Silent and stealthy, the men in camouflage trudge through the Virginia woods. In a clearing ahead, some wild turkeys sprint for cover, darting helter-skelter and screeching insanely. The men pay no heed to the fleeing birds, because they’re not the prey the men have in mind. The Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) agents are hunting

for moonshiners.

About a half-mile back, on the blind curve of a back-country road, they piled out of a van and scrambled into the woods. They waded single-file through some scrub pine and jumped a creek brimming with crystal-clear mountain water—perfect for making moonshine. Then they ducked under rusted barbed wire and, after waiting for a pickup truck to pass on the horizon, they performed a wide flanking maneuver around an open meadow where cattle graze.

Now the men regroup

and stand still, and listen,

and watch.

The countryside, framed by the surrounding Blue Ridge mountains, is beyond tranquil, the occasional swatting of a cow’s tail the only sign of life. It’s late morning, a perfect time for hunting moonshiners: They typically arrive at a still just before dawn, and it takes a while to get things cooking. When the agents make their raid, they want to find the still hands up to their elbows in sour mash.

It’s hard to believe all this fuss is over some homemade booze out in the middle of nowhere, especially since I’m nursing an epic hangover from some state-approved, store-bought stuff. I move through the brambles, regretting I surrendered to the urge.

Franklin County is known as the moonshine capital of the world. For nearly a century, folks have made this sprawling, rural region of southwest Virginia the epicenter of black-market hooch. What the Colombian mountains are to cocaine, what the Asian poppy fields are to heroin, the hills and hollows of Franklin County are to illegal whiskey. The very cauldron of moonshine, where huge sour-mash pots bubble like so many witches’ kettles, where backwoods alchemists transform sacks of Dixie Crystal sugar into the potent elixir that goes by more deceitful names than the devil himself.

White Lightning. Panther’s Breath. Ruckus Juice. Pop-Skull and Pop-Scotch. Rotgut. Tiger’s Sweat. Mountain Dew. Bootleg. Forty Rod. White Mule. Bust Head.

Not so long ago, moonshiners were all the rage, revered as bona fide outlaws in pop culture and in real life. Who can forget Robert Mitchum as the bootleg runner in Thunder Road, gunning his souped-up jalopy and grinning maniacally in the rear-view mirror as his hapless pursuers wiped out in the Tennessee night? Stock-car legend Junior Johnson, Tom Wolfe’s “last American hero,” got his driver’s ed tearing up the back roads of North Carolina, making his bootlegger’s turns while hauling his daddy’s moonshine.

Now, though, moonshining has become a cartoonish anachronism, relegated to Snuffy Smith comic strips and Dukes of Hazzard reruns. With liquor stores offering every variety of booze imaginable, one would think the market had dried up years ago. Even a young Kentucky hustler named Larry Flynt long ago realized there was more money in selling smut than bootleg.

But in Franklin County, the locals never stopped making moonshine: Nobody told them their livelihood was obsolete. Just being in the neighborhood made me thirsty, but you can’t get moonshine at the county’s only liquor store. I bought the closest thing, a pint of 100-proof corn liquor made at a licensed distillery up in Culpeper. The brand is actually called “White Lightning,” with a bolt striking a still on the label, and it proved no empty boast. It was eye-watering, throat-burning, stomach-turning stuff—plenty strong and plenty raw. It was also perfectly legal, which robs the buzz. Chased down with some beer, though, it packed a nasty punch, powerful enough that the drugstore headache powder—the kind all the race-car drivers swear by—couldn’t touch it the next morning.

Now I’m paying the fiddler for my solo binge. My head pounds as I stumble through the woods, and I’m losing the agents in the dense underbrush. They know the terrain as well as the moonshiners they’re after, but for me it’s a hike through hell. My post-pickled haze has left me paranoid and jumpy, and I feel as if I’m being watched, as if the hills have eyes. And the damn briars won’t leave me alone, chomping like hungry kudzu with fangs.

I catch up as the group pauses at a cinder-block foundation, the ruins of an old still. They busted this one up a while ago, but the stubborn moonshiners simply found another site and built a new still. It’s a very old game, with each side moving along predictable lines. They build it, and the ABC boys come looking for it.

Through the trees, on the next ridge cows stand like still lifes near some abandoned, slouching tobacco barns. Halfway down the grassy slope is a small grove of pine and cedar. “That’s where it is,” whispers one of the agents.

We wait and watch, but there’s no movement in the grove, except for the treetops swaying in the breeze. One by one we scamper across the pasture, red clay under patches of green, past a few startled cows, and huddle in the grove.

