At Maryland's Catoctin Mountain Park, a Whiskey Still Gets You Up Close and Personal with Moonshine History

Blue Blazes Still exhibit at Catoctin Mountain Park. This NPS photo was taken in 1987 when demonstrations and ranger chats were still being scheduled at the site.

Maryland's Catoctin Mountain Park is a 5,800-acre park located on rugged forested land about a 90-minute drive northwest of Baltimore. The popular park, which attracted over 440,000 visitors last year, has one of the more unusual exhibits in the National Park System. It's a genuine whiskey still set up on the secluded site of a very eventful Prohibition-era raid.

Here we need to clarify something. "Whiskey still" is actually a misnomer. Contrary to prevailing belief, stills do not produce whiskey. The distillation process that employs fermented grain just produces alcohol (ethanol, to put a finer point on it). Producing whiskey requires additional processing. You need to allow the alcohol to age, usually in a charred oak barrel. (The aging process removes many of the impurities and improves drinkability. The charcoal in the barrels absorbs some of the toxins that cause headaches when too much alcohol is consumed.) Through the centuries, the terms alcohol and whiskey have been used so interchangeably that the distinction has been impossibly blurred.

People were using stills to make alcohol in the backwoods of western Maryland well over 200 years ago. Settlers began clearing land for family farms in this area of the Appalachian Mountains by the mid-1730s, and just about every one of those farms had a small still. Much of the product was for personal use. Alcohol was not just used as a beverage, but also for medicines, lamp fuel, antiseptic, anesthetics, and other important purposes. Few items the farms produced were more versatile.

Because hard cash was hard to come by in this remote, sparsely settled region, alcohol was commonly bartered for goods and services. After all, everybody needed alcohol.

The mountain people also produced large quantities of alcohol for export to Philadelphia, Baltimore, and other urban markets. Appalachia's poor transport system and high shipping costs made it difficult and expensive to ship a bulky, perishable commodity like grain. It made better sense to use corn and rye from area farms to produce a high-value liquid product that was easier and cheaper to transport.

This system worked well for decades before government regulation changed the rules. In 1791, during George Washington's presidency, a new law that levied a heavy excise tax on whiskey (and triggered the infamous Whiskey Rebellion) led many cash-strapped Appalachian farmers to operate unlicensed stills in order to evade the tax. Hiding illegal stills in the backwoods and making alcohol "by the light of the moon" became a folk culture staple, and moonshiners themselves came to symbolize the fierce independence of the mountain people and resistance to what was viewed as government oppression.

The whiskey tax was repealed in 1802, bringing stills back into the open. By this time, many farmers were selling their grain to commercial distilleries instead of operating their own stills. Moonshine would have faded into history had it not been for a return to whiskey taxation with the onset of the Civil War. Ever since the early 1860s, whiskey has been heavily taxed and criminals have operated unlicensed stills in hidden locations.

In 1919, the Eighteenth Amendment made Prohibition the law of the land and stills were banned. As a direct result, the illegal manufacture, distribution, and sale of moonshine -- collectively referred to as bootlegging -- flourished in America as never before. Large-scale distilling operations were the hallmark of this era, which lasted until passage of the 21st Amendment brought Prohibition to an end in December 1933.

During the Prohibition era, some of the largest bootlegging operations in the country were based on high-volume stills operating near streams in nooks and crannies of the rugged Catoctin Mountain/Frederick County region of western Maryland. On July 31, 1929, a raid that cost the life of a deputy sheriff shut down the infamous Blue Blazes Still at a site on Distillery Run about five miles west of Thurmont.

The Blue Blazes Still was so large that it used a boiler from a steam locomotive, had thirteen 2,000-gallon fermenting vats, and produced enough moonshine to supply all of the speakeasies in Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington, DC. "White lightning" from a fresh run could be whisked off to any of these locations in a matter of hours.

Today, Catoctin Mountain Park visitors can visit the Blue Blazes site on Distillery Run, see an authentic still, and learn a good bit about the alcohol making tradition of Appalachia. To experience this yourself, park at the Visitor Center, where you'll find the trailhead for the aptly-named Blue Blazes Whiskey Still Trail not far away. Then do the 0.3-mile hike, which takes about 15 minutes, involves a vertical ascent of 60 feet, and is rated easy.

The original Blue Blazes Still is long gone, having been destroyed in that raid more than 80 years ago. What you'll see there now is informational waysides and an exhibit consisting of a small "pot still" of the type that a farmer of the 1800s might have used to produce whiskey for personal use and bartering. A single run could produce about 50 gallons of white lightning.

According to Catoctin ranger Debbie Mills, "the demonstration still consists of parts from at least two illegal stills that were seized in Cades Cove, Tennessee." Installed at the site in the 1960s, the still was operated from time to time for demonstration purposes. According to Mills, rumor has it that the earliest demonstrators had first-hand knowledge of alcohol production gained from long experience.

The demonstrations came to a halt in 1989 when the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) revoked the still's permit. Until recently, interpreters were available at the Whiskey Still exhibit a few times a year (most recently on certain days during September and June) to present talks about the whiskey making tradition of Appalachia. However, the exhibit is now self-guided (contrary to the out-of-date information on the park's website).

For additional information, contact the park at (301) 663-9330 or visit the park website, which includes a park map, and a Blue Blazes Whiskey Still Trail map and description.