins on Facebook and Instagram.

So, what does it mean when bootlegging goes mainstream? My father insists that our town’s moonshining and bootlegging history doesn’t make Corbin a more colorful place to live. But his answer comes bookended by colorful stories: stumbling across an active still as a child while hunting with his grandfather, and memories of buying moonshine in R.C. Cola bottles for 25 cents from a gas station. Those kinds of stories may be on the verge of extinction, as I’m doubtful that ordering a $7 Mudslide at the Applebee’s out by I-75 lends itself to the same level of adventure.

Beyond catching a buzz, bootlegging was one way small towns created a culture of insiders and outsiders. You either knew where to buy alcohol or you didn’t. It was a crooked kind of belonging, but the shared experience kept us connected to community memory and site-specific places inside our county. By keeping a secret, we defined an identity not shared by members of the larger American experience.

It’s hard to be nostalgic about bootlegging—a criminal activity with a history steeped in corruption. Still, I think back to headlights on a country road and the feeling I had of belonging to a place rich with experience, that for a moment, was undeniably and singularly ours.