Trolinger's Legendary Still(s)


My overall high school experience was filled with an amazing blend of experiences, ranging from the good to the ridiculous. On the one hand I liked to be seen a smart kid with a future, but I also needed the image of the badass hood among friends. It is completely amazing that I survived those years without something totally disastrous and/or winding up in jail for life.

I was known about school both as a scientifically and artistically gifted person with my own chemistry laboratory in the garage behind my house. The people who knew me would have guessed that I would have a future as some kind of scientist or engineer. More appropriately, if you asked anyone who knew of me, you would hear stories about my still, where I produced a fine brand of drink for friends. Some of the stories were true; I did have a still and produced enough moonshine to furnish at least a few parties, but never a continuous flow in large quantity. A few of the gang helped supply me with materials and in turn they received a half pint of white lightning.

In Tennessee in the '40's to 50's alcoholic beverages were much more controlled than they are now. Hard liquor was totally illegal in most cities and counties and one could not even buy beer on Sundays. A great curiosity even to this day is that Moore County, home of Jack Daniels Distillery, is a dry county. Around the year 2000 a special state law was passed that permitted Jack Daniels to sell one special commemorative whisky in its gift store. Some countries banned all alcoholic beverages. Three professions existed because of this, moon shining, which is making whiskey, bootlegging, which is selling whiskey, illegally, moonshine or otherwise, and revenuers, who were government employees charged with finding and arresting moon shiners, who commonly operated their stills under cover of woods and mountains.

A still of this sort contains a boiler, where the mash is cooked. A pipe takes steam into a secondary container, called a thumper keg by moon shiners, because it makes a thumping sound. Its purpose is to perform a secondary distillation, strengthening the alcohol content. Since heat for the secondary container comes from the steam itself, it holds the temperature ideally for the process to concentrate the alcohol content and raise the quality. I discovered quite by accident a rather standard procedure of adding a flavor to the alcohol by placing fruit in the thumper keg. This gave my whiskey a distinct, pleasant aroma.

Some of the components of the still, such as glass flasks and condensers were pinched from the high school chemistry laboratory. Other material came from Renegar's drug store which at the time was next to my home at 306 Madison street, Shelbyville, Tennessee, where now lies a Hardy's parking lot. To mix the mash, I used stainless steel milk cans that we had stolen from farmers, who left them vulnerable at pickup and drop off points near the highway.

My parents encouraged the laboratory and apparently never really caught on to the fact that I was more of a moon shiner than a chemist. In fact, I did conduct legitimate research, though a bit naive, on the improvement of yeasts for fermenting. I had reasoned that I could isolate a super strain of yeast that could survive much higher alcohol content. Common yeasts die when the alcohol content reaches about 12%. I also had dreams of developing an alcohol that tastes the same as ethanol but would not be addicting, a naive hope of curing an alcoholic father.

I came close to getting caught on more than one occasion. One such instance happened the day I decided to move the operation into the house where I could use the kitchen stove top and running water for the condenser. Timing was critical because mother worked a ten hour shift at a Empire Pencil Company, and I had to be in and out totally, smell and all, while she was away. During the installation I broke a glass tube running from the top of the boiler to the thumper keg. I ran next door to Renegar's to pick up another tube. Unfortunately, in my haste I failed to recognize that the tube I had purchased was plastic and not glass; it was a long hard plastic straw.

I should have realized this when I heated and bent it to fit the appropriate position, because its behavior was rather strange. What I failed to recognize was that the plastic had just melted and sealed itself at the bend.

As the mash began heating I could hear the sound of the liquid churning to a boil. But something was different with this batch. It sounded different and still no alcohol was emerging from the condenser, not even steam. By the time I figured out that pressure was building up in the boiler, it was too late. The entire top of the still exploded and steam-propelled mash spewed to the ceiling. By the time I could safely shut down the operation the kitchen was covered with bits of mash, and the ceiling was soaked.

I spent the rest of the day cleaning the stove, the floor, and every exposed surface, but there was little I could do about the big spot on the ceiling or the strong smell of alcohol and mash. You could get high just by breathing. The smell hit her as soon as she stepped from her car, and I was in big trouble. She immediately began to ask me what I was doing that would create such a smell. When she realized that the smell was coming from the house and not the garage, she immediately went to the kitchen and discovered the source. She was suspicious but still apparently failed to guess exactly what I was really doing. I came very close that day to being shut down entirely.

By the end of high school I routinely produced a pint or so a week of 140 proof white lighting, which always found a grateful taker, since I drank very little of it myself. This was my little niche in the gang, and I was proud of the capability. A few of my friends began to think much bigger and to dream about where this could lead. Moon shining and bootlegging were a highly profitable, especially not counting for necessary payoffs to the local law, about which we had less experience. Especially in a dry county, where one not only avoided federal taxes, but also avoided the cost of being illegal even after federal taxes were paid. (i.e. security, staying sub rosa, payoffs, and special transportation).

Two of my friends, Sam and Dale, who somehow had made contacts with the seedier old folk about town, took it upon themselves to deliver a pint of my product to a local bootlegger for his opinion. Sam was one of the true entrepreneurs of our class, and he had a new money making scheme on his mind every time I saw him. After sampling from the bottle, the bootlegger made an immediate offer to buy as much of this as we could deliver for 15 dollars a gallon. I could see the dollar signs in Sam's eyes as he unfolded a plan to back a large-scale moon shining operation.

Sam's enthusiasm was contagious, and soon the three of us worked out a plan. Within days they had located a 300-acre forest-covered farm that we could lease for almost nothing. Excitement was high as we drove along an old dirt road finding several excellent, well-hidden sites with a good water source. I began to round up materials for a fifty-gallon still. To this day I have no idea how far we would have taken this if God had not come along and tossed in a roadblock.

I had manage to build a prototype of the still using stainless steel milk cans for both the boiler and the thumper keg, with copper tubing connecting them and passing the steam through the condenser. Then came the visit from Sam that stopped everything. He came to say good-bye, apologizing for having to bail out of the operation. For other reasons Sam was leaving town for a while. The universe had done two naive kids, who were about to get in over their heads, a great favor. If the law had not come down on us, then a worse fate wrought by rival moon shiners most likely would have. Moonshining was a big business, not designed for the weak or timid, and moon shiners often died early and untidy deaths I hope that this was the dumbest business scheme I will ever participate in.

I continued to dabble in moon shining on a very small scale for years, though most of the stories about my booze were urban legends, since everyone wanted to lay claim to have sampled it. Actually, only a handful of friends actually did. The first major confrontation from mother came after reading multiple testimonies written by pals who signed my high school annual. It seems I had developed a rather clear reputation. Fortunately I was off to college and bowed out of the business.




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