Whiskey Book Review: Mountain Spirits

Mountain Spirits: A Chronicle of Corn Whiskey from King James' Ulster Plantation to America's Appalachians and the Moonshine LifeI had been told by several people that Mountain Spirits by Joseph Earl Dabney is a must read for anyone interested in the history of American spirits. After devouring it in just a few days I must admit that it's one of the most entertaining, educational, and hard-to-put-down books I've read in a long time. Mountain Spirits' anecdotes of life in the Southern Appalachians will appeal to history buffs and Southerners, even of the non-drinking variety. If you do like a glass of corn whiskey with your history lesson then you're really in for a treat as Dabney recounts the tales of numerous moonshiners, bootleggers, whiskey runners, and revenuers. If you have trouble distinguishing between those different players in the hooch business just read the book and you'll be an expert in no time flat.

The one drawback to this book is that it was originally published in 1974, so you're left in the dark about how the world of Appalachian hooch has evolved over the last three and a half decades. This could be for the better since it seems like the romanticism associated with old-time corn whiskey has been on decline ever since prohibition shifted most moonshiners' priorities from making quality liquor to making quick money. Also, the fact that Dabney was writing just 50 years or so after Prohibition means that many of his interview subjects were actually around and distilling 'likker' back in the 'good 'ol days'. Any similar book written today would have to rely much more on secondary sources for its information, since most of the primary sources Dabney interviewed are likely deceased.

Mountain Spirits is broken down into four sections - The Craft, The History, The Life, and The End. Each section contains basic historical information interspersed with individual anecdotes from the folks who lived the history. These colorful, individual stories are what make the book so hard to put down and I'm downright amazed that the author was able to gain such intimate access to so many different people involved in the world of moonshine. In a few cases he got the stories out of folks that they had probably only told to one or two other people in their entire lives.

Mixed in with the main body of the book, Mountain Spirits contains a smattering of short poems and quotations related to the corn whiskey lifestyle. These serve to further romanticize the culture of moonshine and of the Appalachian region that spawned it. Two of my personal favorites are:

From the New York World (on p.109 of Mountain Spirits):

Mother Makes brandy from cherries;
Pop distills whiskey and gin;
Sister sells wine from the grapes on our vine - 
Good grief, how the money rolls in!

 On p.227 of Mountain Spirits:

There's a fascination with moonshining. It gets under your hide wors'n fishin' does.
-East Tennessee mountaineer

Finally, even if you've had too much whiskey to read, Mountain Spirits is priceless for its photos. It has page after page of black and white pictures of stills, whiskey jugs, the mountain men and women who filled them, and the revenuers who busted them up. In both pictures and words, Mountain Spirits paints a remarkable picture of a way of life that has largely ceased to exist and it provides a unique window into a part of American history that has been mocked and marginalized in many mainstream history texts.