Moonshine and the Mountaineers: West Virginia’s tailgate tradition

MORGANTOWN, W. Va. — It’s an early autumn Saturday morning, and the aroma of moonshine is already drifting through the hillsides surrounding Mountaineer Field. It’s a scent that’s utterly West Virginian.

“That’s got some deep roots,” Sharon Harvey says of the high-proof whiskey as she walks into Milan Puskar Stadium. Harvey’s grandfather immigrated to West Virginia from Poland, got a job with a coal mining company and for a while, had his own still.

Harvey grew up in Fayetteville, one of the small towns scattered across West Virginia, and became the first dental hygienist in Richwood, another tiny town 40 miles down the road.

“This man would come in and get his teeth cleaned,” Harvey says. “Afterward, I would unlock the back door, and he would stick a gallon jug of moonshine there for the dentist as payment.”

To those tailgating around the stadium, Harvey’s backstory is hardly unique. Alongside West Virginia football, West Virginia moonshine is a powerful connecting force in the Mountaineer State.

A tie that binds generations. Brings families together. Turns strangers into friends.

“Moonshine is part of our heritage,” says Darrell Brown of Burnsville, who has supplied the tailgate he regularly attends in the Blue Lot in front of J.W. Ruby Memorial Hospital, which sits across the street from the stadium. “It’s a way to bring people together.”

Brown’s moonshine roots date back to Prohibition. His great-grandfather was shot and killed by the revenuers while running shine. Brown still has the recipe his great-grandfather used — “The slower you cook it,” he explains, “the better it is” — but he rarely drinks it. “I bring it for everybody else,” he says.

To anyone who explores the tailgating scene at West Virginia, moonshine mason jars actually aren’t readily visible. Instead, they’re usually tucked away, waiting to be brought out when a friend or family member arrives — or even when a fan of another team from Kansas, Oklahoma or Texas walks by.

“That’s one thing I want to caution you against,” says Tim Wolfe of Morgantown. “Don’t take West Virginians as nothing but hillbillies that drink moonshine blah, blah, blah. That’s not who we are. Moonshine is a way to bring generations together. It’s part of our history. … And West Virginia’s one big family.”

And they like having others over to visit. “We’re always like, ‘Hey, come over here. Try some moonshine, have a pepperoni roll,” said Matt Comer, of Barboursville, whose two sons, Evan and Andrew, live in Morgantown. “Then next thing you know, we become your best friends in a way.”

Richard Marsh, an estate lawyer from Clarksburg, understands the lure of moonshine well. A dozen years ago, he started a tailgate on his own. Gradually, people he didn’t know started regularly flocking to his spot because of the company, the ribs and the moonshine.

Hours before kickoff, Marsh’s tailgate in front of the law school is already bustling with former strangers, such as Dustin Fitz, who drove in the night before from New Jersey. “When I was in school here, Richard had the best tailgate,” Fitz said. “I’m like a walk-on here.”

Marsh’s present batch of moonshine came from a chance encounter two years ago. He thought he was buying a gun safe from his brother’s friend. When the seller discovered Marsh wasn’t some prosecuting attorney, he offered to throw in a milk carton of peach-flavored moonshine, sealed at the top with black electrical tape, for an extra $70. “He’s my moonshine guy now,” Marsh says.

It’s not difficult to find a “moonshine guy” in West Virginia, according to Marsh. “Even most of the cops in the state know somebody that has a moonshine hookup for them,” he says. “Someone learned to make moonshine — probably learned it from their grandfather. It’s just like one of those West Virginia things, ya know?”

In West Virginia, the making of moonshine is as old as the state itself. The combination of field corn and soft creek water gave West Virginians the requisite ingredients to produce a profitable spirit. “They shipped it as moonshine instead of corn because it was more in demand and cheaper to transport,” says Mark Sohn, a retired college professor in Kentucky who wrote an Appalachian cookbook.

During the 1920s, Prohibition only amplified its production across Appalachia, as the desire for it soared. “West Virginia actually made a lot of moonshine for the urban mobs up in Youngstown and Cincinnati and Chicago,” says Payton Fireman, an attorney in Morgantown. “Then the distributor would pick up the gallons and send it up north.”

Then, and in the decades to follow, West Virginians made moonshine to help earn a living. “You didn’t have welfare then. You didn’t have the government helping you,” Harvey says. “You had to make your own way.”

