Talking moonshine, distilling, bootleggers, and cops in Appalachia with Kevin Forrester.
Two dogs, one truck, two mason jars of moonshine, and one pack of cigarettes are all we need for a drive up into Virginia’s Channels State Forest with Kevin Forrester. He’s an old friend of mine, my Rosetta stone to all things hillbilly—that’s his description of choice—and my perennial guide to the mountains of southwest Virginia.
This episode is a milestone, the first we’ve ever recorded outside, in the great outdoors. Kevin and I talked on the porch of The Lucky Bear cabin, an old poaching homestead. While our kids were off wandering for hours, and our dogs lolled about in the shade, we got deep into some excellent (if super-illegal) alcohol and Kevin told me—without admitting guilt, of course—how he would have made that moonshine if it were he that had done it. We talked about cops and bootleggers and distillers and Appalachians and Californians and I enjoyed the hell out of all it.
Nathan Thornburgh: As soon as these lids come off, we’ll feel like brothers again. All right, what lids are we talking about here?
Kevin Forrester: The stainless steel rings on top of those mason jars that hold illegal distillate.
Thornburgh: Illegal distillate.
Forrester: Untaxed liquor.
Thornburgh: Well, we have both legal and illegal distillate which means that we have fake and real moonshine. Let’s just set some terms before we start. One, you’re an old friend of mine and I don’t wish any harm or legal troubles on you. So for the purposes of this podcast, we’ll say you’re a moonshine educator. I’m not going to ask you…
Forrester: I’m a historian.
Thornburgh: …to confirm or deny whether you are now or have ever been actively involved in any moonshine-making.
Forrester: It’s all alleged.
Thornburgh: It’s all alleged. That’s right.
Thornburgh: This is Southwest Virginia which is part of Appalachia. This is where you’re from. Where did you grow up exactly?
Forrester: I grew up in Damascus. It’s a very small town on [Route] 58, and it’s basically the end of the road.
Thornburgh: That’s it. But there’s something about I think the town of Damascus because it it’s both part of Appalachia and has been forever, but it’s on the Appalachian Trail, so it’s also the only town that’s directly on the trail.
Forrester: It’s the first town that the Appalachian Trail actually goes through. All the other towns or communities, you have to hike off of the Appalachian Trail and then hike back on.
Thornburgh: But Damascus, the trail goes right through town?
Forrester: It goes right up Main Street.
Thornburgh: So that makes it…
Forrester: It’s a mecca.
Thornburgh: Where you have a lot of people, a lot of travelers coming through. So it’s got roots here, but it’s also got this flow of people from all over the country and all over the world who will come through as they’re hiking.
Thornburgh: I feel like that’s how it came to be that you and I met. You are always from this place and of this place, but not only, right? That’s the way I think about you anyway.
Forrester: Well, you meet a lot of people in a town like this.
Thornburgh: Right. And you happened to meet one such person who went to high school with me in Southwestern San Francisco. So that’s how it came to be that I know a man who can tell me that this $22 bottle of Kings County Distillery moonshine corn whiskey that I’m holding here. Twenty-two dollars for 200 milliliters is not actually moonshine.
Anything distilled over 180 proof that hasn’t been channeled through the correct government agency is moonshine if you get caught with it.
Forrester: Well, we’ll see.
Thornburgh: Well, all right. So let’s talk about that.
Forrester: Give her a twist. Let’s find out.
Thornburgh: Define moonshine for me.
Forrester: Moonshine is untaxed liquor. It’s untaxed distillate. Anything distilled over 180 proof that hasn’t been channeled through the correct government agency is moonshine, technically, if you get caught with it.
Thornburgh: But now, without putting too fine a point on it, that means this is an oxymoron? This can’t actually exist. You can’t have an unofficial moonshine distillery.
Forrester: What the slang has become is unaged, uncured, unbarreled distillate. So they call them moonshine white liquor, and that basically just means young and raw. You won’t find many places that are selling a product, putting out what you would actually probably buy out of the back of somebody’s truck, because that stuff has been aged all of maybe 48 hours when you get it.
Thornburgh: It’s hot.
Forrester: It’s hot. It needs to rest to mature if you want to pass it around among friends most of the time. Even the best of it. It’s going to have some burn to it.
Thornburgh: So whether legal distillate that is just trying to get some of that Appalachia charm in its name by calling itself moonshine…
Forrester: Right. They’re capitalizing on a piece of illegal, you know what I mean? If something illegal is cool…
Thornburgh: It’s like that outlaw vibe.
Forrester: It’s niche, right? Something you shouldn’t have.
Thornburgh: And whether it’s that, or whether it’s an actual untaxed distillate, it’s either grain, so it’s a whiskey, or it’s going to be fruit-based or berry-based?
Forrester: I would say a big majority of them are going to be grain-based. Corn, oats, barley.
Thornburgh: But now, to round out our trilogy here, you’ve got my Brooklyn-bought, Brooklyn-distilled, Brooklyn-priced moonshine here. And then you’ve got a butternut?
