While heading down to Lynchburg, Tennessee in mid-April of 2012 to tour the Jack Daniels Distillery for the first time, I was very excited. Not only to see one of the oldest distilleries in the U.S., but to explore some more of the Southeastern U.S. The drive south to Lynchburg from Nashville gives many opportunities to get off beaten path and explore some of the back roads and towns they go through. When getting close to Lynchburg, one of things that became very noticeable about 5 miles out was that the trees along the side of the road we were driving on were turning darker and darker the closer we got. When we got to the distillery, the blackened bark of all the trees in and around town made a surreal scene of green accents of the leaves against black bark. It was really cool. The slightly overcast sky probably made this more apparent.
While taking the tour of the distillery, we were fortunate enough to have a very knowledgeable local tour guide who had been giving tours for around eight years. People in our tour group asked questions, and he had an answer for all of them. The one question that never got asked, and for some reason this astounded me, was “Why are all the trees around Lynchburg and the distillery so black?” He told me that over time, yeast mold from the brewing and distilling process accumulates on the trees, and in a matter of years, it can start to be noticed when someone is brewing, let alone almost a century and a half of distilling Tennessee whiskey. He proceeded to tell me how that was actually a big deal down in the south during prohibition.
Families were trying to make a living brewing moonshine in the hills, and if they stayed in an area too long, even a couple of years, the trees would start to turn black. That’s how the local law and authorities were able to spot an illegal still was by searching for darkened areas of tree patch. He also noted that that was also how a weary traveler was able to know there was a “sweet spot” somewhere close. If he played his cards right, or brought something good to trade, he was going to get himself some good hooch that night.
What blew me away was that some families back in that time period spent an entire decade or more moving from holler to holler to set up new stills. They would then run this liquor under the cover of night to different towns, particularly over the Alabama state line to the south where the liquor laws were supposed to be a little more lenient. This continued for years after prohibition, because moonshining became outlawed on its own eventually.
Who knows, there’s probably folks down in the hills still brewing.
And if that’s the case, I just hope they know to watch out for the trees turning black around them.