Tar Heel Lightnin'

How Secret Stills and Fast Cars Made North Carolina the Moonshine Capital of the World

By Daniel S. Pierce

312 pp., 7 x 10, 76 halftones, notes, index

  • Hardcover ISBN: 978-1-4696-5355-6
    Published: October 2019
  • eBook ISBN: 978-1-4696-5356-3
    Published: August 2019

Buy this Book

From the late nineteenth century well into the 1960s, North Carolina boasted some of the nation's most restrictive laws on alcohol production and sale. For much of this era, it was also the nation’s leading producer of bootleg liquor. Over the years, written accounts, popular songs, and Hollywood movies have turned the state's moonshiners, fast cars, and frustrated Feds into legends. But in Tar Heel Lightnin', Daniel S. Pierce tells the real history of moonshine in North Carolina as never before. This well-illustrated, entertaining book introduces a surprisingly varied cast of characters who operated secret stills and ran liquor from the swamps of the Tidewater to Piedmont forests and mountain coves. From the state's earliest days through Prohibition to the present, Pierce shows that moonshine crossed race and economic lines, linking men and women, the rebellious and the respectable, the oppressed and the merely opportunistic. As Pierce recounts, even churchgoing types might run shipments of "that good ol' mountain dew" when hard times came and there was no social safety net to break the fall.

Folklore, popular culture, and changing laws have helped fuel a renaissance in making and drinking commercial moonshine, and Pierce shows how today's producers understand their ties to the past. Above all, this book reveals that moonshine's long, colorful history features surprises that can change how we understand a state and a region.

About the Author

Daniel S. Pierce is professor of history at the University of North Carolina Asheville. His previous books include Real NASCAR: White Lightning, Red Clay, and Big Bill France.
For more information about Daniel S. Pierce, visit the Author Page.


"A crucial read, rich in both historical detail and folklore, dotted with compelling photos and century-old graphics."--Capital at Play

“Pierce’s book is a crucial read, rich in both historical detail and folklore, dotted with compelling photos and century-old graphics, and featuring extended looks at everyone from Sutton, Polk County bootlegger Betty Sims, and The Andy Griffith Show, to contemporary (and legal) locals like Troy & Sons’ Troy Ball and Howling Moon Distillery’s Cody Bradford.” --Capital at Play

“No dry academic study, the book is filled with intoxicating asides on moonshine humor, music, movies, road trips, and more.”--WNC

“Like all powerful historical accounts, Pierce’s book both humanizes and complicates its subject. Stripping away cliches, it reframes moonshining as not merely a symbol of rebellion but also as the fruit of considerable ingenuity and a fundamental drive to survive.”--Mountain Xpress

“Well informed and entertainingly written. . . . The greatest strength of the book is its tone, which is engaging and conversational. Discussions of popular culture representations of moonshiners complement the historical narrative, and entertaining asides such as the author’s “North Carolina Moonshine Playlist” (in chapter 14) add flavor and a touch of whimsy to the book.”--CHOICE

"Tar Heel Lightnin' is by turns illuminating and hilarious. Daniel Pierce is the rare academic who distills history to its most essential elements, ensuring that his readers will come away enlightened and entertained. For North Carolinians, the region we call home may influence our preferences in cuisine and sports teams, but there is no doubt that moonshine is as essential to our culture as pork and basketball. As usual, Pierce holds a mirror up to the South, allowing us to see ourselves, our culture, and our history through the clarity of his prose."--Wiley Cash, author of The Last Ballad