The XXX on moonshine jugs is a classic symbol. It has been caricatured and cartooned many times in modern portrayals of the moonshiner. Everyone instinctively knows that “XXX” written on a jug indicates that it contains moonshine, but what does that symbol mean and why did moonshiners scrawl that on their jugs?
The “XXX” signifies how many times the moonshine batch had been run through the still. Three X’s indicated that it had been run through three times and that the shine was pure alcohol.
In the old days, before the invention of more modern distilling techniques like thump kegs and reflux stills, moonshiners used a basic pot still – the simplest of all types of stills. It’s made up of two components: a boiler to cook the mash and a condenser to collect and cool the alcohol vapor back to a liquid.
While it is an effective device, you don’t get pure alcohol when you run a batch through the first time. The fermented mash, which is very similar to beer, starts out at about 5-10% alcohol by volume (ABV). When you run the mash through a pot still, the product coming out of the other end contains about 30-40% alcohol, the rest being mostly water. This is called “singlings.” (While the first run produces liquor at about 60-80 proof and is drinkable, you wouldn’t want to drink it since it still has quite a bit of off flavors carried over through the water from the mash.) To raise the alcohol content, you have to save up all the results of your first runs, and then run all of that through the still a second time. The second run raises it up to the 60-70% ABV range. Moonshine that had been run through the still three times was very close to being pure alcohol, above 80% ABV. The three XXX’s scrawled on the front of a moonshine jug indicated that it had been run through the still three times and that it had high, almost pure, alcohol content.
Now, with that said, I have never once seen a historic example of a jug with three X’s written on it. Any jugs like that would have to be quite old since moonshiners moved to half gallon mason jars many years ago. If any readers have an example of an old moonshine jug with the XXX’s still visible, I would love to see it and we could even post your photos here on the site.
Here’s a great video about the history of moonshine in the Appalachians. It’s actually from the DVD bonus features included on The Last One
, the documentary about Popcorn Sutton and Appalachian moonshine. This video is a great introduction to the history of moonshine in America that started with the Scotch-Irish bringing their distilling knowledge with them from Ireland.
The last part of the video (8:22) really sums up the reason why so much moonshine came out of Appalachia. It’s also the reason why the South is the last bastion of freedom in the entire world. (I’ll have to do a post on that topic soon.)
If you don’t own The Last One you need to get it. The Last One is the best documentary on moonshine – ever. I have watched it over 20 times now and will probably watch it again soon. It’s such a great documentary and if you are at all interested in moonshine, it needs to be in your DVD library.
Popcorn Sutton is the most famous of modern moonshiners. Because of the nature of the business, moonshiners are not typically renowned. Popcorn, on the other hand, was a larger than life character who was a master of self promotion. He was the author of Me and My Likker, an autobiography and textbook on how to make moonshine. He was also the feature of many documentaries like The Last One
. Unlike every other moonshiner in the world, he chose to live in his little self created spotlight. Ultimately it led to his arrest and conviction in 2009. Facing cancer and an 18 month prison sentence, Popcorn chose to take his own life instead of dying in jail.
Last fall my travels brought me through the mountains of North Carolina. I was on a month long sabbatical, exploring the Smokies and the Blue Ridge. The leaves were changing and the air had a slight crispness – it’s an awesome time of year to visit the area. I happened to be traveling through Maggie Valley and as I glanced at the map, a street name jumped out at me – Hemphill Road. I remembered that Popcorn Sutton had mentioned that road in the documentary The Last One.
I decided to take a trip down Hemphill Road, just to check it out. I wasn’t really expecting to find Popcorn Sutton’s home. I just wanted to see the area that he lived in and get a sense of the land and culture that produced this infamous moonshiner.
The area around Hemphill Road is actually quite beautiful and surprisingly affluent. Though rural, it’s far from being a backwoods Deliverance type setting. It’s not the type of place you’d expect to find a moonshine icon.
As I was driving along I saw a sign on the side of the road: Homeplace Marvin Popcorn Sutton. I stopped to take a picture and as I walked back to my truck, an old feller was standing in the road. He looked a lot like Popcorn with a bushy gray beard and clad in Liberty overalls. Turns out it was Popcorn’s brother in law. He lived next door to where Popcorn used to live and he came out to see who I was. We chatted a little about Popcorn, but mainly just made small talk for a while. It seems there are quite a few people that stop and take a picture of Popcorn’s roadside memorial.
