Saturday, April 10, 2010

Moonshine Makes a Comeback

But it’s still illegal.

The question has always been straightforward. Distilled to its essence, if you’ll pardon the pun: Why is it legal to brew up to 300 gallons of beer, or produce your own wine, while it is illegal to make your own “hard liquor?”

After all, distillation of spirits is the logical next step. “If you are making beer,” says Max Watman, author of Chasing the White Dog, a book about moonshine, “it’s just a matter of time that you are going to be staring at the beer and going, ‘There’s whiskey inside of that.’” The newest category of illegal distillers, Watman told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, were “foodie folks,” the same people who “drove the home brewing craze.”

The big catch is that the distilling, sale and consumption of unlicensed liquor is still a felony or Class A misdemeanor--just as it was during the Prohibition Era--carrying a sentence of one to five, and a fine of up to $10,000.  Earlier this year, investigators in two Texas counties seized stills and small amounts of moonshine in two separate raids, according to the Star-Telegram article by Steve Campbell.  Recently, a Kentucky man was arrested in possession of 100 gallons of moonshine.

And, in perhaps the ultimate sign of the times, Willie Nelson’s bus was searched and crewmembers were arrested for pot, of course—but also for the possession of untaxed alcohol in the state of North Carolina. The Star-News Online reported that  “agents entered the bus after smelling marijuana. Inside they found a quart jar, three quarters full of untaxed alcohol, or moonshine, as well as marijuana.” Matthew Rowley, author of Moonshine!, said in the article that there “aren’t any figures about it. What I know, see with my own eyes, taste with my own mouth, it really is everywhere.”

Judging by the Internet, stills and distillery supplies do seem to be ubiquitous. However, there is another, more serious class of moonshiners, consisting of criminals who produce cheap liquor for sale to illegal booze joints in larger cities. In an article in the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot, Watman said he had sampled some of the criminal booze available at a “nip joint” in Virginia, and reported that it tasted like “some sort of experimental kerosene-powered mouthwash.” In its more lethal forms, “white lightning” can lead to fatalities from lead and alcohol poisoning. (In Russia, home brew vodka has been responsible for numerous deaths.)

Home distillers would like to see hobby distilling treated as something less than a criminal enterprise, since in most if not all cases, no sales are taking place. But it may get harder and harder to avoid the “revenooers” in the future, due to the development of portable infrared spectroscopy equipment for identifying and tracking the content of alcoholic spirits emerging from illicit home stills.

An article in Chemistry Central Journal estimates that as much as 25% of all alcohol sold and consumed worldwide is unrecorded and unregulated.

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