Most of those who grew up in the South have heard stories about bootleggers selling their illegal concoctions throughout the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains — especially in the area of northern Greenville County known as the Dark Corner. Now, though, instead of trying to find illicit beverages along creeks and rivers where the makers would put up their stills, you can hop on down to many ABC stores in South Carolina and find a strong selection of moonshine in every flavor imaginable.
In the Upstate, several distilleries have even popped up that specialize in the product itself.
Moonshine in the Upstate
The Dark Corner’s reputation comes from its history as an outlier in the region — in terms of economics as well as the individuals who came and settled there. Moonshine was not only a product to make some money, it was part of the region’s culture, said local author and Dark Corner expert Dean Campbell.
“The Appalachian mountainous area of the Dark Corner and northwestern corner of South Carolina was never part of the plantation economy of the state,” said Campbell in an email. “It was supported by a barter system in conjunction with western North Carolina and Eastern Tennessee that fully depended upon the legal and illegal distillation of whiskey as its economic engine.”
To survive the region’s economic conditions, some families had to either produce whiskey for the government or for themselves to sell outside the corner in small towns and Greenville or Spartanburg, he said. Many needed to sell the moonshine for ready cash.
Now, those who make it at home tend to do so for medicinal or social reasons. Campbell said that sometimes a large distillery is still found, but — more often than not — those who used to rely on moonshine for money have pivoted to selling drugs.
Moonshine production becomes legal
Moonshine production and selling are very different than they once were. Distilleries have popped up in recent years thanks to a 2009 state law allowing licensing of small distilleries. Palmetto Distillery was the first to make legal moonshine in South Carolina, says its co-founder Trey Boggs.
Boggs and his brother, Bryan Boggs, founded Palmetto Distillery in Anderson behind Anderson Courthouse in 2011. Boggs said the issue authorities had with moonshine came from the lack of taxing it.
“I was reading about a Spartanburg County moonshine still bust,” said Boggs. In the news article he read, there was an image of police and copper still. “I wondered, ‘Why does the government hate moonshine so bad?’ And it hit me right then, it was like the light bulb went off: They don’t hate moonshine, they’re just not getting the taxes on it.”
Moonshine’s popularity in South Carolina has continued to grow. Boggs said he’s sold Palmetto Distillery’s moonshine to former Gov. Nikki Haley and he has partnered with musician Darius Rucker, producing Rucker’s Backstage Whiskey. Haley and her husband were fond of the blackberry flavor, according to Boggs.
Smaller moonshine distilleries across the state provide local products. Copperhead Mountain Distillery in Travelers Rest, owned by John Connelly, makes about 3,500 bottles of moonshine a year with a recipe he’s experimented with based on bootlegger lore.
“Moonshine is actually just a term for when they made liquor illegally by the light of the moon,” said Connelly. “But 99% of them were making that clear corn whiskey, and then the other 1% were making like a rum or a brandy.”
Connelly said that while hiking along the Saluda River, he’ll often run into broken-down stills hiding in the brush beside trails along creeks and streams. “Sometimes there’ll be a couple dozen, just sitting there frozen in time, rusting and rotting away,” he said.
Flavored moonshines are becoming popular among mainstream consumers. But there are still the holdouts who will trade your birthday-cake-flavored moonshine for some homemade elixir.
“Moonshine purists (who drink it socially and use it medicinally) are not as keen on the new craft moonshine,” said Campbell. To those purists, the production of moonshine could be compared to the making of a work of art. “They might even consider many of the booming craft moonshiners to be a little counterfeit, much like the new wave of slicker singers and musicians being touted as real country music folks.”
Distilleries have also worked with law enforcement agencies that were counterparts to the state and federal agents that arrested their predecessors. Boggs, for instance, has provided hand sanitizer to the Anderson police department.
Local Moonshine Distilleries
- Copperhead Mountain Distillery: 14 S Main St, Travelers Rest, SC 29690
- Dark Corner Distillery: 14 S Main St, Greenville, SC 29601
- Palmetto Distillery: 200 W Benson St, Anderson, SC 29624
- Red Bordner Distillery: 4200 Parris Bridge Rd, Boiling Springs, SC 29316
- Six and Twenty Distillery: 3109 SC 153, Piedmont, SC 29673