Joe Pye Weeds essential in testing chartered moonshine

Published 2:19 pm Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Each September, tall, stately stalks and showy, purple-flowered tassels of Joe Pye Weeds line the sides of secondary roads throughout the Dark Corner. They are welcome harbingers of impending cooler days and nights of an Appalachian fall.

Beauty and season forecasting have not always been the major purposes for these omnipresent plants, however. Their unique configuration made them essential to the testing of white lightnin as it aged and mellowed for months in buried charred barrels and kegs to be chartered.

Joe Pye Weeds grow absolutely hollow all the way through their long stalks (they are sometimes referred to as natures straws).

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Nature disguises this fact by causing all leaves on the plants to grow only at designated intervals, much like the joints of bamboo. To a casual observer, the leaf clusters appear to be joints in the Joe Pye Weeds as well.

Moonshiners who chartered their whiskeyparticularly for medicinal purposeswould cut sections of Joe Pye Weeds to use as quills to lower into buried barrels and kegs to test the mellowness of the aging elixir.

After burying the barrels, a section about 12 inches in diameter would be left open over the bung area. Moss, leaves and loose brush, which could be easily removed later, would be used to fill this area.

When ready for testing, the loose items would be removed and any small debris would be brushed away. Then the bung would be removed so that the quill could be lowered into the barrel.

A sip could easily be siphoned into the mouth for proper testing. Then the bung would be replaced and loose items again returned to the open area.

On occasion, the tester would have to take several sips to be sure of proper aging and mellowness. This usually occurred on a particularly warm, humid day.

If more than one person was available for testing, the volume in the buried barrel was considerably less once the proper aging had been reached and the barrel removed from the ground.


Be sure to drop by the Landrum Library gallery this month to view the Dark Corner Folklore Exhibit. It features vintage photographs from The Dark Corner: Documenting the Oral Tradition, a 1983 project to preserve the rich folklore of the mountainous region, conducted by Dr. Bernard Zaidman and&bsp; sponsored by Limestone College and the South Carolina Committee for the Humanities. The photorgraphs depict 39 documentation participants and scenes from the project. The free exhibit will run through Oct. 30.