Stan Voit: Bootleggers had container source in family business

Jun. 30, 2013 @ 11:09 AM

Four years ago in Sevier County you could only get a margarita in Gatlinburg. Not only can you get one in any of the three cities these days, but we soon may be the moonshine capital of America.

It makes your head spin, and that’s without a shot of corn liquor to produce a buzz.

New legislation signed into law this year allows the spread of moonshine distilleries, and based on the applications to open one, we conceivably could have three or four in Pigeon Forge, three or four in Gatlinburg, and one or more in Sevierville. The Ole Smoky folks, who started it all, plan to expand into Pittman Center and Pigeon Forge.

This tourist destination we promote as family-friendly may be changing in ways that will be challenging to future marketing strategies. Can you really be the family-friendly tourist spot if you have six or seven moonshine distilleries along the route? Or does it even matter to visitors who are smart enough to see the attractions they want to see and avoid the others?

Is there a place you can go for vacation any more that is free of alcohol sales and promotion? Even Disney World is adding it; they already sold mixed drinks at EPCOT. You gotta offer what your customers say they want, even if it offends the sensibilities of a few of them.

Not everybody who wants a distillery here will wind up with one. Applying for something and carrying it through to completion are two entirely different and very difficult things. The plans of would-be moonshine makers in Sevier County, and the number we actually wind up with, are not the same. But it is a change in our makeup, and for me, it evokes memories of my own moonshine experience as a child in Alabama.

In the 1950s and 1960s there were still moonshiners — we called them bootleggers — dotting the rural landscape in Tuscaloosa County. They needed things to keep the stuff in. In the 1950s it was five-gallon glass jugs. Those got too expensive and easily broken, so they changed to plastic in the ’60s.

My father was their biggest supplier of containers.

He had a dry-goods store, and the moonshiners began to come in looking for different kinds of vessels to hold their product. When the glass jugs were not wanted any more, they began to ask about plastic cans.

He began to make some calls to his own wholesale suppliers, and found one who had five-gallon plastic cans fairly cheap. He began to order them. The cans had the name of the manufacturer etched on them. My father called the can maker and they said they’d be glad to sell directly to him.

Huge boxes with six cans each began to arrive at his tiny store. To protect his source, my father would take a screwdriver and chisel off the name of the company on each can. This was a hard job, in a store not air-conditioned, but he did it. We were too small to help on that job, so he did them all. Dozens and dozens — hundreds — of plastic cans.

The cans were then sold in huge quantities to bootleggers. Our store became the go-to source for them. He made lots of money this way.

One day in the mid-1960s a couple of what Snuffy Smith would call revenoors walked in, flashed their badges and told my father they had begun to find a lot of his five-gallon plastic cans at the stills they raided and destroyed. They ordered him to sell no more than one per customer from then on.

Looking back, I am not so sure they had the right to make such a demand with a legal consumer item, but he complied. Sort of. If a customer came in he didn’t know and wanted a quantity of the cans, he wouldn’t sell them. If they were repeat customers, he would.

Once a revenue agent came in posing as a customer, and asked for several of the cans. On a hunch my father said no. The officer then showed his badge, said he was checking on compliance, thanked him for doing what he was told to do, and walked out.

The bootlegging business waned in the late 1960s, and demand for the cans dried up. But for  a decade or so, our family ate and got the mortgage paid and were clothed with money made from selling plastic cans to moonshiners.

Now it’s a legal business and tourist attraction, about to be spread from Kodak to Gatlinburg.

Anybody need a source for plastic cans?

— Stan Voit is editor of The Mountain Press. His column appears each Sunday. He can be reached at 428-0748, ext. 217, or e-mail to svoit@themountainpress.com. Twitter: @stanvoit.