Crime

Moonshining is making a comeback in Mississippi

A state Alcoholic Beverage Control agent destroys a barrel used in the illegal production of moonshine in the Sand Hill community in Rankin County, Miss., Friday, May 18, 2018. After a four-week operation led by Mississippi ABC agents, the distillery was destroyed along with the additional seizure of 22 gallons of moonshine.
A state Alcoholic Beverage Control agent destroys a barrel used in the illegal production of moonshine in the Sand Hill community in Rankin County, Miss., Friday, May 18, 2018. After a four-week operation led by Mississippi ABC agents, the distillery was destroyed along with the additional seizure of 22 gallons of moonshine. The Clarion-Ledger via AP

Sidney Smith, 77, has been making moonshine in the rural Sand Hill community of Rankin County for many years, after learning the craft from his now late uncle.

“It’s something to do,” Smith told the Clarion Ledger on Friday, after he and his still got busted by state Alcoholic Beverage Control agents. “... Yeah, I’ve been caught making this before. They know me. They got to do their jobs.”

After a four-week operation led by ABC Special Agent Tony Ingram, agents destroyed the back-woods still, seized 22 gallons of moonshine and arrested Smith on a charge of possession of alcohol in a dry county.

Smith likely will also face a felony charge of possession of a still, said ABC enforcement Chief Rusty Hanna, but is likely to get probation and fines, not jail or prison time. Smith’s was a relatively small operation, and courts and jails have bigger fish to fry, Hanna said.

It may seem like a throwback to Prohibition days, but people are still making moonshine in Mississippi, and it’s not just a quaint sidestepping of the rules. It poses deadly health dangers to those who drink it. It costs the state tax revenue and it contributes to under-age drinking.

State Revenue Commissioner Herb Frierson and Hanna said illegal moonshining has increased in recent years, waxing with the popularity of the “Moonshiners” television series on Discovery Channel. Although ABC agents can’t focus large amounts of time or manpower to moonshine, they’ve been busting six to seven stills a year, and have already reached that mark this year. Hanna said stills have gotten harder to find — many of them indoors under lock and key instead of out in the woods where people can see and report them.

Smith’s operation in the woods near his home was gnarly and unsanitary: dirty barrels, buckets and jugs, bugs floating in the “mash” and God-knows-what in the final product. One wrong step by a moonshiner or a few degrees in temperature can produce poisonous methanol instead of high-test ethanol.

“Methanol — the devil’s cut — can kill you grave-yard dead, make you go blind, give you the jake-leg (permanent paralysis),” said state Revenue Commissioner Herb Frierson. Soldering of tubing or use of radiators or other makeshift equipment and ingredients can give drinkers lead poisoning or cause other illness.

“You don’t know what you’re drinking,” Hanna said as he and agents viewed Smith’s still. “You don’t know what was in these barrels before — chemicals? There’s bugs in the mash. This is very primitive. It’s not what you picture. TV has glamorized it, as clean, neat, pretty. This is nasty. Very unsanitary.”

Frierson said many moonshiners will sell to under-age drinkers and that some even market their product toward them, adding “snow-cone” flavorings to the liquor.

“They add the snow-cone syrup — pina colada, all kinds of flavors,” Frierson said. “They try to make it taste good, because if moonshine isn’t aged, it tastes terrible ... We’re even seeing people selling fake moonshine, taking Everclear or vodka and diluting it or adding flavors and saying it’s moonshine so kids will buy it.”

State and federal taxes and fees can total nearly $20 a gallon on liquor, revenue lost with moonshine. Frierson said his office does not have a good overall estimate on money lost to moonshiners.

Smith’s operation, agents said, could have produced up to 50 gallons a week at full tilt. If sold at $30 a gallon, it could have grossed $1,500 a week. ABC has busted much larger operations.

Recently, agents seized a still someone was trying to sell on Craigslist, and displayed the still in the ABC lobby.

Smith’s operation in the woods near his home, where he had been busted years before for making moonshine, was primitive. But agents were impressed with one aspect of it: He had three condensers running into separate barrels to collect the final product instead of the usual one or two.

Smith, who sat calmly on a truck tailgate as agents began destroying his still, cheerfully explained the three condensers.

“It’s faster,” he said. “It doesn’t take you so long to sit there and wait.”

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