The South’s Prohibition History and Rise of NASCAR

The South’s Prohibition History and Rise of NASCAR

—April 2, 2019

Along with celebrating life’s best moments with drinks and friends, we here at the Southern Drinking Club thoroughly enjoy learning about history, especially when it focuses on the South and/or drinking. When one considers the history of drinking in the U.S., however, nothing captures the public’s imagination more than America’s failed 1920-1933 effort to ban it—that is, Prohibition.

While Prohibition represents a broad-based story, with components touching upon just about every aspect of American life at that time, the first thoughts that come to most people’s minds when the word is mentioned today are Chicago gangsters, bootleggers, rumrunners, and speakeasies. In short, Prohibition tends to be billed primarily as a northern history, with scant participation from, or impact on, the South. Part of this is undoubtedly due to the fact that much of the South was already “dry” when Prohibition was enacted, though it’s also likely due in some part to Yankee propensity to co-opt history.

And sure, Yankee big-city gangsters of that time, along with border-crossing bootleggers and rumrunners, make for exciting history, but the South’s Prohibition history was equally exciting, and perhaps more relevant in its impact on America’s overall historical evolution. Not only did many big Southern cities have their own bootlegging gangsters—plenty of gangster-style shootouts and the like in New Orleans, Houston, Mobile, Tampa, and Tallahassee during Prohibition—but Southern moonshiners and bootleggers had been battling state and local government agents for years prior to the enactment of national Prohibition.

We Southerners just don’t like being told what to do, and long resorted to moonshining in the face of local, state, and then national efforts to stop us from enjoying a drink. And while rumrunning is historically associated with running it down from Canada, rumrunning from the Caribbean into Southern ports had been turning Southern entrepreneurs into millionaires for decades before that form of smuggling was needed up north.

In short, while more and more cities, towns, counties and states in the South went dry in the decades before Prohibition, that level of aridness was dry in name only. The only thing national Prohibition did was enhance the Southern moonshine business and number of Southern entrepreneurs engaged in it. Oh, and it also brought about the rise of the great Southern sport of stock car racing,  which is now watched by millions around the world under the banner of NASCAR.

With national Prohibition leading to such an increase in business, Southern moonshiners had to spend more and more time on the road getting their fine product to market. And while they had long had to contend with local and state efforts to stop them, this only intensified with the addition of the Feds. Southern moonshiners got a big edge in the cat and mouse game with Ford Motor Company’s introduction of the V-8 engine. which provided moonshiners with the “perfect moonshine deliver vehicle.” As noted by Neal Thompson, author of “Driving with the Devil: Moonshine, Detroit Wheels, and the Birth of NASCAR, a V-8-mounted Ford “was fast enough to stay one step ahead of the law, rugged enough for the mountain roads, and had a big enough trunk and back seat to squeeze in the moonshine.”

That Ford V-8 may have been an innovative Yankee invention, but Southern boys love to tinker and moonshiners across the South put their ingenuity into V-8 modifications that would give them even more speed to elude Johnny Law during deliveries. These deliveries undoubtedly became easier with the end of national prohibition in 1933, though they were still needed as many state and local governments opted to remain arid with regard to booze.   

Southerners also liked to compete, and at some point in the mid-1930s moonshiners started racing their delivery vehicles against each other at local fairgrounds and improvised tracks. These early stock car races drew in the crowds, which led local entrepreneurs to start planning races with paid attendance and cash purses for the winners. By 1938, stock car racing was pretty much established across the South, with numerous dedicated racing tracks that drew in crowds by the thousands.

Not only had many of these pre-NASCAR drivers trained by running moonshine, but “a large percentage of the early mechanics, car owners, promoters, and track owners had deep ties to the illegal alcohol business,” say Daniel S. Pierce, in his book, “Real NASCAR: White Lightening, Red Clay and Big Bill France.” In fact, Raymond Parks, the first person to establish a professional stock car racing team, had made a fortune in running moonshine in Georgia and  his investment in a professional team was likely used in part to launder some of his ill-gotten gains. His racing team drivers were some of the top moonshine runners in North Georgia, and his primary mechanic was known as “the bootleggers’ mechanic.”

The intersection of moonshine running and stock car racing is perhaps best evidenced by a stock car race held at Atlanta’s Lakewood Speedway in September 1945, when police intervened to ban five drivers from racing due to their prior moonshine running convictions. The 30,000 fans did not take kindly to this police action, and in the face of what was about to be an ugly riot, the police relented and a top moonshine runner won the race.

