Illegal Moonshine Is Still Flowing

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.

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