Farmers of the Catoctin Mountain area were faced with a number of problems in marketing the crops they produced. The most profitable market for their goods were in the more populated areas of cities and towns. In the days before good highways and before rails had been laid, the rugged mountains presented a barrier for horse-drawn transportation. Products such as grain, meat and lumber were too heavy to be transported to the more profitable markets in the larger cities. Corn and rye were also very bulky to transport but when converted to whiskey, they became more profitable.
While the average horse was capable of hauling only 4 bushels of corn at a time, the same horse could haul the equivalent of 24 bushels if the grain was manufactured into whiskey. The liquid whiskey occupied less space and was easier to carry to market. The price of whiskey depended on a number of other factors, as well. The better the grade of corn, the better the whiskey. The more plentiful the spring water happened to be, the better the whiskey produced with it. Finally the more skilled the distiller, the finer the blend of whiskey he could manufacture.
Conversion of rye and corn into liquor probably began in Frederick County with the harvest of the first crop, somewhere around 1734. Until Congress passed the 1791 Excise Tax, many farms had their own stills. For the next 128 years, it was legal to own a still--provided you paid the tax. Not until the adoption of the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution was possession of a still an offense.
The problem with the 1791 Excise Tax was that it took the profit out of making liquor. For mountain people, the liquor concentration of rye and corn was the most practical way to get crops to market. So rather than pay the tax they went underground, operating by the light of the moon.
Blue Blazes Whiskey Still On July 31, 1929, Deputy Sheriff Clyde L. Hauver was fatally wounded in a raid on the Blue Blazes Still. It was a large commercial operation, a "steamer" still. More than 25,000 gallons of mash were found in 13 vats of 2,000 gallon capacity each. Police eventually tracked down several suspects, and two moonshiners were convicted in connection with the murder after several days of conflicting testimony.
Tales of a double-crossing informant, a love triangle, arson, and other rumors spread throughout central Maryland. What exactly happened remains a mystery.
Today another still sits on the banks of Distillery Run. It's quite different than the set up found that day. The new Blue Blazes still is more typical of the smaller moonshine still of an earlier day. Even more different -- visitors are welcome -- not challenged.
Last updated: April 10, 2015