For nearly a century, the history of the South Carolina Upstate has been awash with stories of fast cars driven by mountain boys racing along back roads, their trunks laden with homemade – and illegal – spirits: moonshine, “corn likker” or “white lightnin’.”
In fact, the tradition of backwoods stills filled with sugar, corn mash and pure creek water goes back even further, to the mid-1800s, when settlers from Scotland, England and Ireland pioneered the northeastern corner of Greenville County, an area known then and now as the “Dark Corner” (theories of the name’s origins vary, one holds that the area voted against seceding prior to the Civil War, making the area “dark to nullification.”) Those men brought with them the art of distilling grains – and the notion that their doing so was no government’s business.
Today, while a handful of illegal stills are said to be operating, distilling has become part of the craft food and beverage industry, stressing locally sourced foods, beers and, now, spirits. Some 30 such distilleries, thanks to liberalization of South Carolina laws and reduction of licensing fees, produce all manner of alcoholic products – including a wide variety of modern-day moonshine.
As for those hard-driving mountain boys who once outran “revenuers” (federal agents) to deliver the goods? Today, they’re collectively known as NASCAR.
Joe Fenten, co-owner with wife Roxy of Dark Corner Distillery, considers himself a “native son of the Dark Corner,” he says. “I got all my ideas for this business from living in Landrum, at the base of Hogback Mountain.” He recalls childhood stories of a family that dabbled in illegal moonshine, “my dad always told us, if you see any of that, go in the other direction.”
An electrical engineering major at Clemson, Fenten tried a number of technical careers – plus a bartending stint in college – but when he visited a large Northeastern distillery, “a spark went off in my mind: to take that heritage of the Dark Corner and apply the new legislation in South Carolina to start a micro-distillery.”
On Sept. 21, 2011, he and Roxy opened their operation and tasting room in downtown Greenville, the first such in Upstate South Carolina. The name was easy: “I knew those people, what moonshine meant to them, and I had to pay homage to them. We didn’t want this to be a novelty, but something people would get behind and believe in.”
NASCAR’s moonshine-running roots are less important to Fenten. But in nearby North Carolina, NASCAR pioneers such as hall of famer Junior Johnson freely admit their criminal pasts. Tales of 1940s and 1950s booze-hauling runs are recounted in at least two books: “Driving with the Devil: Southern Moonshine, Detroit Wheels and the Birth of NASCAR” by Neal Thompson, and “Real NASCAR: White Lightning, Red Clay and Big Bill France (the founder of NASCAR), by University of North Carolina professor Daniel S. Pierce.
Pierce writes that he was surprised during research to learn “how many of the early (NASCAR) promoters and track owners were people involved in bootlegging.” Their drivers, meanwhile, in their spare time raced each other on dirt tracks carved out of pastures, their high-powered cars often faster than early NASCAR vehicles, which would be regulated by the sport.
“Big” Bill France, founder of iconic Daytona Raceway and later NASCAR, soon started recruiting those drivers to race at tracks in the Carolinas and Virginia, and quickly the sport became as much a part of the South as grits and redeye gravy.
Fenten says his local customers usually know the history – some, more than others. “We get the old man in overalls, the one who wants to try the legal (moonshine),” he said. “You can tell he’s still making it and wants to see if yours is as good. He knows NASCAR, probably drank with Junior Johnson. We hear that every day.”
But Dark Corner also draws visitors who “are interested in the mystique of moonshine. Maybe they’re from Ohio, and now they’re finding out all about it now that it’s legal. Now, it’s kind of cool.”
For Fenten and other South Carolina craft distillers, the history has become less important than the product. Backwoods moonshine could be deadly depending on who was making it, but legal moonshine ranges from straight “white” corn-based spirits to fruit-flavored varieties.
Today, South Carolina has an assortment of craft distilleries making all manner of spirits, among them pioneer Firefly Distilling near Charleston, whose trademark offering is Sweet Tea (infused) Vodka. Moonshine is widely available, but owes its origins to the Upstate.
“Moonshine, that’s our bread and butter,” says Fenten, who likes other Upstate distillers such as Motte & Sons Bootlegging in Spartanburg and Rock Bottom Distillers in Gaffney. “For some others, it’s an entry into whiskey, so the first thing they make is white (corn liquor) to generate revenue."
“But we opened our distillery to produce the world’s best moonshine. That was our original goal, and we’ve won more than 45 medals for making the product we said we were going to make.”
At any distillery, it comes down to quality ingredients and traditional methods of distilling, even the type of still used. “Doing it the old-fashioned way,” Fenten says. The way it was done back when fast cars driven by good ol’ boys, some future NASCAR stars, delivered the finished product to thirsty customers.