|Most people assume that the real McCoy has something to do with the famous Hatfield-McCoy family feud that enlivened the West Virginia-Kentucky border in the 1880s, but there's no solid evidence of such a connection.
Another popular theory traces the real McCoy to the prizefighter Norman Selby, who boxed under the name Kid McCoy. McCoy was bedeviled by imitators and so took great pains to assure audiences at his bouts that he was indeed the real McCoy. But while Kid McCoy certainly existed, there is no evidence connecting him and the phrase, the real McCoy.
Legend also surrounds the African-American inventor, Elijah McCoy. In 1871, he invented a device that lubricated the critical moving parts of a machine while it was still in operation. Many look-alike systems followed, but buyers insisted that their new machines have the McCoy lubrication system. They would settle for nothing less than what they called the real McCoy.
Yet another theory asserts that "McCoy" was originally "Macao," and that the real McCoy meant pure heroin imported from that Chinese island. Again, there is a lack of evidence to support this theory.
Since it fits my story, I'm going to vote for the legend that traces the phrase to a Florida bootlegger named Bill McCoy. According to the story, he was once a rumrunner. His rum was so good that people started to call the good stuff the real McCoy.
Moonshine whisky is as old as America itself. It dates back to colonial times. Settlers from the old country brought their stills and knowledge of making whisky along with them to the new world. Even the father of our country, George Washington, owned a still. It's on display to this day at his home at Mount Vernon, Virginia.
Congressional passage of the 18th Amendment in 1918 prohibited the manufacture, transportation and sale of alcoholic beverages. Twenty-nine states ratified the amendment the next year, and prohibition became law on January 16, 1920. The demand for bootleg booze was on.
The nation was at war. Most of the men folk--especially the young ones--were off fighting in a foreign land. The president, Woodrow Wilson, was a sick man. As a result, his wife ran the government. She was also head of the Women's Christian Temperance Union. This group had a huge amount of support and power among those that believed alcohol was immoral and destructive to family life. And since the voice from the women folk was louder than the voices from the old men left behind, the bill passed.
However, neither soda pop nor fruit juice could ever quench a man's thirst for a strong drink. Sometimes called White Mule, Skat, Stump Juice, Mountain Dew, Fire Water, Painters Piss and Rot Gut, moonshine became a sought-after substitute for legal whiskey in a dry nation. In Garrett, Pennsylvania--a town known as Moonshine town USA--people boasted that every third house possessed a still.
More of a problem than the secret manufacture of moonshine was transporting it to market. Moonshine was smuggled out of the towns where it was brewed in many different ways. In those days, no one dared open a casket to see a dead body. So a popular method was to simply fill a casket with moonshine instead of a body and ship it to its destination.
Bootleggers were the men that illegally ran whiskey from hidden stills to hundreds of markets across the South and into the northeast. Soon terms such as bootlegger, bathtub gin and speakeasy became household words. Perhaps the country's first manufacturers' reps, many bootleggers purchased the contraband from the brewer and drove their load down thunder roads at high speeds late at night, often with the police in hot pursuit. The penalty for losing the race was jail, the loss of their illegal inventory and their livelihood.
As bootlegging boomed, the drivers built faster and faster cars to elude capture. Soon they began racing among themselves to see whose car was the fastest. After attending church on Sunday morning, they'd race on Sunday afternoons at dirt tracks in Georgia, Tennessee and Kentucky. Then they'd use the same car to haul moonshine Sunday night!
Inevitably, people came to see the races. Racing the moonshine cars became extremely popular in the back roads of the South. Legend has it that this is where NASCAR was born.
The government's effort to regulate people's behavior soon ran into trouble. While Herbert Hoover called prohibition a noble experiment, enforcement of prohibition became very difficult. Gangs of hoodlums became more powerful as they trafficked in alcohol and prostitution. By the 1930s, a majority of Americans had tired of the noble experiment and Congress repealed the 18th Amendment.
In 2005, the glory days of moonshining are over, but don't count it out.
I once had a friend who served as chief pilot for the State of Alabama. It was during the administration of Governor James "Big Jim" Folsom. Known as the little man's best friend, Big Jim stood six foot eight inches tall. Despite his size and bravado, he was uncomfortable flying. Even though the airplane had the capability to fly high above the weather, Big Jim always insisted on flying low enough for him to see the ground.
