White lightning, a white whiskey made surreptitiously and illegally, was once produced in great quantities in South Carolina. It got its name from its color and the kick it delivers when consumed.
The beverage achieved popularity in South Carolina and the rest of the South largely because of the high taxes on legal whiskey, the ready availability of the major raw material–traditionally corn– and the region’s poverty, which made moonshining an attractive industry for many farmers. Production mushroomed between 1915, when South Carolina went legally dry, and 1933, when national prohibition ended. White lightning became part of the culture of some rural areas, including parts of southern Appalachia.
The potable, often referred to as “moonshine” because it was usually produced at night, is often made under conditions so primitive that it has proved lethal. But its “proper” manufacture is considered an art form by some backwoods connoisseurs.
The whiskey is produced from mash, which is a mixture of grain, sugar, water, and yeast that ferments to produce the alcohol. Lack of aging leaves the whiskey with a clean “white” look. Distilleries are commonly made of copper for the most part, which, the producers think, helps maintain the flavor. Manufacturers usually make their own stills.
Agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, humorously called “revenooers” by the moonshiners, have sharply curtailed the illegal operations. In 2003 a South Carolina law enforcement official said the last distillery raid had probably occurred just three months earlier. But isolated moonshiners still ply their art in South Carolina, and many of their customers wax ecstatic when they are lucky enough to purchase a batch they consider safe and savory.
“SLED,” Sandlapper (Winter 2003–4): 20.