Bill France, the founder of what was to become NASCAR in 1947, did not have a background in moonshining, though he was an avid recruiter of moonshine runners during his initial efforts to standardize stock car racing. In fact, many of the teams involved in the first official NASCAR races in the late 1940s had deep ties to moonshining. According to the aforementioned Neal Thompson, moonshine money was instrumental in sustaining NASCAR through its early years.

In the early 1950s, though, France made a concerted effort to bury NASCAR’s moonshine connections as part of an ultimately successful effort to make NASCAR more family friendly. Any connection between NASCAR and booze was pretty much then lost until 1972, when Canadian-based Carling Brewery sponsored a rookie driver with its Black Label brand. And, since then, NASCAR’s association with alcohol has primarily revolved around beer, but now you know that NASCAR was initially fueled by moonshine and driven by Prohibition.     

In honor of the South’s Prohibition-related heritage that led to the rise of NASCAR, we suppose we should offer a NASCAR-themed cocktail recipe . . . .

Easy! Grab a beer and bottom’s up. OK, but for those of you with more refined tastes, we offer the following:

The Green Flag

Fill a tall glass with ice and add:

  • 2 Oz premium vodka
  • 1/4th Oz melon liqueur (or any green-tinted liqueur, really)
  • 1 Oz white cranberry juice
  • 1 Oz Sprite
  • 1//2 Oz lime juice    

Garnish with lime and enjoy!

The Red Flag

Half fill a cocktail shaker with ice and add:

1 Oz premium vodka

1 Oz white rum

1/2 Oz Red Bull

1/2 cup of cranberry juice

Mix for 30 seconds, pour into a chilled Martini glass, and savor!      

—Originally published in March by the Southern Drinking Club   

Southern Born and Bred, But Please Deliver It Up North

Southern Born and Bred, But Please Deliver It Up North

Have you ever noticed that when you meet a Yankee who obviously has little to no knowledge about the South, he’ll try to ingratiate himself with you by mentioning some things he loves or knows about the South? Generally these things tend to be our weather, our accents, noteworthy Southern bands, a sports team or two, and a particular Southern alcoholic beverage that makes most normal folks’ stomachs turn. 

A few examples:

“I’ve never been South of Baltimore, but I love your climate.”

“When I hear a pretty Southern girl speak, that accent turns my knees to rubber and I just want to melt.”

“Man, you gotta respect ‘Bama, but I think Clemson might be able to take them this year.”

“If you’re talking old school Southern rock, Lynyrd Skynyrd was definitely tops—The Allman Brothers were good, but, man, nothing beats “Freebird.” 

“Can you guys still get moonshine? I’d like to try it sometime. I mean, I love Southern Comfort….”

Gag! Pretty much all around.

While some of the other various ingratiating comments I’ve heard over the years also tend to make me want to gag, any purported love for Southern Comfort always makes me want to seek out more interesting company.

What, you think that concoction that tastes like cough syrup and honey infused with a hint of cat piss and battery acid is our national drink, or something? Moron!

I haven’t tried Southern Comfort since my wayward youth, and the lingering memories of the few times I sampled it will undoubtedly continue to keep me away from it. While it never resulted in an abrupt appointment with the porcelain altar, that horrid taste is stored somewhere in the frontal lobe alongside that of spoiled milk and the smell of old-dog farts.

OK, so perhaps I’m being a bit harsh (on Southern Comfort, not Yankees), because apparently some folks enjoy Southern Comfort, given that it’s been around since 1874. However, in every informal poll I’ve conducted nine out of ten people tend to agree with my assessment, and, like me, have not sampled the spirit since their own equally wayward youth.

Nevertheless, Southern Comfort has somehow managed to maintain itself as a prominent brand for almost 150 years, and recently sold to the privately held Sazerac Company, located in Louisiana. This also happens to be the birthplace of Southern Comfort, though the founder moved his operation to Memphis in 1889. All this to say that Southern Comfort is truly a product of the South, though who it provides “comfort” to is a good question for debate.

According to company legend, Martin Wilkes Heron developed Southern Comfort because the Kentucky whiskey that made its way down the Mississippi River had often degraded by the time it reached New Orleans. Thus, Heron started experimenting with various recipes designed to bring flavor back into the compromised Bourbon.

