Illegal Moonshine Is Still Flowing

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.

The low cost accounts for much of its popularity. Authorities say Virginia moonshine makes its way to illegal saloons from New York to Georgia, often concentrating in the poorest neighborhoods.

Larger operations often sell to wholesalers, who distribute the liquor in six-packs of thick, plastic gallon jugs.

But moonshine also remains popular in the rural areas where people have always drunk homemade whiskey.

"They've drank it so long, they prefer it," Driskill says.

Some moonshine drinkers talk about preferring "natural" homemade liquor to the mass-produced alternatives; others just don't like the idea of paying taxes on their drinks.

Home Brew Beer and Wine, but Not Liquor…

Federal law allows individuals to make beer and wine for their own use without a license, but not distilled spirits.

There are also state and local laws forbidding the manufacture of liquor, and a range of taxes on liquor production. Federal, state, and local taxes typically make up 55 percent of the price of a bottle of liquor.

Under state laws, moonshining is often only a misdemeanor, but federal law typically imposes much stricter sentences. Some charged in Operation Lightning Strike faced prison sentences up to 60 years.

Bill Davis, a Rocky Mount lawyer who has represented numerous moonshiners over the years, takes issue with what he calls the heavy handed tactics of Operation Lightning Strike.

"I think the government exaggerated everything like they usually do," he says.

He sees moonshining as a small-scale issue that should be handled by local authorities.

Besides being illegal, moonshine is often dangerous. Without supervision by health officials, some moonshiners brew their liquor in old fuel drums and car radiators, and seal their pipes with lead solder. Some distillers have also added lye, rubbing alcohol, paint thinner, and other harmful ingredients.

Illegal whiskey drinkers often suffered partial paralysis and sometimes lost their vision from drinking moonshine.

Making Moonshine

The term "moonshine" refers to illegal liquor — usually corn whiskey, though sometimes also "brandy" made with fermented fruit. The word itself dates back to the 15th century, and may have referred to work done at night, by moonlight.

The most potent moonshine can be 190 proof — almost pure alcohol — but much of it is no stronger than its store-bought cousins. Little of it is aged to mellow the exceptionally harsh flavor, however. The term "white lightning" refers to the color of un-aged whiskey.

The first step in making moonshine is fermenting a mixture of rye, sugar, corn, yeast or other ingredients in "mash" kegs. The mixture is then distilled in cooker kegs, by heating the liquid and collecting the alcohol vapor through a network of copper tubes into a "thumper" keg.

Modern stills sometimes use only electric power or propane, to avoid the telltale plumes of smoke emitted when "cooking" the mash.

Some use elaborate piping systems to bring in fresh water without being detected. Older "revenuers" recall being able to walk down a creek or stream from one illegal still to the next.

Some bootleggers even have tasting rooms, for customers to sample the goods.

The drink itself can be as varied as what you might find in a legal liquor store.

There is milky whiskey that some drinkers say has more in common with lighter fluid than Jack Daniels. But some aficionados swear other moonshines are as smooth as the best legal alternative.

Illegal "brandy" liquor is sometimes made with fresh apples, red damsonberries, banana, hazelnut, and anything else that catches the distiller's fancy.

Moonshine-marinated cherries — known as "belly bombs" — offer another sweet, illicit alternative.

Because of the range of quality — and lack of health and safety standards — moonshine drinkers have age-old ways of judging their brews. They say if a shaken jar of moonshine develops a big head of foam, it indicates lead or other contaminants.

Health officials don't endorse the method.

A Long History

Home-distilling has been part of American life since soon after the first colonists arrived.

Prohibition and the economic toll of the Great Depression spurred a boom in production, which was combatted first by "revenuers" from the Treasury Department, and then the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms.

Some say the heyday of moonshine was after Prohibition, when the demand for cheap liquor in urban centers was at its peak.

"That's when the moonshine was really big — in the '50s and the '60s," says Thomas Allison, 76, who pursued illegal liquor makers as an agent for the Treasury Department and then the ATF.

In the late 1960s, federal agents put more resources into the fight. They began night infrared flights to spot illegal stills cooking in the night.

By 1980, major moonshine operations had been largely vanquished, Allison says.

But as the federal government focused its attention elsewhere, the moonshine trade resurfaced.

"It's supply and demand," Allison says simply.

Interactive: Click to learn about the history of moonshine.