And beyond the mines and timber industry, there weren’t many ways to earn a lot of money in West Virginia. “You’d always hear, ‘We got boots at Christmastime because Dad, he’d make up a batch and sell it and have the Christmas money,'” Fireman says. “People had to make moonshine to get by. It’s a hard state to make a living in, even though West Virginia people work hard.”

Fireman actually opened West Virginia’s first legal distillery since Prohibition in 1999, after haggling with the state for more than a year. He came up the idea while at his mechanic, who kept a mason jar of moonshine at the shop that he’d made. “It was terrible tasting,” Fireman says, “but it got me thinking.” Fireman studied the state codes and created an application to submit. He first obtained a federal license, which ultimately convinced the state to relent.

With Fireman paving the way, more than a dozen legal distilleries, such as Pinchgut Hollow in Fairmont, now dot the state. Pinchgut sells four flavors: buckwheat, honey peach, apple pie and, the one that hits hardest, corn shine, all of which can be sampled on site.

Distilling moonshine, however, remains legal in West Virginia only to those who hold a license. Making it without one is a misdemeanor, carrying a fine and jail time. Yet according to one prosecutor Marsh knows in Harrison County, nobody in her 30 years has ever been prosecuted for moonshine.

“It’s technically illegal,” Marsh says. “But no one is going to get on you about it.”

Jay Nowak, the police chief in Summersville, can’t recall anyone ever getting arrested for moonshine in his town, at least not under his watch.

Yet though commercial moonshine might be available in stores these days, you’re more likely to find a Pitt flag outside Mountaineer Field. “Sure, you can go to a liquor store and buy moonshine, but this right here is illegal moonshine,” says Rusty Walker, of Duck, while pointing to one of the jars he just brought out. “That makes it cool.

“And truthfully, [commercial moonshine] tastes likes s—, too, just to be honest with you.”

Bootleg moonshine equals unlimited flavor options, which makes every tailgate unique. On this day, blueberry, black cherry, rye, butterscotch, java, salted caramel, cinnamon toast crunch, white grape and orange creamsicle are just a smattering of the selections scattered across the Blue and Brown lots. “You can do any kind you want,” says Walker, who has just melted green Jolly Rancher candies inside a trailer to concoct sour apple moonshine.

Walker actually learned how to make moonshine in a high school chemistry class in Braxton County. He was given an assignment to create something, and he and his lab partner decided to make a still. “We got an A,” he says.

Sitting next to Walker, Darrell Brown shows off the different flavors he brought, which include apple pie and chocolate banana. Brown doesn’t use mason jars, though. To save money, he collects discarded liquor bottles from a nearby bar and puts his moonshine in them. “I like the Crown Royal bottle the best,” Brown says. “It’s easy to grab ahold of. You’re not going to drop it ’cause you can really get a good grip on it. And them jars do get expensive.”

Although every tailgate has its different moonshines, almost all of them have one standard: the unflavored white lightnin’. While even the stiffest commercial moonshine is only 100 proof, homemade white lightnin’ can be 170 proof, if not higher.

“I make [the flavored] moonshine because I want everybody to have a nice experience,” Walker says. “But if you want to drink the straight stuff, we can do that, too.”

Many great culinary inventions have their perfectly matched companions. Cheeseburgers have French fries. Peanut butter has jelly. Around Mountaineer Field, moonshine has pepperoni rolls, the other West Virginia tailgating staple, alongside white lightnin’ jars.

“When I got out of school and started traveling for work all around the country, I assumed everyone had pepperoni rolls,” says Brad Favro of Morgantown. “You just thought it was everywhere, and it wasn’t.”

The history of pepperoni rolls in the area goes back to the coal mines, which had plenty of Italian immigrants working them. “You couldn’t afford a lot of things, but you always knew how to make dough, you add some pepperoni and cheese, and you’d make pepperoni rolls,” Comer says. “Then the other thing was, if you were down in the coal mine, you could take a pepperoni roll down there, and it would hold. Because of the portability and the longevity of the meat into the bread, it would last a long time. So they’d take it down in the coal mines, and it was something to snack on.”

Like moonshine, pepperoni rolls can be purchased at most any West Virginia bakery and many convenience stores. But the best ones at these tailgates are homemade, from recipes passed down through generations. “Both of our moms made them,” says Tracy Comer, Matt’s wife, who’s been teaching their high school daughter, Mady, how to make pepperoni rolls, too. “The ultimate snack food.”

