Alabama still pursuing moonshiners

Lowndes County Moonshine Bust (Courtsey of Alabama Alcoholic Beverage Control Board)
Lowndes County Moonshine Bust (Courtsey of Alabama Alcoholic Beverage Control Board)

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) – Call it Woods Whiskey, Hooch, Moonshine or White Lightning, the illegal liquor trade is alive and thriving in 2014 Alabama.

In this age where murders, drug deals and strings of home break-ins seem to grab the headlines, a unit of the Alabama Alcohol Beverage Control Board chases its quarry much like the “revenooers” did in the early days of the past century. The Moonshine Task Force goes after the bootleggers and moonshiners who supply a vast underground market.

“On the street a gallon of woods whiskey will go for about $30,” said Geoffrey Owens, an ABC Board agent and member of the task force. “In Atlanta, it’ll go for $60. A moonshiner will have $6 or $8 in costs for each gallon, depending on if he cooks it himself, or hires a still hand to cook.

“Illegal liquor is very profitable. You run the still once or twice a week and make 100 or 200 gallons a week, that’s a lot of money.”

At $30 a gallon, the 200 gallons of hooch turns into $4,000 cash, with no taxes paid on the income or the liquor itself.

The ABC Board controls the legal liquor trade in the state, and it wants to expand its control over the illegal side as well.

People often look at moonshiners as characters more than criminals, said Sgt. Richard Holston, of the ABC Board.

“People tell us, go after the drug dealers, go after the bad people,” he said. “They ask us why we go after illegal liquor. The primary reason is its illegal. Of course there is the element of lost revenue from uncollected taxes.

“But the biggest reason is this is dangerous stuff. If the cooker doesn’t know what they are doing, or doesn’t care, lead salts poisoning is a very real possibility for the drinker. You can go blind, get irreparable brain damage or die from lead salts poisoning.”

Moonshiners fall into two distinct groups, said Craig Shook, another task force member. You have the liquor men who take pride in their product, whose father and grandfather likely made whiskey before them. And you have the ones out just to turn a profit.

“The ones who care, it’s a way of life to them,” he said. “They pride themselves on running a clean operation, at least as clean as you can get in the woods. They use copper for their lines and wouldn’t do anything to hurt their customers.

“The other ones are out for money. They’ll use old car radiators to run the whiskey through. That’s where you pick up your lead salts. They don’t care what kind of critters are crawling in their mash, or what kind of critters have died in their mash. We hit a still in Macon County where the water was coming out of a septic tank. Now how would you like to take a big swig of that whiskey?”

Making whiskey is an age-old practice. Mash of ground grain, likely wheat or rye these days, is soaked until fermentation begins. The mash goes into the still, good ones made of copper, not so good ones of metal drums. A heat source creates steam which boils the alcohol off. The steam goes through some type of condenser to cool it, and bingo, you have whiskey coming out the other end.

But not all moonshiners fit the popular image from the Lil’ Abner cartoon strip or characters on the Andy Griffith Show.

“There’s a new breed coming on now,” said Jason Powell, another task force member. “They are harder, more likely to be armed. People say go after the real criminals. Well, today these guys may be making whiskey, yesterday they were selling drugs and tomorrow they may be moving guns.

“They are a threat to law enforcement and a threat to the community. Most still operations are in rural areas, and some property owners may not know what’s going on on their place. You walk up on some of these mean ones, and you could have big trouble on your hands.”

It’s that threat that led ABC Board Administrator Mac Gipson to form the four member task force last October. Since then the group has seized about 500 gallons of shine, with a street value of $13,425, ABC Board data shows. The group also seized 204, 55-gallon barrels of mash, which would have made another 1,428 gallons.

“We got complaints from the public about heavy traffic in some communities because of moonshining,” Gipson said. “We decided to form the task force to address the problem. They’ve been very successful. We’ve worked central and south Alabama, but we are going to branch out and work a more widespread area in the future.”

The task force has busted stills or operations in Barbour, Bullock, Coffee, Lowndes, Macon, and Russell counties.

Two weeks ago the task force almost doubled in size, when three more agents were added.

There’s plenty of work to go around, Shook said.

“There’s always been an illegal liquor trade in Alabama,” he said. “It doesn’t matter what the economy does. You may see some times when cooking is up a little, or down a little. But it’s always taking place.”

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Information from: Montgomery Advertiser

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