ROCKY MOUNT, Va. - At the first sound of baying watchdogs, Jay Calhoun, a special agent of the Virginia Alcohol Beverage Control Commission Liquor Task Force, crouched in a thicket of mountain laurel and waited. In camouflage, Calhoun and two other agents remained motionless, their eyes focused on a corrugated-steel building less than 50 yards away through the trees, where they believed moonshine was being manufactured.
As soon as the dogs lost interest, Calhoun said, "Let's go, the gig's up." The agents were on their feet, moving toward the building, a still house, as it is called. They arrived just in time to capture one suspect who was trying to escape through the woods and another who was trying to flee in a pickup.
With their hands in their pockets, the suspects watched as the agents used axes to break up the stills, four 800-gallon fermenting tanks, or black pots, that resemble home heating-oil tanks.
Moonshining, which endures in numerous Southern rural towns, is not as widespread as it was during Prohibition. But law-enforcement officials say the illegal manufacture and sale of whiskey remains a multimillion-dollar business, with ties to gun trafficking and drugs and established markets as far north as New York.
"I would say that 60 percent of the moonshine being produced here is headed for Philadelphia, D.C. and other cities up north," said Jimmy Beheler, assistant special agent in charge of the state's five-member liquor task force, the lone squad in the country dedicated solely to combating moonshiners.
Beheler estimated that each year 500,000 gallons of moonshine are distilled in Virginia, much of it here in Franklin County, widely considered the moonshine capital of the South, about an hour south of Roanoke, in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. With a street value of $25 or more a gallon, the moonshine industry in Virginia is a $12.5 million enterprise.
'Still a big demand'
"There's still a big demand out there for it, or else moonshiners wouldn't be making hundreds of gallons a week," said Randy Knight, deputy director for operations at the Alcohol Law Enforcement division of the North Carolina Department of Crime Control and Public Safety. Last year, North Carolina officials seized almost 7,000 gallons of moonshine and destroyed almost 60,000 gallons of mash, a syrupy fermented concoction of sugar or corn, water, yeast and grain that moonshiners distill into whiskey.
Some modern moonshiners have built air-conditioned stills outfitted with electric pumps annd other gadgets. But the process is not so different from the distilling that Scots-Irish immigrants introduced to this region in the early 1700s.
Steam from a near-boiling vat of mash is drawn off and condensed into a liquid through a coil of 3-inch copper tubing called a worm or sometimes through an old car radiator submerged in cold water. An 800-gallon tank of mash produces around 100 gallons of moonshine.
The harsh 80- to 90-proof clear liquor, also called white lightning, is similar in flavor to low-grade tequila. Because moonshining is unregulated, rust from radiators or lead from soldered pipes can contaminate the liquor.
Stills are usually run by hired help called still hands, who are paid $100 a run, or batch, which takes six to eight hours to produce. "For a lot of these people, this is all they've ever done," said Chet Bryant, director of the Alcohol and Tobacco Division of Georgia. "It's a way of life and a way of making money."
Agents in Georgia said they seize about 15 stills a year.
The stills are often owned by investors who cover the costs of the operation, which including ingredients and distilling, run about $1,200 a pot. The pots are typically sheet metal wrapped around a wood frame. Added to those expenses are transportation costs.
According to the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, moonshine makes its way to metropolitan markets in Southern and Northern cities hidden in trucks or campers. Bootleggers pay moonshiners $35 to $100 for a 6-gallon case. The bootleggers, in turn, sell the whiskey to the operators of "shot houses," unlicensed after-hours bars where customers can also buy drugs and firearms, law officials say.
"As far as we've determined, these kinds of establishments are probably the main consumer of illicit alcohol," said Charles Thomson, special agent in charge of the Washington Field Division of the ATF.
The possession of illegal spirits is a misdemeanor here, and possession of or operating a still is a felony. The crime of moonshining is basically one of tax evasion, and moonshiners and government agents have been at odds since the days of Washington and Jefferson, both of whom owned stills.
A large tax loss