A correspondent for Economist.com visits Franklin County, Virginia, where moonshining lives on. After a few winks and whispers he gets to taste the stuff, which smells like petrol but tastes a bit better ...
Distilled from water, corn, malt and sugar, moonshine whiskey has been made in south-western Virginia since the 18th century, when Scotch-Irish immigrants settled there in droves. It was the region’s main cash crop, especially during prohibition, and remains a lucrative business—sold illegally, and therefore untaxed. The self-proclaimed moonshine capital of the world is Franklin County, Virginia, a four-hour drive south-west from Washington, DC.
My drive took me through land made famous during the American civil war. Signs offering travellers an exhaustive account of troop movements and battles fought line the roads. By the time I arrived in Rocky Mount, the largest town in Franklin County, I had spanned the entire war: starting near Manassas, the Confederacy’s first great victory, in 1861; and ending near Danville, their last capital at the end of the war in 1865.
Rocky Mount is proud of its moonshiners. They feature heavily in local folk songs. The walls of Ippy’s Bar are adorned with black-and-white photos of old stills and weathered still-hands. A museum shows off the history and practice of making “white liquor”. A local preacher once dabbled in the business.
Getting people to talk about it, though, was another story. Calls went unreturned. But after a few winks and whispers, one purveyor produced a bottle from the boot of his car and offered me a sip. It was strong and smelled like petrol, but tasted better than I thought it would. The second sip was even better. “I can get you a case of six jars of some of the best stuff around here, if you want some to take home,” said another local.
My first official interview was with two Virginians who remember the old days: Morris Stephenson, a reporter for the Franklin County News Post since 1964, and Jack Powell, a retired agent with the Virginia Bureau of Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) who spent 35 years chasing moonshiners. I met both of them in a coffee shop on Main Street. Over multiple cups I listened to their stories.
Mr Stephenson is a wiry and energetic man of 73, with a grey beard and sunken eyes. He had a pin of the Energizer Bunny fastened to his jumper. “They had to bring me back to life three times, until I got a pacemaker,” he said. “This pin is a reminder.” Mr Powell is roughly the same age and recounted some of his most memorable tales, slightly dramatized, about his run-ins with old moonshiners like Smokey Joe, Popcorn Sutton, and Frogs Whittaker. “He was a mean thing, that Frogs was,” said Mr Powell, who has self-published two books full of his stories. “I’m writing another one with fifty more; you’ll have to get a copy.” I promised to do so, though I estimated he ran through a good fifty already.
Over-caffeinated, I left the coffee shop and drove down Route 220 in the afternoon drizzle to Henry County, where I was to interview two current ABC agents and visit an abandoned still site. We met in an empty parking lot, next to a flea market. Both were dressed in camouflage hunting kit from head to toe. One agent chewed tobacco and spit in a plastic cup, as he explained that there is nothing romantic about moonshining—many producers are dangerous criminals and their product is often contaminated with toxins. Some suppliers are also involved in the drug trade.
We drove up a remote road into the wooded hills, pulled over, and walked a few metres into the forest to an old wooden shack with a dirt floor, built next to a small stream. Inside were four 800-gallon “blackpot” stills, stripped of their aluminium tops, presumably recycled for another use. The ground was littered with broken glass jars and empty bags of sugar. “We busted this up a few years ago; got lucky on an anonymous tip.” This is rare. Most residents are sympathetic to the trade. I was amused to hear that people who rat out moonshiners are called “reporters”—apparently a derogatory term in these parts.