In the hills of southwestern Virginia, the moonshining business is still as strong as the potent, illegal white lightning made for centuries in backwoods stills.
The recent convictions in a joint federal and state crackdown on illegal liquor in Virginia dubbed Operation Lightning Strike highlight the latest chapter in the centuries-old battle between moonshiners and the government.
Over the past three years, Operation Lightning Strike broke up a multimillion-dollar ring supplying tons of sugar, bottling supplies and other equipment and ingredients to make thousands of gallons of moonshine.
More than 30 people were charged in the operation, and 26 pleaded guilty, including the "godfather" of moonshine in Rocky Mount, Va. — William Gray "Dee" Stanley — who was sentenced to 41 months in prison in January. Federal officials say Stanley and other members of his family ran an illegal liquor business for some 30 years before finally being shut down.
Interactive: Click to learn about the history of moonshine.
The joint federal-state operation also shut down the Farmers Exchange in Rocky Mount, which authorities say sold enough sugar to moonshiners to make almost 1.5 million gallons of the backcountry booze.
But that doesn't mean the supply of the illicit liquor will dry up.
Who's Making It
Moonshine production today comes in many forms. There are still plenty of backwoods blackpot stills throughout the South, the traditional home of illegal liquor production. But there are also high-tech, larger operations organized like modern businesses.
"It really hasn't changed that much, says Earl "Buddy" Driskill Jr., an assistant special agent with the Virginia Department of Alcohol Beverage Control. "I think you have fewer people in it in a bigger way."
The operations he sees today are larger and more professional, with more people involved and larger stills, he says.
Distilleries are sometimes hidden in houses, garages, secret underground basements, or even dug into the sides of hills. The biggest can have a network of dozens of 800-gallon stills capable of producing up to thousands of gallons of liquor a week.
The larger operators sometimes deal in marijuana and stolen property as well. They are professional criminals out to make money, law enforcement officials say, not old-time, well-intentioned artisans.
While the Virginia moonshine trade may be thriving, it may be dying out elsewhere.
There's not much illegal liquor left in northeastern Texas, a traditional moonshine mecca, says Roy Hale, a specialist at the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission.
"We're still popping anywhere between two and four stills a year mostly in east and northeast Texas — older folks," he says. "I guess it's just sort of an old family tradition; they've been doing it so long they don't know how to quit."
Most of the illegal distillers they arrest are over 60, he says, and most only face misdemeanor charges. Once they are gone, Hale says, it may be the end of moonshine in the region.
Who's Buying It
The low cost and the long moonshine tradition keep the illegal liquor trade going.
"The clientele hasn't changed that much," says Driskill. "It's generally sold by the shot in a nip joint."
The cheapest white lightning can sell for as little as $5 a gallon, or a fifth to a tenth the cost of legitimate liquor. In unlicensed bars — called nip joints or shot houses — it runs 50 cents or dollar a shot.