In this shaded oasis stands a brand-new two-pot still, recently constructed and ready to make moonshine. An impressive contraption, it is a work of fine craftsmanship, as efficient as any money-saving gas heater. The still is what’s known as a black-pot operation, named for the submarine-shaped containers of dark galvanized steel that hold the fermenting mash, a mixture of mostly sugar and feed. There are coils and tubes and cooling barrels, all hooked up and ready to go. A large copper cap, shaped like the Tin Man’s head, lies gleaming nearby; a hose snakes down to a nearby creek.

An agent pokes his hand inside the opening of an 800-gallon pot to check the homemade brew. He lets me take a peek inside the tank: It’s a soupy, brownish liquid, letting off a sweet, pungent odor.

The still smells like an outdoor bakery run by hard-drinking bakers, the sort that serves up a few thousand rum-raisin cookies—low on raisins and heavy on the rum. The only things missing are the cooks. But they’ll be back, because they’ve got some big orders to take care of; off to the side is a neat stack of empty plastic jugs—200 of them. In a few days, the jugs will be filled with 100-proof moonshine and crammed into the back of a van or pickup truck headed north to Richmond, Washington, Philadelphia, and other Eastern cities. There, the stuff goes for $30 a gallon, peddled dirt-cheap in nip joints, shot houses, or wherever there’s a few booze hounds with spare change.

What makes it a crime, what brings these ABC agents to a remote cow pasture in the middle of nowhere, is simple: The hooch is untaxed and costs the government an estimated $20 million a year in lost revenue.

With sugar prices low and the market expanding (Baltimore, Newport News, even New York), business is booming, and Franklin-area moonshiners export thousands of gallons every week.

“This stuff is already paid for,” says agent Jimmy Beheler. “They don’t make this liquor on spec.”

The reason the agents don’t blow up the still right then and there is that they want to catch the culprits here first; otherwise, the moonshiners will find the ruins and just go build another.

Beheler (pronounced buh-HEEL-er), the head of the ABC squad, says this still is small potatoes compared to the really big daddies. A few years ago, not far from where we stand, agents discovered the largest illegal still ever seized, a gargantuan 36-pot monster that was hidden in a specially built warehouse.

He stubs out his cigarette on his boot and buries the butt in the red clay, still soft from a recent rain. You can’t be too careful when you’re on the trail of moonshiners. If they find out you’ve been stomping around, they’ll abandon the still and never come back.

A faint shout echoes from the ridge back near the road and Beheler tells everybody to hush up. Again the shout, closer this time. Somebody’s coming. We squat down and listen.

It’s a weird, drawn-out cry, more solo yodel than Rebel yell, and certainly no way to approach the site of an illegal whiskey still: It doesn’t make much sense for a moonshiner to be causing a ruckus.

The wild cry resounds again. False alarm. This is no moonshiner. It’s just some field hand calling the cows. It’s time to retreat.

The county seat of Franklin is Rocky Mount, a small, picturesque town perched on a bluff about 30 miles south of Roanoke. The town serves as headquarters to the area’s two main industries, textiles and moonshine. Near the railroad tracks that jut through downtown, a vast industrial park houses the factories. (Recently, authorities raided a large still hidden in an empty warehouse.) Nearby, the local farmer’s markets sell 100-pound bags of Dixie Crystal sugar, the main ingredient in illegal liquor. That’s the crazy thing about moonshine: All the fixings are as legal as—and not much different from—the stuff you use to bake a cake.

At the top of Rocky Mount sits the old white courthouse, fronted by columns and the obligatory monument to the Confederate dead. In the courthouse, there’s a fine portrait of Jubal Early, the Rebel hero who was born and raised in Franklin County. Beneath his likeness hangs a plaque engraved with a vow made by the general: “If ever I repudiate…the cause for which Lee fought, and Jackson died, may the lightning of heaven blast me.” Unlike Jackson, a ferocious teetotaler who believed that spirits made men weak and unfit for battle, Early was fond of an occasional taste, and he lived until the ripe old age of 78.

The court docket features the usual assortment that plagues any rural community: a murder or two per year, some B&Es and robberies, and a slew of domestic assaults and batteries. But Franklin County boasts a unique caseload that’s all its own. Hardly a week goes by that a busted bootlegger isn’t either pleading his case in court or serving time in the county jail, which is in an adjacent building.