Popcorn Sutton’s Documentary – The Last One
If you are reading this blog, and you haven’t seen The Last One, you are seriously missing out on a great video. The Last One is the best documentary on moonshine – ever. It is so well made and the production value is so high. Check out the Youtube clip above for a sample of the movie. The filmmakers followed Popcorn Sutton around as he made his last run of moonshine – cooked in a traditional copper moonshine still. If you are interested in the history of moonshine or if you want some general information on how to make moonshine, this DVD belongs in your library.
A few months ago a friend and I were driving the back roads of Virginia on our way to see some old time music in Floyd. We were taking the back roads, through the area around the Patrick/Franklin County border. This wild and rugged area is the headwaters of the Smith River and lies at the very foot of the Blue Ridge.
While we were driving, we listened to a podcast of old time mountain music. I had downloaded the program from WNRV, a traditional radio station located in Giles County. It’s rare to hear bluegrass on the radio, but almost unheard of to hear old time music. As we cruised along the back roads, a catchy fiddle tune called Shooting Creek played on the radio.
We turned into a dark hollow that would lead us up the mountain to Floyd. The narrow road followed a rushing creek, twisting up through the steep canyon-like cove. I pulled out the roadmap to see where we were. A mile back down the road the street sign had read SR 860, but the alternate name on the map jumped out at me: Shooting Creek Road.
It was in that moment that I realized that, not only was I living in the moonshine capital of the world, but I was also living in the mountain music center of the universe.
going up shooting creek, going on a run
take my razor and a gatlin gun
The Floyd Country Store
Floyd is a small town on top of the Blue Ridge. It’s a quaint little town with a couple of stoplights. The music and arts scene attracts people from all over the country. Floyd is a weird juxtaposition of traditional mountain culture combined with a modern counter-culture movement. You can watch an old time string band while you sip a locally produced organic root beer. The main draw of the town is the Floyd Country Store. On the weekends, people come from all over to hear live old time music at the Country Store. During the warmer months, the store also attracts musicians and folks will gather on the sidewalks and alleys to jam. The town turns into a small music festival on the weekends.
After driving back home that evening, I fired up Google to research the origins of the song Shooting Creek. The title of the song does indeed originate at the Shooting Creek that we had driven along.
SHOOTIN’ CREEK . Old Time, Breakdown. USA; West Virginia, southwestern Virginia. D Major. ADae or Standard tunings. AB (Krassen, Silberberg): AABB (Brody): AA’BB’ (Phillips). A popular and common tune in the Franklin/Floyd County area of southwestern Va. Alan Jabbour identifies Shooting Creek as a quick-flowing stream that rises in the Blue Ridge Mountains along the Floyd/Franklin County line, and flows down eastwardly through Franklin County in the Virginia Piedmont. The hollow along the creek had a reputation as a locale for moonshining in the early 20th century; it was much favored by bootleggers and became notorious during Prohibition.
The Moonshine Capital of the World
You just can’t get away from that moonshine history in Southwest Virginia. For those who aren’t familiar with the area, Franklin County Virginia is considered the moonshine capital of the world. It has been notorious for moonshine for at least 100 years. During Prohibition, at the height of moonshining in the area, folks said that moonshine was so prevalent in Franklin County that 99 out of 100 people in the community were either running shine or helping out in some way. The number of old still sites in the woods of Franklin County is staggering. You can walk up almost any creek in the county and find the remains of an old moonshine still. During the years of Prohibition, agents destroyed 3900 moonshine stills in Franklin County. From 1930 to 1935, 1 million five gallon whiskey cans were sold in the county. Even recently, a single feed store in the tiny town of Rocky Mount was discovered to be the single largest distributor of sugar on the East Coast. Even today, the amount of moonshine that comes out of Franklin County is more than many legal distilleries produce.
