Moonshine: Laws, Liquor and Lawmen

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Call it what you want - mountain dew, white lightning or simply moonshine.  It doesn't really matter what name you use, but when it comes to where you're buying it and who's making it, well that's a whole different story.

Making moonshine is alive and well in Virginia - both legally and illegally. In this NBC29 special report we're taking a closer look at the laws, the liquor and the lawmen.

It's not just happening in the mountains of Virginia anymore, so-called ‘shiners' are popping up all over. The old craft of making moonshine is still prevalent in modern-day Virginia and the state and police are cracking down on their operations.

Moonshine in the United States can be traced all the way back to the Jamestown settlement. The English had the technology and the Indians had the corn. While the technology to make it hasn't changed, it certainly has for those trying to enforce the law. (Watch the video above for more on the history of Moonshine.)

"When times are good, people drink. When times are bad, people drink." said master distiller Chuck Miller.

Whether the times are "bad" or "good" Chuck Miller is making this drink possible. Miller has been making legal moonshine since 1988 at Belmont Farm in Culpeper County. What started as a small operation is now churning out 10,000 cases per year and is growing.

The secret family recipe starts in a 2,000-gallon copper pot still made in 1933. "Been in service ever since - sometimes legal, sometimes not." Miller stated.

Belmont Farm is one of 17 licensed distillers in Virginia, and the first craft distillery in the United States. Licensed distilleries are increasing, with five since 2012, but many more are still producing hooch without the ABC's blessing.

According to Chris Goodman, the deputy director of operations for the Virginia Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control's bureau of law enforcement, it's those who are not legal that are keeping the bureau busy. "It's like backwoods meets technology," he said.

The ABC is in charge of investigating the production of illegal spirits. "When we do develop information about moonshine or a still or we encounter one - however the information may come to us - it becomes a priority." Goodman stated.

Virginia law says you must have a license to operate a distillery. However, the number of illegal still investigations and seizures in Virginia is on the rise - from eight in 2008 to 23 in 2012.

Recent years have seen busts in Roanoke, Franklin, Pittsylvania and Carroll counties. And just this month, in South Hill Virginia two men were arrested for transporting moonshine.  The hunt for hooch has even gone high tech. ABC agents are scouring social media sites like Facebook, Twitter and even eBay to shutdown stills.

Those who secretly make moonshine say it should be legal to fill up a Mason jar for the family. They say it's just about Uncle Sam wanting his fair share in taxes.

But legal producers like Miller say they're proof you can still make big bucks on giggle juice, even with the support of the government. "You know a lot of the guys that come here, I think they want to be prospective moonshine producers." Miller said.

Manufacturing alcohol without a license in Virginia is a class six felony. You can make small quantities of beer and wine for personal consumption, just not moonshine. It is illegal to possess or transport alcohol upon which the U.S. taxes haven't been paid in the state.  Virginia code says it's also illegal to possess distilleries or distilling apparatus without a permit.

The ABC says, unlike Miller, many are not willing to pore through regulations to distribute white lightning legally.  "The illegal moonshine if you will, the illegal distilleries are a serious public safety concern for the ABC." Goodman stated.

There are also health risks to drinking illegal moonshine. A study of moonshine or illegal distilled spirits produced at 48 different stills found that 43 of the 48 samples had lead levels ranging from five to 599 parts per billion. More than half of the samples contained lead levels exceeding federal water guidelines of 15 parts per billion. For regular consumers, that poses a serious risk of lead poisoning. The study was conducted by Dr. Christopher Holstege, director of the Division of Medical Toxicology of Virginia Health System.

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