Forrester: Yeah, this was kind of experimental, just to see what would happen. It’s made from butternut squash.
Thornburgh: That is an unusual moonshine. And again, we’re only alleging that you made these.
Forrester: It’s alleged. It’s friends of friends.
Thornburgh: A friend of a friend. There you go.
Forrester: Kevin Bacon I think is actually the person that made this.
Thornburgh: Got the wrong Kevin guy.
Forrester: It’s the wrong Kevin.
Thornburgh: It’s Kevin Bacon. He passed this on to me. And the third one that we’ve got here in a large mason jar?
Forrester: That’s a grain-based.
Thornburgh: So this will also be whiskey?
Forrester: So we have two that were made as—allegedly—hobbyist distillates. One is from a grape product and one is from a grain product. One has been aged a little bit, and one is just set in a mason jar.
Thornburgh: Now, which one should we start with? Should we start with fake moonshine?
Forrester: I would definitely start with the Brooklyn moonshine. I’d smell them all first.
Thornburgh: Okay. Let’s do that.
Forrester: And then I’d base my tasting on that. It’s a great little bottle. It looks very Prohibition.
Forrester: And this is also 80 proof. They’ve backed this down to 80 proof.
Thornburgh: You can smell that.
Thornburgh: It’s pretty soft.
Forrester: It’s got a nice nose.
Thornburgh: Yeah. I’m going back into the large mason jar. The grain. That will burn the hairs.
Forrester: It will. Allegedly, again, it measured out at about 147 when it came out.
Thornburgh: That’s what Kevin Bacon told you.
Forrester: It’s what Kevin Bacon said. I want to go first here.
Thornburgh: All right. You’re going to give your butternut a beak there. That smells pretty fucking interesting.
Kevin Forrester: It’s very complex. It’s got a lot going on.
Thornburgh: Now, if you were the person who had made this butternut, would you be proud of what happened there?
Forrester: Well, we’ll see in a little while as soon as we’d taste it. The proof is in the pudding.
Thornburgh: All right. So which would you start with?
Forrester: I would definitely start with the Kings County, because that is the lowest alcohol volume of any of them, so let’s start there.
Thornburgh: Yeah, it’s nice. It’s a real soft alcohol.
Forrester: It’s nice. Got a nice after-finish, got a little heat on the after-finish, doesn’t burn your throat at all, just gives you ton of little tingle.
I’ve had some of the best beers I’ve ever had in my life in somebody’s garage, and it can’t be replicated.
Thornburgh: I’m, of course, making fun of Brooklyn Kings County Distillery for creating a Brooklyn moonshine that is super legal and heavily taxed and also very expensive.
Forrester: It’s New York City’s oldest whiskey distillery.
Thornburgh: That’s what they said. But this is also something that you have told me about distilling and making moonshine that I think bears repeating: It’s fucking hard. It’s a craft. It’s a real craft.
Forrester: It sure is.
Thornburgh: And so the people who are making this up in Brooklyn, whether they get to charge a lot for it and have excellent marketing or something, they’re really good at what they do and they should get respect for that, right?
Forrester: No doubt. That’s a very clean product.
Thornburgh: Yeah. In the same way that the people who had allegedly made what’s in the mason jars here are also really fucking good at what they do.
Thornburgh: They should be given the same kind of respect. Moonshine is not just ad hoc or jerry-rigging something. So much is like the kind of things that distilleries have to go through, like trial and error and practice.
Forrester: To be an artist about it, yeah you do, but a lot of moonshine gets made by that very jerry-rigging slapstick. Some of the rigs that you wouldn’t believe will actually produce alcohol. Anything with sugar will ferment. Anything that will ferment will make alcohol. If you can make it boil just a little bit and then cool it down just right, you can make alcohol out of it. The craft comes in making a product that is notable and being able to replicate that product over and over and over.
Thornburgh: It’s like that old trope where the Trappist monks in Belgium were asked what their favorite beer in the world was, and they said American Budweiser, because it’s so consistent, it’s so damn hard to do what Budweiser does and make 50 million cans of the same fucking beer.
Thornburgh: And they had a respect for that that I guess would send the craft beer-heads into some sort of…
Kevin Forrester: Anybody that’s tried to make that beer—I’ve had some of the best beers I’ve ever had in my life in somebody’s garage and it can’t be replicated.
Thornburgh: And the next one is just a total terror.
Forrester: It’s a shit bag.
You cannot put this in a Styrofoam cup. It will pour right through a Styrofoam cup.
Thornburgh: Well, let’s get into this butternut.
Forrester: You cannot put this in a Styrofoam cup. It will pour right through a Styrofoam cup.
Thornburgh: Get the fuck out.
Thornburgh: What an amazing visual for what it’s doing to our insides right now. I know we’re not made of Styrofoam, but we do have little pink pretty parts inside there that are…
Forrester: All my little pink pretty parts go, ah.