Late last month, a 63-year-old moonshiner named Charles Delano Williams appeared in circuit court for sentencing. The old man had been nailed making hooch before, and he had always escaped with a slap on the wrist. Once again, Williams had some hard-luck stories for the court, but this time the judge threw the book at him.

It was his third felony conviction for manufacturing untaxed alcohol, this time at a 200-gallon still in the nearby hamlet of Truevine. Williams contended that one of the convictions dated from the early ’50s; he recalled being on trial for moonshining when somebody burst into the courtroom and announced that Hank Williams had just died. After that tactic failed, his lawyer argued that his client had held down the same job for nearly a half-century at a local textile mill. This wasn’t some no-‘count, full-time bootlegger but a hard-working man who dabbled in moonshine on the side. Maybe make a few batches for family and friends, something to put on the table for guests to take a nip.

The judge wasn’t impressed. “Hard work and manufacturing illegal whiskey aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive,” said the judge, as reported in the local paper, the Franklin News-Post. “It’s been going on for years and years. But at some point it has to stop.” He sentenced the old moonshiner to a year in prison, a sentence as harsh as the stuff Williams was convicted of brewing.

That punishment is a long way from what happened a few years ago, when the same judge held that moonshiners were not “real criminals….It’s a violation of the law, but it’s a tax violation. It’s not like armed robbery or rape.”

That’s pretty much the way the locals have always regarded moonshining. Yeah, it’s against the law—if you get caught—but it’s also a way of life, something daddy or grandaddy or some kin once did and still does, and so the hell what? And damn, it’s nice to have a quart around for parties and maybe some under the sink when you feel a cold coming on.

Until recently, you could get more prison time for shooting a dog than for making moonshine. In Franklin, getting busted for moonshine used to be simply a rite of passage, an annoying hazard of the business and not a crime that got you put away for long. All that has changed, though. The authorities have increasingly turned to federal laws to target moonshiners, much in the way that they

use the feds’ strict anti-drug statutes to nab narcotics dealers.

In February, another longtime local moonshiner, Amos Law, was indicted on federal conspiracy charges along with five others, including his brother, Peanut. The 63-year-old Law, who lives in a modest brick house on the outskirts of Rocky Mount, has several moonshine convictions, but these new federal charges are more far-reaching. After a two-year investigation, authorities say that Law’s been running one of the more extensive bootlegging operations around, managing massive stills in two different counties and shipping moonshine all over the state. If convicted, Law faces more than 60 years in prison.

It’s the biggest moonshine conspiracy case since the zinger that put Franklin County on the map back in 1936. In a nationally publicized trial, defendants included more than two dozen local bigwigs, from the sheriff to the commonwealth’s attorney (Robert E. Lee’s grandnephew Carter was one of the few acquitted). The case not only revealed that big-time racketeering ruled the bootlegging trade, but showed how much moonshine seeped into the very fabric of the community. Everybody from politicians to preachers had their hands in those stills. Naturally, the big bust didn’t stop the whiskey from flowing.

Emboldened by federal statutes, the enforcers now seem to have the moonshiners on the run: They’re waging an unrelenting attack on the black-pot black market entrenched in these hills. A five-man ABC task force, based in Rocky Mount and known as the Illegal Whiskey Interdiction Unit, works full-time busting moonshiners and blowing up stills. In the past few years, the unit has dynamited hundreds and poured out rivers of whiskey. The moonshiners are looking for cover for other reasons as well. Increased development means there’s less rural land to ply their trade. Some have shifted their operations into adjoining counties like Pittsylvania, but even there they’re not safe from the ABC agents or stiffer penalties.

“It’s making it harder for those moonshiners,” says Jack Allen Powell, a retired ABC officer and author of A Dying Art, a recently published memoir on his career chasing moonshiners. “They’re faced with real estate extinction, they’re faced with better law enforcement, they’re faced with tougher sentences. The authorities are getting more serious.”

And yet law enforcement can only do so much. For every still the agents raid and blow up, there are dozens more across the county, hidden ever more ingeniously. With the help of a bulldozer, bootleggers can hide a 10-pot still entirely underground now; one wily moonshiner hid his operation under a fake graveyard constructed over the top of the still, complete with tombstones and plastic flowers.

Regardless of how many resources get poured into enforcement, it’s tough to turn off the spigot on something as culturally entrenched as moonshining. Locals have been making moonshine in the area for centuries, since long before Alexander Hamilton imposed the first whiskey tax in 1791. Many of the settlers here were descended from Scots-Irish who had run illegal distilleries in the Old Country since time immemorial. In the New World, the saying goes, the Swedish immigrants built log cabins, the Germans built barns, and the Scots-Irish built moonshine stills.

