Whether you happened upon this phenomenon randomly while channel surfing or you’ve been a long-time fan of Discovery Channel’s hit TV show Moonshiners you may have pondered at some point: Is this real life?
The short answer is: No, child, it’s television. This is not reality.
But here’s the question you should be asking: Is any of it real?
When shows like The Real World, Survivor, Fear Factor and American Idol debuted generations ago, the concept of Reality TV was groundbreaking.
Now, with hundreds if not thousands of reality shows coming and going in the intervening years, we’re savvier and our expectations have changed.
Do we still think that everyone who brings an exotic item into Rick’s pawn shop just walked in off the street? Have we ever found it odd that every time the American Pickers arrive at someone’s house, even on “surprise” visits, the homeowner is all mic’d up?
Do we think if the cast of the Discovery Network show Moonshiners had really been thumbing their nose at the revenuers for eight seasons, somebody, somewhere wouldn’t have gotten busted?
So is Moonshiners real?
That, my friend, is a complicated question that includes a discussion about the very nature of reality, the intertwining of myth and legend with expectation and, of course, just how much folks want to believe their own bull.
We’ll start with the obvious. The very act of observing reality changes it.
This is a TV show with cameras and producers, directors and editors. Many of the cast members are referred to as actors.
These are people, playing some version of themselves. Probably fairly close versions of themselves.
Tickle, for instance, is probably not going to the opera or spending a lot of time in the library when not running shine.
Are the moonshiners legal? What the law says about making moonshine
It’s also important to note that historically, what makes moonshine illegal isn’t the illicit nature of the whiskey cooking. It’s untaxed sales.
That’s why moonshiners historically battle the IRS and not say, ATF.
So if the moonshiners on the show obtain the proper permits and pay the appropriate taxes, they can walk around in the woods making as much whiskey as they want without ever breaking a law.
In March of 2012, the Virginia ABC bureau said as much, indicating if illegal activities were going on, they’d have made some arrests.
In trying to defend themselves as true outlaws, many of the Moonshiners cast members have indicated that television footage isn’t evidence. They could just have water in those stills, after all.
Moonshiners cast members, whose apparent legal expertise is quite impressive, also empirically state that they have to be caught in the act.
But there’s an easier explanation that doesn’t require a law degree.
In the mountains, local law enforcement doesn’t really care that much about moonshine. As long as someone’s not being egregious and selling it to kids, law enforcement has better things to do then run the hollers chasing bootleggers.
Every once in a while, around election time, you’ll see a good gambling or moonshine bust but the rest of the time, the moonshiner really has to be doing something else – like Tickle getting arrested for having a sawed-off shotgun.
The truth about moonshine culture in the Smokies
Finally, there’s one last layer to reality that we have to address. It’s the influence of the culture upon itself.
They say a lot of mobsters adjusted the way they talked, acted and conducted themselves in the wake of the Godfather movies.
Are these moonshiners really portraying the truest versions of themselves or are they acting how they have been taught a moonshiner acts?
In season 1, Moonshiners relied heavily on footage of Marvin “Popcorn” Sutton who killed himself when several run-ins with the law would finally mean real prison time.
Sutton was a shrewd man who was a natural born marketer.
He was of the mountains, of course, but I think he found behaving a certain way increased his notoriety and his marketability.
How much of what Sutton showed the world was authentic Marvin and how much was a created character? By the end, I’m not sure Sutton himself even knew.
Sutton’s legacy looms large over the Moonshine community.
How much are others influenced by the way he talked, the way he carried himself or the way he operated? How many are trying to be authentic by imitating, even subconsciously the Godfather of the moonshine community?
Ultimately, that’s a secret producers don’t want us to know. I suspect most of the moonshiners would tell you they present their authentic selves to the world. But ego and id are strange, capricious things.
Is this real life?
Maybe none of us really know.
Have you seen the show Moonshiners on Discovery Channel? Are you a fan? What did you think? Let us know in the comments below.