The governor also had a penchant for strong drink. On one occasion, while entertaining at his summer place on an Alabama lake, he ran out of booze. He directed my friend Bob to accompany a state trooper to a nearby cabin, where they could purchase several gallons of moonshine.
They arrived at the cabin and knocked on the door. The door cracked open. When, the occupant spied the state trooper, it slammed shut. Bob blurted out, "We're not here to cause trouble. Big Jim just needs some whiskey for his party." The door cracked open again. A voice from the shadows whispered, "Wait right here."
Bob said he heard another door open, then a screech like a piece of furniture being moved across the floor, followed by the creaking of steps on a stair. In a few moments, the figure in the shadows handed them three one-gallon jugs. A voice said, "Now you tell the governor, Jeb said to have a good time." Bob always believed that if he went back to the cabin and somehow got inside, he could find the hiding place for the moonshine.
That isn't to say that the government has given up in its pursuit of moonshiners.
One chilly November evening a few years ago, my wife and I arrived back at DeKalb-Peachtree airport during the wee hours. We walked into operations to order fuel for the airplane and use the bathroom before driving home.
Several men stood talking in the lobby. They wore flack jackets with an ATF patch on the sleeve. They were also armed to the hilt. My wife asked who they were. They explained that they were an enforcement team from the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. She asked what they did. They snickered and asked her if shed ever heard the phrase "smoke on the mountains." She hadn't. It seems several times a month, agents from the ATF fly over the mountains in the predawn hours, hoping to spot the stills as the operators vent the steam.
So even today, the popularity of moonshine whisky is legendary.
In Kentucky, an enterprising mother of four is adding a special touch to potent corn whiskey to make what she calls moonshine jelly. The product literally flies off the shelves in gift shops all across Kentucky. "Oh, yes, it's popular," she says, holding up a small jar of the smelly jelly that goes for about $2 per half pint. "People buy it up about as fast as we make it."
This entrepreneur is taking advantage of what some have described as a moonshine craze that is sweeping through Appalachia--again. This time, it's fueled in large part by tourists intrigued by the liquor's mystique. Working alongside her mother, this mountain lady makes moonshine jelly in a spotless 55-gallon cooker. They add store-bought corn liquor--the legal kind--to a boiling mixture of pineapples, water and sugar. She says the jelly, when spread on toast in the morning, is an effective waker-upper.
"We don't wear the bib overalls, the flannel shirts and the boots, like them old-time moonshiners," she says, "but after we make a batch of this jelly, we sure smell like 'em. The odor really gets in your clothes."
An organizer of the Hillbilly Days Festival in Pikeville, Kentucky says tourists ask where they can find moonshine, saying, "They're looking for the essence of hillbilly culture." He adds, "There's nothing that more symbolically captures that essence than moonshine liquor." A Nashville, Tennessee attorney, who once worked as a state revenue agent, says theres very little homemade whiskey made now compared with the good old days. "There's always been a trickle of it; just enough is going on to keep it from becoming a lost art."
Tourism officials in Appalachia confirm that many urban visitors tend to equate mountains with moonshine. That has pushed the price of the black-market elixir to $20-$30 a quart. Some believe the demand has grown because communities suffering from job losses in the coal industry have begun to concentrate on heritage tourism and legacy moonshine as an economic base.
One modern-day moonshine buff offers this opinion: "History is a circle. With the increases in sin taxes and the restrictions on alcohol, moonshine is making a come back. Who knows, in time we may again experience a whiskey rebellion similar to the one that started when George Washington placed a seven-cents per gallon tax on it. That spurred a revolution in western Pennsylvania. Citizens there eventually called for secession from the union. It got so bad that George Washington had to send a militia of 13,000 men to subdue the uprising."
It's an interesting theory. But in my opinion, I suspect that the popularity of moonshine whisky, now as then, comes from what one old mountaineer said recently during a TV special. When asked why he drank the stuff he said, I just like to get drunker n you-know-what."
After retirement from a career in advertising and marketing, Burch has authored a number of published essays and magazine articles, in addition to a full-length novel. He uses his Blog site--http://southernauthor.blog-city.com/index.cfm--to make his popular "Op Eds" available to a growing list of visitors and subscribers.
©Copyright 2005 David Ray Skinner/SouthernReader. All rights reserved.