Franklin, so-called land of 60,000 springs, provides ideal conditions for the enterprise, from the plain, wood-fire copper stills to today’s black-pot, propane-burner operations.

The only real change has been that fewer bootleggers are running bigger operations. “It is a dying art, but it’s certainly not dead,” says Powell. “They survived the Whiskey Rebellion, they survived Prohibition, they survived modernization, and they’ll survive this. They’ll be making moonshine until the end of time.”

I’ve been a moonshiner for 17 long years

I’ve spent all my money on whiskey and beer

I go to some hollow and set up my still

And if whiskey don’t kill me

Then I don’t know what will

—from “Moonshiner,”

a traditional mountain song

The king of Franklin County moonshiners, the big daddy of bootleggers—at least, if you count the number of charges (and acquittals) he’s racked up through the years—is a man named William Gray Stanley, but everybody calls him Dee. He’s what you call a triple-threat in the moonshine business: He makes it, he sells it, and he moves it. Hell, he even drinks the stuff.

The man behind the myth is a regular guy by most accounts, a good ol’ boy of the first degree, and even former adversaries like Powell sing his praises. “He’s a likable person, and he’s a very smart, innovative businessman as well,” says the former ABC agent. Through the years, the 52-year-old Stanley has been repeatedly arrested for making moonshine, but nearly as often has been acquitted. Crazy like a fox, say the locals. During his long career, Powell busted Stanley several times, the first back in the mid-’70s, when Stanley was driving a ’69

Pontiac.

“Dee’s not the biggest [moonshiner], but he’s by no means the smallest,” says Powell. “But he’s one of the few that actually make the liquor and deliver it himself—he does it all. And he stays tight with his family, really just him and his two sons.”

That’s what sets Stanley apart. Unlike many veteran moonshiners, who never set foot near a still or get behind the wheel to transport, Dee’s more than willing to get his hands dirty. One time, Powell busted Stanley for making moonshine right out of his garage, the mash literally running down the yard in plain sight. After the raid, Stanley asked the officers if they would help him pump out the mash instead of dumping the stuff and messing up his basement. And that’s exactly what happened. “He was very cordial. He knows when he’s been caught,” says Powell.

Old-fashioned he may be, but Stanley has managed to change with the times, like any successful businessman. These days, he might be more likely to be hauling his hooch in a new vehicle, humming along the interstates along with other harried commuters. Goodbye to the days of back-woods bootleg runners; it’s as if Junior Johnson went tooling around in a family van customized for hauling moonshine.

In February, the authorities nabbed Stanley carrying 642 gallons of moonshine on U.S. 29 in Charlottesville. His grown-up sons, Scott and Jason, have also recently been arrested for transporting illegal whiskey on interstates all around northern Virginia. The year before presented the same scenario: the Stanley clan busted in a cluster of arrests on highways from Luray to Winchester. Altogether, the thousands of jugs nabbed from recent Stanley transports total some of the largest moonshine seizures in state history.

Stanley’s attorney Bill Davis says that repeated arrests prove there is a plot against his client. “It’s become a personal matter with the local ABC officers,” says Davis. “It’s a personal vendetta against Mr. Stanley.”

Beheler says that Stanley has brought it all on himself. “He has yet to be stopped by us in a vehicle that did not contain whiskey, jugs, or sugar—every single time. To suggest that we are randomly stopping him on the road is absurd. We just follow the liquor. If these people don’t want to be inconvenienced by us, all they have to do is get out of the liquor business and they won’t have to deal with us.”

Still, many of the locals have sympathy for Dee’s predicament; they say that moonshining is all some folks know how to do. “A lot of people associated with manufacturing illegal whiskey got jobs and found work doing other things,” says Sheriff W.Q. Overton. “But you’ve got a certain group here, especially the Stanley boys, and it’s a tradition that’s handed down.”

As for Stanley, he’s got more problems than trying to outrun revenooers right now. Authorities say the family business turned ugly when he shot his son and right-hand man, Scott.

In late February, Dee called 911 from his house on Scuffling Hill Road. It’s a nice brick rambler on a hilltop spread on the edge of town; his granddad, a well-known bootlegger, bought the property years ago. Dee told 911 that Scott had been shot, and when authorities arrived they found the 25-year-old lying on the hallway floor, bleeding from bullet wounds to his chest and arms. Dee was standing outside, obviously shaken; there had apparently been a father-son argument that had erupted in violence. Police found in the house a dozen firearms, nine half-gallon jars of peach-spiked moonshine, as well as pills and rolling papers.

