THE HISTORY OF WHERE IT ALL BEGAN… A whiskey tax in the United States first became on economic issue in 1794, when the so-called “Whiskey Rebellion” broke out along the western frontier, which then stood in western Pennsylvania and eastern Ohio.
With the onset of the Civil War, the Federal Government re-imposed excise taxes on whiskey and tobacco in an effort to fund Union army. After the war ended, the Re-constructionist government decided to keep the taxes in place, it turned out that re-building the nation was just as expensive as fighting to keep it together. Faced with enormous debts, both state and federal governments continued to collect and enforce the whiskey taxes.
The Revenue Bureau of the Treasury Department was formed after the Civil War, and was headed by Commissioner Green B. Raum from 1876-1883. During this time Raum transformed the revenue collectors into a police agency, actively seeking out moonshiners in their home environments. They acted as a national authority, regardless of state lines.
North Carolina Senator Zebulon Vance campaigned against revenue laws in 1876, terming the revenue agents as “red-legged grasshoppers.” Because of the revenuers, Vance complained, “The time has come when an honest man can’t take an honest drink without having a gang of revenue officers after him.”
Congress increased the whiskey tax to $1.10 per gallon in 1894, a stiff tax. While the increase was intended to up the government’s take in “revenue”, it ended up creating a boom in un-taxed liquor. More and more distillers decided the only way they could continue under the new tax was to sell their product illegally. By it’s own estimate, the government guessed that between 5 and 10 million gallons of illegal liquor were produced and sold annually in and around 1896
Born from a lethal combination of copper and corn, industry opportunities for bootleggers soared when North Carolina became the first Southern state to enact prohibition. Bootlegging – selling spirits without taxation or government permits – became a means for financial stability. While national Prohibition ended in 1933, North Carolina remained a dry state until 1935 – the heyday of hooch – eventually giving birth to the firewater-fueled sport of NASCAR.
While moonshine once lost its luster with cheaper, more accessible liquor, it never died. As the farm-to-fork movement grows in North Carolina, the still-to-store movement is well on it’s way. Catalyzed by the local initiative, micro distilleries continue to multiply in North Carolina, crafting small-batch moonshine, vodka, gin, and rum. And this time, it’s legal.