Among the many regional delicacies produced in the Smokies is one that’s got a little bit of a stigma to it. In Haywood County, it’s also a cultural tradition that’s always been in danger of disappearing. But there is hope, and it comes from the most unlikely of places.
It starts high in the clean mountain air above Southern Appalachia – moisture from the Gulf, or the Great Plains, that falls as rain on the millions of acres of unspoiled Western North Carolina wilderness.
As it flows downhill, some of it will end up as Nantahala River whitewater. Some of it will end up as trout habitat in Jonathan Creek, or as life-giving precipitation on a field of corn.
But some of it – a precious few drops out of every billion, perhaps – will end up in quart canning jars as a transparent liquid.
Some name it hooch. Or white lightnin’. Or corn squeezins. Others simply call it moonshine.
Smooth and deceptively potent, the liquor is completely clear, but its future as a Southern Appalachian tradition is less so.
Moonshine exists simultaneously in two worlds, past and present.
One is a shady place of homemade contraptions near backwoods creeks where illicit artisans practice their ancient craft.
But that world is rapidly disappearing.
Now, the survival of moonshining as a cultural phenomenon may just depend on it coming out of the shadows, going legit – with the help of mega-distilleries and reality television personalities.
“Haywood County has always been a place where moonshine has been made,” said Haywood native Dave Angel, who made his first moonshine still when he was 14. For school.
“I did it as a ninth-grade science project, which I don’t think you could get away with today,” Angel said.
Or maybe you could, at least in Southern Appalachia. When the Scotch-Irish first emigrated here, they brought with them their cultural traditions, including the production of high-proof liquor.
“Yeah, if you’ve ever been to Scotland or Ireland or anywhere in the British Isles, it feels very ‘home’ to where we are here,” said Angel.
Angel now owns Elevated Mountain Distilling Company in Maggie Valley, where that contraption he made in high school still sits up front. It’s only for display, but it is perhaps proof of the enduring legacy of the connection between the old world, and the new.
Behind another set of doors inside Angel’s distillery, is the new – a huge shiny multi-chambered contrivance that looks like it’s part steampunk, part Yellow Submarine.
It’s here that Angel produces a number of liquors. Vodka. Whisky. And of course moonshine. It’s not the 190-proof stuff, but it does come in flavors like blackberry, strawberry, apple pie, root beer and peach. He’s also got some four-year-old Bourbon that’s not quite ready yet.
“I’ve always been fascinated with the idea of making moonshine, making whisky,” he said. “When I was a kid there were old timers that made it, and I always thought, when these guys are gone it’s going with them and I really wanted to learn how.
Angel opened his distillery in 2017, and Haywood County was an easy choice.
“There were several factors that brought us to Haywood County,” he said. “One it was home for my family. We wanted to get back here, and the two most visited distilleries in the world are in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, 23 miles from here as the crow flies, we knew that we were in a destination where people came to experience moonshine and wanted to leave with a bottle of ‘sunshine,’ if you will, from their vacation.”
But there was another reason in play, likely one of the same reasons the so-called “Southern Highlanders” decided to stick around once they got here.
“So just west of our distillery is Fie Top Mountain and Waterrock Knob,” said Angel. “Those are the two sources of water for Maggie Valley. All of our water starts on those mountains, it flows down the mountainside into Maggie Valley and forms Jonathan Creek.”
In this bowl-shaped county rimmed by mountain peaks, not a drop of water flows in from anywhere else, but once it gets here, it’s already pretty clean, and it’s the job of nonprofit Haywood Waterways to help keep it that way.
“So, our water really originates as rainfall,” said Eric Romaniszyn, executive director of Haywood Waterways since 2010. “And the water cycle does a great job of cleaning the water through evaporation and precipitation. So it doesn't pick up a whole lot of pollutants through that process.”