Thornburgh: They’ve developed a natural affinity for butternut. That’s a fucked up thing. This is a water-clear ball of fire.
Forrester: Always surprises me. It’s so delicious.
Thornburgh: It’s so good. I remember you had a sip while we were putting the bottles together in the house and you did a leg kick…
Forrester: Makes me do my rooster dance.
Thornburgh: So how does one who would allegedly be involved with the making of an incredibly fine, incredibly strong butternut squash moonshine, how does one go about doing that?
Forrester: Well, this was born of necessity. A good friend of ours grew a crop of butternut squash and was unable to sell it. And I have a friend, we liked each other a lot when we met, we fell in love over a still. And we looked at each other and his eyebrows went up and I said, “Well, it tastes sweet when you eat it.”
Thornburgh: There’s sugar in there.
Forrester: There’s sugar in it. And we decided to give it a shot and see if it would ferment. We didn’t even know if it would ferment but we thought, what the hell, all we have to do is drive over there and pick some up. Let’s give it a shot. So we did.
Thornburgh: By the way, we’re going to do this the way that OJ did—“if I had done it.”
Thornburgh: So it really is about the sugar, right?
Forrester: It’s all about the sugar.
Nathan: People make desserts out of butternut squash that you don’t really have to add much.
Forrester: Right. You cook it down and you break it down. The thing that is hard about it is that it’s a tough sugar to get at. It’s a tough sugar for the yeast to infiltrate, because the squash itself is so dense and thick, and it’s a very tough fibrous plant. So it takes a little help.
Thornburgh: Yeah. Good Lord. It’s just picture perfect and I guess that’s got to be that moonshine operations are fewer and farther between now as I guess the low end of the market is going to find their lousy alcohols that are mass-produced, right?
Forrester: Right. You can buy cheaper liquor than moonshine. Anybody that sells a moonshine cheap, I don’t think I would drink it.
You still can’t do it just for your home use. This is in an illegal act.
Thornburgh: Is there some kind of heritage component where somebody would want to be making moonshine because that’s just part of the genetic fabric of this place? It’s not necessary anymore…
Forrester: No. It’s not necessary anymore. Like I said, you can get really good cheap alcohol now. People don’t need to take their crop to town in a jar anymore. It’s not a necessary thing, but it is something that has been in people’s families for a long time. It’s something that people can take pride in being able to do, and do well.
Thornburgh: So if I said, who are the three best moonshine makers in Damascus, we’re not going to name them here, but would you know them? Would you know who is really good at this shit?
Forrester: I know several people that do this very well. For the most part, it’s something that’s done just so we don’t forget. It’s not that somebody needs to make the money. It’s not that somebody can’t buy the liquor. It’s something that’s been done in families for generations. It’s something that’s been done as both a rebellious act and an act of necessity and for all those reasons, it’s something that shouldn’t be forgotten.
Thornburgh: I imagine it’s true that poverty just has a different look to it these days, in the sense that poverty now means that you work three jobs and they’re paid like shit and you’re way too busy and that you’re just not in the position.
Thornburgh: There’s a lot of skill and time that’s required to build up that is actually not a feature of being poor these days. So even though there’s poverty here, as in every part of the country now, and it’s less that people are creating these kind of products out of poverty and more that they’re just slammed to the wall with the stress of modern life.
Forrester: Yeah. There’s quicker, easier ways to make a buck nowadays.
Forrester: It’s not something that’s easily done. It’s not for the lazy. It’s actually a lot of work. It takes some diligence.
Thornburgh: Right, especially if you’re out there hustling in the modern way that people have to hustle.
Forrester: Exactly. It takes too long to turn over.
Thornburgh: For people who produce this and are kind of in the world of moonshine, it’s not just about, well, my father made this… it’s also about your life, your experiences. and how you made friends, in what conditions, and your past, right?
Forrester: Certainly. Yeah. I made great friendships talking about people making moonshine. It’s as much about the experience as anything. Every time you take a sip of moonshine that you had a hand in making, you think about the art and the act of making it, the camaraderie around the fire.
Thornburgh: Right. This is not a solitary exercise, right?
Thornburgh: This is something you do with people, generally.
Forrester: Nowadays yes, especially because it’s not an act of necessity. You’re not doing it on the down-low so much. You obviously have to do it on the down-low, because [the authorities] do take this very seriously and you still can’t do it just for your home use. This is in an illegal act.
Thornburgh: Because it’s not one’s livelihood out here.
Forrester: Right. There are very few people making a living selling illegal moonshine anymore. They’re too serious about it, it’s not worth the risk and, like we said, there are easier ways to flip a buck nowadays.
Forrester: People do it because they want to do it, because they’re steeped in it. They can’t not do it. They want to do it. And one of the reasons is because when you taste it, you remember. It’s one of those nerves strikes a chord in your memory. It’s hooked in deep, and it brings back the moment of when it all came about.