Moonshine is a spirit with a history as powerful as the punch it packs.
When we think of the word “moonshine”, we are often transported to a time when alcohol was illegal, but that didn’t seem to stop many Americans from seeking it out. They had to have their booze by hook or by crook, and moonshine was a favorite among those whose desire for the drink was stronger than their love of the law.
Montana is not necessarily the first state that comes to mind when we think about moonshine. But the history of moonshine is not just limited to Appalachian and southern culture. This potent drink has roots all over the country.
Moonshine not only has a rich history in Montana, producing many noteworthy characters in the bootlegging game during prohibition, but it also has a bright future with many reputable micro-distilleries currently producing some of the best quality moonshine in the nation.
A brief history of moonshine in Montana
One cannot envision the tumbleweed-swept streets of a Wild West town and not imagine a saloon at its heart. These saloons were filled with women of questionable reputations, wild, gun-wielding cowboys, dust-laden farmers, and brave lawmen.
While they might have been from different walks of life, every patron in the saloon was plying themselves with some sort of alcoholic drink. That was a lifestyle that many could not remove themselves from, even when it became illegal following prohibition.
Montana voters adopted prohibition two years before the nation put it into practice, making alcohol sales and possession illegal in 1916.
While many saloons folded during this period for obvious reasons, many continued to operate illegally and continue to provide their patrons with the libations they desired.
Because distilleries were no longer officially in business, and much of the equipment used to produce alcohol was confiscated during prohibition, bootleggers were forced to use makeshift stills and create spirits in a less-than-desirable fashion.
Moonshine became one of the most popular spirits produced by bootleggers. A form of whiskey, this high-proof alcohol was given its name because it was typically made during the wee hours of the night to prevent detection from authorities.
In the state of Montana, a multitude of incidents were reported concerning the condition of confiscated stills. Some were in appalling condition, including one still that was seized containing decomposing rodent bodies.
Sometimes, the moonshine produced would make consumers very ill or, in some cases, cause their death. It was reported that discarded moonshine would often cause the death of farm animals. There were even still that exploded, killing multiple bootleggers.
Regardless of the negative impact that bootlegging had on citizens, Montana became known as the Bootlegger Trail, as it offered easy access from Canada into the United States.
Runners were equipped with plenty of firepower and what would become known as modern-day hot rods, capable of outrunning authorities who might be on their trail. Bootlegging became one of the state's most lucrative, albeit dangerous, occupations.
This was not an occupation strictly for men. Montana produced many infamous female bootleggers, as well. Most got into the business out of necessity to feed their families. Some of the most notable female bootleggers in Montana included:
- Norah Gallagher, a widowed mother of five, reportedly started producing moonshine to buy her children proper Easter attire.
- Lavinia Gillman was an 80-year-old grandmother who ran a 300-gallon still.
- Tillie Wallace was a successful bootlegger out of Butte. That was until the sheriff finally confiscated her still. She reportedly sold her property for a whopping $10 and left the town shortly thereafter.
- Josephine Doody is perhaps the best-known of all the female bootleggers in Montana. Situated near a railway stop, it’s reported that the train had curb-side pickup set up with Doody. The train would pull up and honk its horn for each gallon of moonshine they requested, and it would be delivered to them directly.
The moonshine business in Montana was often a family affair with children tasked with deliveries and assisting with production.
Montana was the first state in the Union to end the enforcement of prohibition in 1926. The country passed the 21st Amendment in 1933, and Montana was the last state to ratify the amendment the following year.
Montana moonshine today
While the 21st Amendment made the sale of alcohol legal, it took Montana quite a while to legalize the production and distribution of moonshine.
2005 finally saw Montana repeal several laws governing alcohol that finally allowed micro-distilleries to produce spirits in small batches for distribution. In 2007, laws were passed allowing these micro-distilleries to have tasting rooms for patrons, thus beginning the booming moonshine business in the state.
Today, Montana has the third largest number of micro-distilleries per capita in the country.
These micro-distilleries pride themselves on producing some of the best moonshine the nation has to offer because they use local, natural ingredients to create their spirits. From huckleberries to bacon, farm-to-table components help to produce quality products that are ordered and distributed worldwide.
Moonshine in Montana: rich history to bright future
Though Montana might not be the first state one thinks of when thinking of moonshine, much like the world-famous southern states are known for their wild stories of bootlegging during the prohibition era, this great state has many beautiful pieces of history tied to this subject, as well.
Montana currently produces some of the world's best moonshine from its bountiful local ingredients.
Undoubtedly, the rich moonshine culture in Montana will continue for a long time to come.