Tuesday, April 8, 2008

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Moonshine a Bygone Chapter? Not so much.

Illicit distilling mostly is a bygone chapter of the Prohibition era, especially for deputies more versed on meth labs than whiskey stills.

~ Ryan Harris
Chattanooga Times Free Press

I got an email recently from Tom Montague who's the Slow Food governor for the US southern regions. He had sent a link to a Chattanooga Times Free Press article about moonshine bust last week in LaFayette, Georgia. At the bottom of the article page, there's a video featuring Sheriff Steve Wilson of Walker County explaining what happened: do check it out.

The gist of the piece—which detailed a moonshining operation found, partially dismantled, and hauled off by the Walker County Special Operations Group (see the slideshow here)—is that the officers regarded moonshining as so rare that some felt this bust might be a once-in-a-lifetime operation. While I laud the notion to donate the remains of the still to a museum, two things occur to me:

  1. I wish they'd worked out that donation idea before taking pickaxes to the thing. Broke-down donations, while not worthless, don't even come close to having intact artifacts with the back stories of the people involved. Because something is old and/unusual doesn't make it valuable in and of itself. Just look at me.
  2. As someone who's interviewed dozens of clandestine distillers, I can assure you that if running across a still is a once-in-a-lifetime event, I've racked up dozens of lives.

Here's a rundown of what's going on with
that "bygone chapter of the Prohibition era" recently — in fact, just for fun, only in the South where moonshine is supposed to have died out:

Inside the residence officers found approximately 2 grams of methamphetamine, a sawed-off shotgun, a suspicious container, and an active moonshine still. Because of its small size, police believe the moonshine was being produced for personal use.
I added the italics. In my experience, it's those small stills that newcomers to artisan distilling will come to know. Families that might have one day passed generations of distilling traditions down the line have in many places turned to meth. It wasn't until I moved to California that I saw my first case of "Meth Mouth"—a 20-something year old guy whose dentition was so rotted that he had more fingers than teeth. I've got an obvious soft spot for home-made whiskey and the people who make it at home. Meth, though, ain't nothing but a cancer that's been eating away the heart of centuries of tradition in the mountain south.

Whoops. Off-topic. Moonshine is alive and well, but it's not so recognizable anymore to law enforcement, historians, and aficionados looking for the old-style mountain dew. Today's stills are smaller, more discreet—in fact, might not look anything like the old-school copper pots—and far more likely to be used for personal production than for making spirits for the marketplace.


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