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."
"To make money in the whiskey business, you have to make it in volume," Beheler said. "It's all done on contract," with either bootleggers or retailers. "It's sold before it's even made."
Past efforts fruitless
Federal agents' past efforts to fight moonshining in cooperation with state regulators have been largely fruitless. But this time, said Sharon Burnham, assistant U.S. attorney in nearby Roanoke, the investigation is much broader and tougher: For the first time, federal money-laundering statutes are being used as an anti-moonshining tool.
"Under the federal liquor laws, they're facing up to five years in prison," Burnham said. "Under the money-laundering laws, they're facing up to 15 years."
Profits from moonshining can be serious money here in Franklin County, where a waning of the textile industry and a decline in tobacco and dairy production have cursed the economy.
Those profits have been a boon, too, investigators say, for a few enterprising and newly land-rich families whom the government has named, though not yet charged, as leaders of the local moonshine industry.
For the most part, residents of moonshine communities see still operators as good people, said Allen G. Hudson, deputy director of the Virginia alcohol agency's Bureau of Law Enforcement. "It's an awkward situation," Hudson said. "They are good for the economy. They hire people locally and buy materials locally. We don't get a lot of cooperation, because they see them doing more good than we can do them."
Above all, the area's people bristle at being made a focus of a federal agency whose primary targets are illegal gun traffic and explosives. Rocky Mount is so friendly a place, said a local lawyer, William G. Davis, "that if someone from New York runs out of gas on a dark road in the middle of the night, people will stop and bring him some more gas."
In fact, in the minds of some, moonshiners are little more than a link to a proud tradition.
Even as the government crackdown continues, Rocky Mount's business people are divided over whether to shun or celebrate the area's historic bond with moonshine.
Brian G. Duvall, executive director of the Franklin County Chamber of Commerce, says one contingent has proposed building a moonshine museum and producing boutique liquor, in a legal still.
Ultimately, though, "we need to get away from it," said David Furrow, a prominent lawyer here. "It would be nicer if it were in the past, and we could say we used to be the moonshine capital of the world."