Wednesday, July 8, 2009

What We Drinking?

“The whiskey they drank that evening is important. Otherwise, it would be hard to account for what followed. Perhaps without it there would never have been a cafe. For the liquor of Miss Amelia has a special quality of its own. It is clean and sharp on the tongue, but once down a man, it glows inside him for a long time afterward. And that is not all. Things that have gone unnoticed, thoughts that have been harbored far back in the dark mind, are suddenly recognized and comprehended. A man may suffer, or he may be spent with joy--but he has warmed his soul and seen the message hidden there.”

--The Narrator, ‘The Ballad of the Sad Cafe’

Now that’s some good liquor. Where can you get some of that, you may ask. Well, it’s my job to tell you. Fair warning, though. As it happens, some Georgia Moon corn whiskey (today’s equivalent) has been floating around our space for about a year now. When a bottle of liquor lasts that long around Signal, it says something.

It turns out it was the northern Irish (God bless ‘em) who brought the process of moonshine to the American colonies during the 18th century. It’s a relatively simple process in two steps: fermentation and distillation. The fermentation is the process of breaking down the starches of the corn grain into sugars. To speed this up, sugar, yeast and malt can be added to the mix, making up the mash. Once you had the mash, the distillation of the alcohol was achieved by heating it, which would separate the alcohol from the water. That vapor would then be chilled and, voila, moonshine. This was all done in a homemade still and then kept, usually, in mason jars (though Miss Amelia of “Ballad” was fancy and kept hers in barrels).

Before the Civil War, moonshining wasn’t even moonshining yet; it was a respectable practice by farmers who were just making a little extra on the side with their excess crops. Crafty. It wasn’t until the federal government tried to tax what they referred to as “luxuries” in the 1860’s that the term “moonshiner” came into play. Those that didn’t want to pay the tax on the liquor they were making were forced to carry on under the light of the moon. Not paying taxes was one thing, but when prohibition came along, moonshining made the transition from tax evasion to out and out against the law.

Now, we come to the 1930’s; around the time of our “Ballad.” Despite prohibition, moonshining was a good option for farmers and, given the economic climate, it was often the only option. At that time, unskilled laborers were making around 40 cents an hour, but one trip to Atlanta would bring in forty dollars. Hmmm, twenty dollars or four hundred dollars a week? Easy enough to figure that one out. Now, the danger wasn’t so much in making the moonshine, but in transporting it. It had to be at night and it had to be fast. So, bootleggers, or “trippers,” became adept at souping up their V-8 Fords into what was called “tanker cars”...and even more adept at driving them. This, folks, was not only the inspiration for “The Dukes of Hazzard,” but the beginning of Nascar as we know it. In fact, the first stars of Nascar all got their start running liquor in the moonshine business. So, when Cousin Lymon tells Miss Amelia he wants to “go in the Ford tomorrow,” he’s not talking about a country ride in the jalopy.

Thirsty? Yep, me too.

Your humble dramaturg,



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