By: Hillary Delaney
The illegal sale and distribution of liquor looms large in America’s history. Our neighbors in Newport, once known as “Sin City” had many speakeasies which flourished during prohibition. These places tended to be rather rough, and many folks were not interested in mixing with such a wild crowd. If staying home for a drink was preferable, one would have to find the nearest source of the illegal elixir. Surprisingly, moonshiners didn't flourish only during the times of Federal prohibition.
There have always been those who choose to distill their own liquor, even during the days when Boone County was home to the largest legal distillery in the state. One example of this occurred in the early 1900’s; there is mention in Petersburg resident Lewis Loder’s diary of a local doctor, R. C. Tilley, who got into trouble for selling illegal liquor out of his office. Ironically, the doctor’s office was mere blocks from the Petersburg Distillery, which was in full operation at the time of his foray into illegal sales of alcohol.
The illegal production and distribution of liquor during times that legal liquor was available seems an unnecessary risk. One benefit was that the doctor paid no tax; this savings was then passed along to the consumer. Another benefit was that the alcohol could be marketed as “medicinal tonic,” thereby offering a moral loophole. In the Covington Journal, in 1861, there was a brief mention of the illegal sale and distribution of liquor on the same page as a large advertisement for legal whisky. The difference between the two news appearances seemed to stem from a concern for the health and welfare of the Civil War soldiers who were buying the competitively priced contraband; one can assume the featured legal liquor was too pricey for over-indulgence.
Around the turn of the century, local news stories began to appear about “Blind Tigers,” scattered throughout neighboring Grant County. A “Blind Tiger” can be best described as a sort of rough speakeasy or even just an illegal liquor store, usually with a still on-site. One brief article in the 1907 Boone County Recorder mentions a community group rallying to close several Blind Tigers in Williamstown, a concern to our own citizens who were in close proximity to this temptation. Our own Walton was also home to an illegal drinking house, as mentioned several times in the Walton Advertiser, during the early 1940s.
Kentucky has an ever-changing map of localities with disparate laws regarding the sale, distribution and consumption of alcohol. As of 2017, 39 of our 120 counties are considered “dry,” no sale of alcohol of any kind allowed. We have 32 “wet” counties, with full sale of alcohol, and 49 counties with mixed laws, referred to as “moist” counties. This may account for the continuing demand for home-produced alcohol.
Even with legal sales available locally, the practice of moonshining continued. In 1954 there was a raid on the Taylorsport farm of Howard Vise. Vise was arrested by federal agents who found barrels of illegal liquor, fermenting mash on the farm, and a 50-gallon still, which was hidden in an outhouse. This raid made the front page of several local papers, harkening back to the days of prohibition.
The ills of alcohol also prompted the formation of local Temperance League groups. These vocal citizens held regular meetings, wrote passionate editorials and even placed full page advertisements in local papers. It was an uphill battle, to be sure, in a Commonwealth whose very identity is frequently linked with bourbon. Undoubtedly, the debate between the ills and benefits of the business of liquor still occur in the community today. Regardless of which side of the discussion our current attitudes may fall, Boone County has had a long relationship with distilled spirits.