Haywood Waterways focuses on the Pigeon River watershed engages in public education as well as partnering with public agencies, homeowners and even municipalities on how they can fight something called non-point source pollution. That’s the stuff that washes out from farm fields, like pesticides, herbicides, insecticides, all the -cides.
“In Haywood County, of course, a lot of our headwaters areas along the county line, they're protected by national forests or the Blue Ridge Parkway or Great Smoky Mountains National Park,” said Romaniszyn. “That forest land really does a great job of filtering any pollutants that might've come in rainfall and so the water that's coming out of those areas comes out pretty clean.”
The pristine quality of the water underlies a robust tourism-driven outdoors industry in the region, everything from kayaking to boating to recreational fishing.
“You know, here we sit on Jonathan Creek and I swear, I see some trout flashing in the water right now,” he said.
It’s also essential to the brewing and distilling industries, which provide thousands of jobs around the region that continue to make this a place, as Dave Angel said, that people want to come and get their own bottle of sunshine to take back up north.
“It's because of that water quality. You can look to Asheville – Sierra Nevada, New Belgium Brewing, Oskar Blues,” said Romaniszyn. “You can look right here in Haywood County at Frog Level Brewing, BearWaters Brewing, Elevated Distilling, Boojum. If they can capture this really clean water, it means they have to do a whole lot less work in trying to get it brewing-ready, if you know what I mean.”
That’s why Angel serves on the Haywood Waterways board.
“Haywood Waterways has been instrumental over the years in just educating our local community about the importance of taking care of our water,” said Angel. “It is so pristine and pure and we want to make sure it really leaves Haywood County just as good as it came through the ground and flowed through the valleys in the mountains.”
It’s clear that good clean Haywood County water is readily available, but if that good clean Haywood County water is going to leave here in a bottle, there are some other ingredients needed. Acquiring those is a different story.
“I spent the majority of my childhood on a farm over in the Francis Cove community of our county,” said Greg Christopher. “We raised and sold produce and vegetables, apples – anything that grew we just about had our hand to it at some point in time, making a living for our family.”
Alongside his grandfather Frank, father Doug and uncle Gene, Greg Christopher grew up working both the wholesale and the retail sides of that farmstand, which became well-known throughout the region.
“I learned how to run a cash register whenever I was about eight years old,” he said. “Before I would go to school in the morning, part of my responsibilities would be to get up and go down and set the produce racks up and then I would run the cash register until the school bus came. When the school bus came, then of course I'd turn it over to my parents and they would operate it throughout the day, but in the afternoon I came right back to my job again.”
Although eight-year-old Greg Christopher didn’t know it at the time, there was something a little different about some of their customers.
“We kept a lot of 50-pound bags of sugar, lots of quart- and half-gallon jars that we sold,” said Christopher. “And of course, hey at the time, I had no idea what that was exactly for.”
Christopher didn’t stay down on the farm. Instead, his career has taken him across the country and across the state, from the governor’s mansion back to the hilly coves of his hometown. Now 61, Christopher is serving his final term as the elected sheriff of Haywood County, after a lifetime in law enforcement.
“Many years later, I think back on it and I've probably got a good feeling of what, exactly, some of that might've been,” said Christopher, who did indeed figure it out. “Growing up here in Haywood County, I would say that probably for people my age and older, everybody knew of moonshine. It was just something that you knew was happening in Haywood County. It seemed like it was just part of mountain culture.”
And indeed it was – celebrated for centuries in story and in song, like this one from country music icon George Jones.
Well in North Carolina way back in the hills
lived my ol’ pappy and he had him a still
He brewed white lightning ‘till the sun went down
then he’d fill him a jug and he’d pass it around
Mighty mighty pleasin’, pappy’s corn squeezin’
Shhhhhhhhh … white lightnin’
But there’s one big problem with that, according to Sheriff Christopher.
“Well,” he said. “It’s illegal.”
Perhaps we forgot to mention that. “Moonshine” is a generic term for any untaxed liquor. Although around here, it’s a specific term for a jar of that “white lightnin’” George Jones sang about.