Earlier this summer, The Mountaineer, West Virginia’s musket-toting mascot, brought pepperoni rolls his mom had baked to Big 12 media days in Frisco, Texas, for the writers to sample.

At its most basic level, a pepperoni roll consists of a white yeast bread roll wrapped around pepperoni. When baked, the pepperoni melts into the bread, creating a savory combination.

Different recipes that go back decades, however, lead to nuanced debates on the best way to make them. “She thinks it’s in the pepperoni,” Jeff Wiles says of his wife, Tammy. “I think it’s in the bread.”

Summersville is a small city located almost on the other side of the state from Morgantown. And yet it feels like the whole town has temporarily relocated to the lots outside Milan Puskar Stadium. Nowak is holding court to the left. To the right, Bucky Frame, Randy Taylor, Greg Sproles, Mike Hughes and an optometrist everybody calls “Eddie P.” are trading sips from a mason jar. “In a town of 3,000 people, you’ll meet a hundred of them here,” says Aaron Maloney, who had an uncle that made moonshine.

Those from Summersville claim they have the best moonshine in the world. “We’re from the central part of the state, near the mountainous areas, and that’s where a lot of moonshine comes from because we’ve got the best water,” Michael Young says. “Most of what we have goes back generations. Some of this whole Discovery Channel TV stuff [“Moonshiners”] has gotten some pretenders involved. But it’s not like my grandpa did it and his grandpa did it.”

This portion of the Blue Lot has no reserved tailgating spots. But like with church pews, people from Summersville park their trucks and trailers in the same places every home game. They greet each other with moonshine swigs — “That’s the real stuff right there, burns all the way down” one Summersville man says after trying another’s white lightnin’ — and wait for the opposing fans to pass by. “West Virginia football and moonshine go hand-in-hand. They’re both ways to bring people together,” says Ellis Frame, Bucky’s son. “Fans from other teams, they come, and they’re like, ‘All right, I know you guys have it. Let’s taste it.’

“That’s the best part about being in the Big 12: getting to meet all these people.”

Wiles and John Maloney, Aaron’s dad, have been die-hards long enough to remember when the Mountaineers didn’t have a conference during the Don Nehlen days. Between them, they’ve missed a total of maybe six home games going back to when Major Harris was the quarterback in the late 1980s.

When Aaron turned 5, John Maloney started taking him to Mountaineer Field. Aaron is married to Wiles’ daughter, Rachel, with whom he has two children. Now, John Maloney and Wiles have passed the tradition on to the next generation, bringing Colin, their 8-year-old grandson, with them to games. “We don’t have a professional team in this state,” Wiles says.

“Mountaineer football, this is it.”

As the moonshine starts to get passed around on this day, optimism also fills the air. West Virginia boasts its most complete team in maybe a decade, with a high-flying offense led by quarterback Will Grier, who could become the Mountaineers’ first Heisman finalist since Harris.

Last Saturday, Grier quarterbacked West Virginia to its most thrilling — and perhaps most pivotal — victory since it joined the Big 12 six years ago. Down a touchdown with 16 seconds to go at Texas, he connected with wide receiver Gary Jennings for a 33-yard touchdown pass. But instead of kicking the extra point and playing for overtime, coach Dana Holgorsen went for two, and Grier lifted the Mountaineers to a dramatic, come-from-behind victory with a game-winning quarterback draw.

“When you talk about the state, the program, the people that are invested in this, I hope this does a lot for them,” Grier said Saturday night. “They mean a lot to me. … And it was an unbelievable feeling getting that win for them.”

On the heels of Grier’s heroics, West Virginia controls its own path to the Big 12 championship game, and suddenly it has entered the thick of the College Football Playoff conversation. And yet, West Virginia fans remain a bit fatalist following so many harrowing defeats.

“We’ve had our share of disappointments,” Wiles says as his son-in-law, Aaron Maloney, evokes the 2007 Pitt loss, which knocked West Virginia out of the national championship game. “We’ve been there so many times,” Wiles continues. “Been right on the top, and seen it slide away so many different times.”

For now, West Virginians are feeling on top, bound together by the Mountaineers — and a little bit of moonshine.

“They go well together, don’t they?” Walker says. “The two have been around a long time. And they’re part of our heritage.”

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