Modern Moonshine Manufacture on the Rise

Virginia's Whiskey Control Unit tracks down and prosecutes makers of illegal alcoholic beverages. They report bootlegging is on the rise. Eric Niiler joins them on a stakeout looking for backyard stills.

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Moonshine is flowing from the hills of Appalachia. After more than a century, illegal liquor is still big business there. Eric Niiler spent some time with agents trying to stop the bootleggers, who are tougher to catch than ever.

ERIC NIILER reporting:

About the only way to catch a moonshiner is to sit very, very still in the woods, so quiet that your own gurgling stomach or a far-off coyote makes you twitch. It's nearly midnight and we're a few hundred feet from a barn in rural Franklin County, Virginia. State liquor agent Jay Calhoun creeps closer with a pistol strapped to his side.

(Soundbite of dog barking)

NIILER: The dog hears us sneaking up on the barn. Luckily, the owners aren't paying any attention. Inside there's nothing but a bag of grain. It's used to make liquor, but it's nothing illegal by itself.

(Soundbite of dog barking)

NIILER: (Whispering) So this was the big bust?

Mr. JAY CALHOUN (Virginia Liquor Agent): (Whispering) Like I said, the first success is not to get caught. And, as you can tell, that was very easy to get caught tonight.

(Soundbite of dog barking)

NIILER: Calhoun and two other agents head through the woods to a waiting pickup. The four-hour stakeout came up empty-handed, but the only way to find an illegal distillery, or still, is to run down every possible lead.

Mr. CALHOUN: Yeah, we don't have someone call up and say there's a still here, there's a still there. So we pretty much have to develop our own intel and develop our own investigation pretty much from the start to the finish.

NIILER: Calhoun is 49 years old. With his camouflage bibs and ball cap, he looks more like a deer hunter than a state liquor agent. He's been chasing moonshiners for the past 15 years and now runs a team that breaks up illegal distilleries, a $20 million-a-year industry. Some liquor is consumed locally, but most is hauled out to inner-city Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington, where demand for moonshine has grown.

Mr. CALHOUN: It appears everybody's back up, everybody's back working. They're very cautious. The countersurveillance measures that they use on their vehicles to determine whether we're trying to follow them is--I mean, they've just even got more intense than what they were before.

NIILER: That's because during a federal trial several years ago, agents were forced to reveal in court some of their surveillance techniques like hidden cameras and tracking devices. Moonshiners caught on and now it's become tougher to follow them. Gerald Winfield(ph) is a former moonshiner. He joined his father in the business when he was eight years old.

Mr. GERALD WINFIELD (Former Moonshiner): I remember going and picking apples out of the apple orchard, but at the time I was just a little fella and I really didn't know what they was used for at the time. But I do know now.

NIILER: Winfield ran his own still when he was 14. He said his motivation was easy money and the sense of independence, especially after cooking up a batch of white liquor.

Mr. WINFIELD: If you're back in the woods and you done run off a couple and you pop the top on 'em and seen the steam run up, that's almost like an addiction.

NIILER: Winfield said he quit the business because it was getting too risky for him and his family. He said local residents often protect moonshiners by tipping them off when liquor agents drive by.

Mr. WINFIELD: We knew when he come up down through that road, all--within a surrounding area of probably two or three miles, you know, we knew he was there.

NIILER: Some experts say this support of moonshiners is a cultural thing. Roddy Moore directs the Blue Ridge Institute at nearby Ferrum College. Moore says some people here don't take the crime seriously.

Mr. RODDY MOORE (Blue Ridge Institute, Ferrum College): These people are local heroes and so people do want to be connected to 'em. They want to help 'em out.

NIILER: Moore says that some residents want to promote moonshining to tourists, selling T-shirts and holding moonshine festivals, for example.

Mr. MOORE: You have two views within the region. You have the people that are ashamed of it and you have the people that are saying, `It's part of our heritage, it's part of our history, let's use it.'

Mr. CALHOUN: A lot of things that they do, it hurts our community.

NIILER: Agent Jay Calhoun disagrees. He says it's a serious crime and that some moonshiners are now selling drugs, moving marijuana and cocaine along the same smuggling routes north.

Mr. CALHOUN: And once you get in that illegal mind-set, it's easy to branch over to other crimes.

NIILER: There are about 30 stills operating throughout a five-county region, so Calhoun and three other agents spend most of their days driving the back roads looking for suspicious vehicles and signs of activity.

Mr. CALHOUN: Right here, this is a little place we can get out. Right through there. Yeah.

NIILER: We pull up near a farmhouse, hop out and jump into the woods.

(Soundbite of people walking in the woods)

Mr. CALHOUN: These are several black pots right here. They got 'em stored. They're not burned out yet. They got a little wear, but they're ready to go in. I know they made liquor out of these pots last year.

NIILER: Behind the farmhouse is a still that is about to start running. It consists of four giant wooden tubs, or black pots, where the moonshine is cooked on a propane flame.

Mr. CALHOUN: They actually mash everything into one of those pots, pretty much the same formula. Each organization's got a little different as far as how they tweak it: the amount of sugar, the meal, the malt, the yeast.

NIILER: This still could make the operators 3 to $5,000 a week in tax-free income.

Mr. CALHOUN: They got a vehicle parked in here now and it looks like the--everything's ready to go. It might be next month. It might be spring, I don't know. But they'll be back.

NIILER: On this afternoon, nobody's around, but Calhoun thinks the backyard still could be running before the holidays. That's when everyone wants a taste of white lightning that you can't buy at the liquor store. For NPR News, I'm Eric Niiler.

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