While the moonshiners of old used the same ingredients Dave Angel does, Angel’s liquor is only different because it’s taxed, and regulated by the state.
If it’s not, it’s a crime to produce or to possess. And not one of those “look the other way” crimes either.
Sheriff Christopher said he didn’t encounter moonshine much when he was a member of the North Carolina State Highway Patrol, but he’s certainly encountered it in his time in Haywood County.
Kyle Perrotti covers crime and courts for the Waynesville Mountaineer, Haywood County’s oldest newspaper.
“So Haywood County Sheriff’s Deputies responded to what was described as a ‘mental health incident.’ It was December of 2016,” Perrotti said. “They were able to take care of that pretty quickly, but they also found some marijuana and some moonshine, which they determined to be non-tax paid liquor. They eventually charged the woman at the residence with possession of both of those items and she was brought to trial within about a year.”
Although the charges against the woman were eventually dropped, the contraband was ordered destroyed, because you don’t just get your weed or your shine back once your case is over. But she wasn’t ready for it to be over.
“So the defendant in that case actually wanted to keep the liquor and she ginned up a lot of support,” said Perrotti. “She wanted to donate it to a local museum.”
Perrotti’s story about the impending destruction of the moonshine drew divided public opinion, but he said the loudest voices in the room didn’t want to see it just go down the drain.
There is, however, another explanation as to why the woman wanted her moonshine back so badly.
“It was allegedly Popcorn Sutton’s,” Perrotti said.
Marvin “Popcorn” Sutton was a legendary moonshiner who earned his distinctive moniker when he got into an altercation with a popcorn machine. At a tavern.
Born and raised in Haywood County, Popcorn Sutton is the most famous, or infamous moonshiner of them all – maybe another reason the same Haywood County town that gave rise to Sutton, Maggie Valley, is home to Dave Angel’s distillery.
“Oh I definitely knew Popcorn,” Agnel said. “When I was 16, that’s who you bought liquor from. He gets mixed reviews here in Haywood County. When you see the movies, when you see him on TV, he comes across as the jolly old moonshiner that everybody loved, and there was definitely that side and he knew when to turn that on to make a sale, but he also sold liquor to 16-year-olds.”
Emmy award-winning documentarian Neal Hutcheson knew Popcorn Sutton as well. He recently wrote a book about him, and captured Sutton in action for his 2002 film, The Last Dam Run of Likker I’ll Ever Make.
“And all’s in this is yeller sweet corn, yeller corn malt, and sugar, and water. That’s all’s in it. Llke I said, this the damn last run of likker that me and JB’ll ever fool with, cause when I’m gone, the damn liquor’s gone. And I’m just about gone.”
And he was just about gone – Sutton committed suicide in 2009 rather than go back to prison for moonshining.
They don’t make ‘em like Popcorn anymore, but that doesn’t mean the art of moonshining died with him. Now, a new generation of moonshiners are raising awareness of the liquor and the lifestyle, thanks to a reality TV show on the Discovery Channel called Moonshiners.
“All those guys on the show, I’m fortunate to know everyone that works on the show,’ said Angel. “Interestingly almost all of them live within about 30-45 minutes of our distillery in Maggie Valley, so it’s not unusual to run into them. Kelly Williamson has a distillery called Adventure Distilling company in Cosby, Tennessee. Mark and Digger on the show, they live right there in the Cosby area with Kelly. There’s a community of people that have this same interest and I’m just fortunate to be in it with them.”
That community is helping to keep alive this important mountain tradition – something that would have made the 14-year-old Dave Angel very happy.
“And what I found out now that I’m no longer a teenager, it will always be here,” he said. “There will always be old-timers making it. I know families that generation after generation make it. A friend of mine right now, his son makes it with him and his father makes it with him too. It’s three generations working together, making moonshine.”
The song featured in the breaks of this story is Walls by The Maggie Valley Band