Well, Heron must have been quite the wizard, because by 1889 he was receiving the equivalent of $60 per bottle for his concoction. And, surprise, Heron took Southern Comfort to the 1900 Paris World Exposition where it won a gold medal for fine taste and quality, and then won the same medal again at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair.

Folks sure were hard up for decent alcohol back in those days….

Don’t know what happened to Southern Comfort during Prohibition, but Heron’s assistant and  inheritor of the business, Grant M. Peoples, was set to go when Prohibition ended, and quickly got the product back on the market. In fact, in what was apparently some brilliant marketing, Peoples created the Scarlett O’Hara cocktail to coincide with the 1939 release of “Gone with the Wind.”  The cocktail—consisting of Southern Comfort, cranberry juice and lime, with perhaps a bit of peach and sometimes grenadine instead of cranberry—proved popular and kept Southern Comfort on the market.

While the Scarlett O’Hara pretty much went the way of its namesake into retirement, bartenders still receive an order for the cocktail on occasion, and other concoctions, such as the Alabama Slammer, have emerged to keep Southern Comfort relevant.

Overall, I think the fact that it is Southern product, and that its name and marketing efforts evoke the gentile Southern mystique, help the brand maintain its allure. Cause it’s certainly not the taste.

I’d also be willing to bet that Southern Comfort marketing has long targeted those from up north who just wish they could enjoy the much more refined living of the Southern states. I would guess that sales of Southern Comfort predominate from the north, and that the majority of those claiming to love Southern Comfort reside up there, where folks just don’t know any better.

Didn’t P.T. Barnum say that “there’s a sucker born every minute….” and most of them live up north?

Anyway, now that I have thoroughly disparaged this drink that purportedly honors the South, I’ll throw a bone to those few of you who actually enjoy Southern Comfort.

Herein then, I present you with the Southern Hurricane:

1.5 oz Southern Comfort

1.5 oz Sweet and Sour Mix

1.5 oz Orange Juice

1.5 oz Pineapple Juice

splash of Grenadine

Stir all together in an ice filled glass, garnish with an orange wedge and cherry, hold your nose and drink.

Originally published by The Southern Drinking Club

Johnnie Walker Upstaged by Chinese Liquid Razor Blades

Johnnie Walker Upstaged by Chinese Liquid Razor Blades

Being that we here at the Southern Drinking Club try to keep abreast of all news related to alcohol and its consumption, we were shocked to recently learn that a Chinese firm has overtaken the maker of Johnnie Walker as the “world’s most valuable liquor maker.”

But then again, being that we are American—and perhaps more importantly, Southern—we don’t tend to spend a lot of time worrying about news from far-out-of-the-way places such as China, Myanmar, California, Point Nemo and the like.

Nevertheless, it was a bit disconcerting to learn that as of early April, Kweichow Moutai became the largest liquor company in the world, with a value of $71.5 billion.

$71.5 billion—now that’s a lot of shots worth!

But what exactly is Kweichow Moutai? And, perhaps more to the point, how’s your favorite bartender going to react when you belly up to the bar and ask for three Pinot Grigios for the ladies, three Live Oak ales for the menfolk, and an accompanying round of Kweichow Moutai for the table?

Chances are that your bartender is not going to know WTF you are on about, but Kweichow Moutai was actually first introduced (conceptually, anyhow) to America in 1972, when the Chinese feted President Richard Nixon with their national drink during his famous official State Visit (during which aides reportedly worked overtime trying to limit the presidential intake).

Despite that early introduction—and perhaps because CBS News Anchor at the time, Dan Rather, described it “like liquid razor blades,”— Kweichow Moutai has never really taken off in the states, or anywhere but China, for that matter.

Its current success as the world’s leading liquor brand has more to do with demographics than anything else. While the American and European markets continue to favor Johnnie Walker by a wide margin over Kweichow Moutai, the overall potential market from both combined is less than the 1.4 billion population potential market in China. As it stands now, 95 percent of Kweichow Moutai sales are generated from within China, with less than 5 percent coming from the U.S. and Europe. Johnnie Walker, meanwhile, generates most of its sales from Europe and the U.S., though at a lower price point and smaller potential market.

You can find Kweichow Moutai, and other Chinese variants throughout America, but at an average price topping $200 per bottle, it has not proven to be an in-demand product. But you can help change that by asking your favorite bartender to carry it.

Do us a favor though, and let us know what your bartender tells you. Oh, and please fully describe the flavor of liquid razor blades.

—Originally published July 12 by the Southern Drinking Club