ROCKY MOUNT, Va. -- Grinning seditiously, a prominent citizen of this Blue Ridge foothills town takes from his kitchen refrigerator an illegal gift from a moonshiner friend: a syrupy red liquor in a quart jar packed with grapelike damsonberries. He offers a taste to his visitor. It is a brandy, sweet and silky.
"Damson's the best," he says.
Next he selects a half-gallon jar of heart-stopping white lightning, as clear as vodka. Shaking it, he points to the "bead," or head. Bubbles that form a thick, beery bead indicate toxic contamination from sleazy stills that use old car radiators to condense the vapors from cooking and fermentation. But this bead is wafer-thin. "Look," he says. "No lead."
It might all seem a quaint act of hospitality appropriate to this town of 4,400 that likes to boast of being "the moonshine capital of the world." This southern Appalachian region over the last two centuries has produced more moonshine than any other in America.
But to a task force of state and federal agents brought in to fight it, the illicit whiskey of Rocky Mount and the surrounding area is little other than the work of big-time criminals -- a new generation of moonshiners who in many cases have transformed the smoky little woodsmen's stills of legend and song into efficient distilleries, some capable of producing thousands of gallons of liquor a week.
The task force, applying the muscle of federal law rather than weaker state anti-moonshine statutes, made its first arrests recently. Three people were charged with illegally distilling alcohol, and many more arrests are expected.
Rocky Mount is the hub of the trade, which investigators say operates here in Franklin County, in three or four nearby counties in south-central Virginia and just over the line in North Carolina.
Most of the illicit brandy is the work of exacting hobbyists, and seldom leaves the area. But moonshine whiskey, mass-produced at 150 proof or more and with little attention to health or safety, is growing as a product of interstate commerce. Even after a decade of unmatched national prosperity, resilient pockets of poverty provide ready markets -- in this case, throughout much of the East -- for a low-priced, illegal high.
Many thousands of gallons
Once a sideline of dirt-poor farmers who made whiskey in 50-gallon stills to get by, moonshining is now carried on here with 800-gallon stills, sometimes 5 or 10 linked like railroad cars, in a well-organized, high-profit business. Government investigators say hundreds of thousands of gallons of moonshine a year flow over the highways from Virginia and North Carolina, free of all state and federal taxes or regulatory scrutiny.
"They use the cheapest way to make it now," said W.Q. Overton, Franklin County's sheriff for the last 25 years. "They don't take any pride in making it."
Moonshiners produce whiskey for as little as $3 a gallon, the investigators say, then package it in six-packs of gallon plastic jugs, a thicker-gauge variation of milk containers, and sell it, unlabeled, for $10 or $12 to nip joints, shot houses and the back rooms of bars in Philadelphia, Richmond, Washington and Baltimore.
The bars then sell it for as little as $1 a shot, much less than the price of lawful whiskey.
Though the investigators do not know how much the moonshiners as a whole earn from their activity, the business here has grown big enough to draw a response from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.
About two decades ago, the bureau, turning more of its attention to the control of guns and explosives, largely abandoned its pursuit of untaxed liquor, an effort that had dated from the 1920s and Prohibition, when organized crime delivered vast amounts of moonshine to the nation's speakeasies. Two years ago, however, the bureau was called in by the alcoholic beverage control agencies of Virginia and North Carolina, bodies long frustrated by public tolerance of bootlegging and by local courts that treated moonshining much like speeding violations.
Together, the bureau and the two state agencies organized Operation Lightning Strike, to fight moonshiners unlike those of decades past.
"What you've seen over the years," said Bartley H. McEntire, the federal agent in charge of the investigation, "is a shift in how they operate." Rather than selling their liquor themselves, McEntire said, "these organizations use hired hands and hired transporters," or bootleggers. "They aren't your good old boys." Wily and resourceful, this new breed of moonshiner tends to be armed with night-vision goggles and two-way radios to help stay a jump ahead of the law.
James E. Beheler Jr., who directs the Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control Department's five-agent moonshine task force, described these moonshiners as "individuals whose entire livelihood is supported by the illegal liquor business -- and supported very well."