The area in Southwest Virginia, along the edge of the Blue Ridge, is rugged and remote. Many creeks dissect the edge of the Appalachian Plateau and create inaccessible coves and hollows. Shooting Creek, along with its neighbor and equally notorious Rennet Bag Creek, flow from the top of the plateau down to the Piedmont. They offer secluded coves that are ideal for hiding a still.
Charlie Poole, an “Old Time” banjo picker from the 1920′s who lived in nearby Eden, North Carolina, had a version of the song Shooting Creek. Poole was familiar with the moonshine trade. In 1918 Poole and his fiddle playing partner worked with a local bootlegger making moonshine. His bootlegging profits enabled him to buy his first good banjo, an Orpheum No. 3 Special. A few years later the police raided their moonshine still while they were running a batch. Poole and his partners fought back and the revenuers shot at Poole while he was escaping. A bullet actually chipped his teeth and he had powder burns on his face.
Poole was known for his heavy drinking and would go on long drinking binges, disappearing for weeks at a time. Poole was familiar with the Shooting Creek area of Virginia because he visited there often, sometimes disappearing up the hollow for weeks.
Charlie Poole’s Shootin’ Creek:
Poole’s version of Shooting Creek sounds different than the Blue Ridge style of Shooting Creek that was played in Floyd and Franklin Counties. Poole’s version of Shooting Creek is actually the song Cripple Creek, the old time and bluegrass standard. Incidentally, there is an actual Cripple Creek a few miles to the west near Galax. Alan Jabbour, noted field recorder and old time music historian, theorized that the song Cripple Creek got its name from the creek near Galax, Virginia. In fact, many old time songs reference locations in Southwest Virginia. For example, Wreck of The 97 is about a historic train wreck in Danville, Virginia.
Old Time Music
It’s not that old time music originated or is exclusive to Southwest Virginia. Old time was played in much of the South until the first half of the twentieth century and it was especially strong in the isolated southern mountains. However, in modern times it has essentially died out. If you go to one of the many mountain tourist towns, like Maggie Valley, NC or Pigeon Forge, TN, you might be able to find a street musician performing old time music, but you won’t be able to find an old time jam. You won’t find any locals playing the music or continuing the old music traditions. In these crowded mountain towns, old time music is played for the tourists who come for that “authentic” mountain experience.
In Southwest Virginia however, those old music traditions are still being practiced by the people that live here. The music is a part of daily life here. You can go and watch an old time performance, not just in a tourist town like Floyd, but in almost any town in Southwest Virginia. More importantly, you can find many regular people that actually still play old time. People still get together to play the banjo and fiddle, on porches or at dances. If you happen to be in Grayson County, Virginia you can find an old time jam almost any night of the week!
There’s really no place else in Appalachia like Southwest Virginia. I’ve traveled the mountain towns from Alabama to West Virginia, and I’ve never seen a place quite like the western corner of Virginia. The old traditions are still alive here, and you won’t find that anywhere else in the mountains. People still make moonshine here. People still play the fiddle. People still go to dances in barns. I don’t know why the old traditions are still so strong here, but I certainly appreciate living here.
The Bassett Historical Center is a storehouse of genealogical research and local history for Henry and Patrick County, Virginia. Besides housing genealogical data and historical books, the center is home to many historical exhibits of donated items. One of these items is an actual copper moonshine still.
The moonshine still was seized in Franklin County, Virginia on February 28, 1970. ABC investigators raided the still site and arrested Claude Edgar Booth, Edgar Lee Booth, and Hansel Eugene Turner. The still was located about 600 yards from the Booth home in an opened woodland.
The copper moonshine still, said to be over 100 years old, was made by George Washington Brammer for George Booth. Brammer, also known as Red Head Brammer, lived in the Poplar Camp section of Patrick County, Virginia. Brammer was know as a skilled craftsman, especially when it came to copper moonshine still construction.
The small turnip style still looks to be about ten gallons capacity.
I just ran across this great site on the history of moonshine in the Blue Ridge region of Virginia. The website was developed by the Blue Ridge Institute & Museum of Ferrum College which is located in Franklin County, Virginia. The site has a ton of information about the history of moonshining in the SW corner of Virginia. The counties of Franklin, Patrick, and Henry are featured in particular. There’s quite a bit of information on here that I’ve never seen before.