Moonshine flows - and feds crack down
Tim Smith is a mechanic, not a moonshiner. That's not to say he didn't have a chance: Using recipes dating back centuries, both his father and brother tended "black pot" stills here in the bottom of Appalachia's eastern foothills.Skip to next paragraph
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Today, Mr. Smith is more interested in the heritage of the moonshiners than in their hard-knuckled brew. In an outdoor museum of sorts, the former Army intelligence officer has recreated several rusty stills complete with "mash boxes," "doublers," distilling "worms," and "axe gashes." A few weeks ago, the Third Annual Moonshiners Jamboree drew 700 people to this cornfield near Danville, Va.
Making and selling alcohol without a license is illegal. But even under centuries of federal surveillance, the moonshine industry has evolved from an illegal folk art to a big business involving dozens of suppliers, distillers, and distributors from Roanoke, Va., to Johnston County, N.C. Instead of small nailed-together tubs, today's mega-moonshiners use huge stainless stills that take up entire barns and produce hundreds of gallons of whiskey a day.
"I've maintained there's 50,000 gallons of untaxed liquor leaving southwest Virginia every year, and nobody's ever disputed that," says Jack Allen Powell, a retired revenuer who wrote a book about the business called "A Dying Art."
Law enforcement efforts have intensified to keep up with the burgeoning production. These verdant hills are now the scene of a significant strike against these Southern bootleggers.
This week, as part of the biggest moonshine bust in US history, alcohol-control agents are wrapping up Operation Lightning Strike, an eight-year sweep that netted 27 bootleggers running a corn liquor conspiracy from Philadelphia to Raleigh. The don of the operation is Ralph Hale Sr., the elder of a vast family network based out of Franklin County, Va., just a crow's flight from Smith's cornfield.
A gallon milk jug full of home brew costs about $35 - half the price of legal whiskey. Besides the low cost, many people just like saying they drink "shine," says Mr. Powell.
Since before the US began taxing liquor in 1791, descendants of independent-minded Scots and Irishmen have holed up in the crags of Appalachia, brewing surplus corn, sugar, and "crick" water into a potent spirit, usually under cover of the moon.
They've survived through the Civil War, the teetotalling Rutherford B. Hayes years, the "revenuers" of the Prohibition, and even the advent of "wet" Southern cities in the 1960s and 1970s, which allowed the legal sale of alcohol and put many small stills out of business.
"One of the ways you could market agricultural surplus in an area with difficult communication and bad roads is to convert it to brandy or whiskey," says John Williams, a history professor at Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C. "This has been customary among several of the groups that settled the Appalachians, especially from the northern part of the British Isles, where they had a tradition of defying government regulation," he says.
For Troy, an aging moonshiner who doesn't want his last name used, distilling spirits was a way to make ends meet: "We did it so we could send our kids to school and put a piece of bacon on the table." He claims that the high tariffs on spirits make it impossible for most farmers to ply the trade legitimately.