Stanley was charged with malicious wounding, and posted his $25,000 bond. He was ordered to report weekly to a probation officer and refrain from drinking any alcoholic beverages. After several weeks in intensive care, Scott was released from the hospital but has not spoken with police; a preliminary hearing has been set for April 15.

Powell heard about the incident and, like many locals, was shocked. Sure, everybody knew Dee was a moonshiner, but a man who would shoot his own son?

“I saw Dee in Wal-Mart about a month before the shooting, and he was peeping around one of the aisles, and said, ‘God, is that you, Jack?’ And we shook hands and got to talking. I said, ‘Dee, it’s not just you doing it—all this big-time liquor business,’ and he just laughed. He didn’t say anything either way; he just laughed.”

The shooting is still the talk of the town when I arrive in Rocky Mount. One local lays out the simple scenario: Things were heating up, Johnny Law was cracking down on the moonshiners, doling out conspiracy charges and tracking Dee down every highway, and Stanley finally wigged out. Others tell it this way: Dee discovered that Scott had cooperated with police in the investigation against Amos Law and his clan.

Still others say maybe Scott told his dad he was tired of bootlegging. Bad mistake. Everybody around here knows you can’t just quit making moonshine, especially if your daddy’s running the show. It’s not like quitting your job down at the textile factory. Bootlegging’s in your blood, boy.

All the legends aside, insiders will tell you

to beware the misty-eyed former moonshiner

who romanticizes the good old days, when

the stuff was made with love for mama’s rheumatism and daddy’s occasional pick-me-up. He’s lying through his rotten teeth. It’s always been about money.

I go to some barroom and drink with my friends

When the women can’t follow and see what I’ve spent

God bless them pretty women

How I wish they was mine

Their breath is as sweet as

The dew on the vine

—from “Moonshiner”

I had seen and smelled the black-pot still, percolating mash in its sacred cedar grove, and I was mightily impressed. The memory of that glorious whiff hung heavy on my mind; it seemed to promise the answer to the ancient mysteries of fermentation.

I had drunk the state-approved, quality-controlled “White Lightning,” and I had gotten quickly shitfaced. Now I wanted a taste of the real thing. I wanted to be baptized in the unholy order of Franklin County moonshine.

I know where to begin my search. I head west out Route 40, past Dee Stanley’s place, past

the minimarts with their marquee messages of heartfelt haiku to free enterprise and fundamentalism (“Country Ham/Salted Fish/Right To Life”), out to the last frontier of Franklin County. It’s called Endicott, and it’s legendary even by local standards for its remoteness, its steep ridges and deep hollows, and most of all, for its moonshine production.

Back in the ’20s, early country-music star Charlie Poole would hole up in Endicott for days, playing music and getting drunk. Once, he left home for a walk, caught a ride with a moonshiner, and didn’t come back for weeks. Poole wrote a song about the area’s notorious Shooting Creek, named for the violence that often erupted between moonshiners and revenooers. “Got my razor and my Gatling gun, going up to Shooting Creek, have some fun,” sang Poole in his best deadpan delivery.

The liquor made in these parts is as raw as the area’s denizens. Someone recorded the fantastic and wicked after-effects the high-test alcohol can wield on an unsuspecting toper; it’s a description that sounds like a particularly wild acid trip. After downing a few shots, the drinker feels “as if he were sunburned all over, his head begins to buzz as if a hive of bees had swarmed there, when he closes his eyes, he sees six hundred million torch-light processions all charging at him, ten abreast, and when he opens his eyes the light blinds him and everything seems dancing about.”

That’s the medicine I’m after.

The corkscrew roads are so secluded that I have to stop twice for sleeping dogs, who barely lift their heads to watch me pass by. I drive all the way to the county line, but don’t see any signs for Shooting Creek. The only markers out here are tattered Stars and Bars waving from poles that tower ridiculously high over tiny houses and trailers.

As time passes, I realize I don’t really know where in the hell I am. In these dark hollows, sunset comes early, and night falls as suddenly as a candle being snuffed out.

I head back and stop at a country store to ask for directions. The frame building has quadrupled its services for locals: It’s a gas station, market, taxidermy, and video store. The clerk tells me that Shooting Creek is still there all right, but the county sign for Shooting Creek Road got knocked down a while back, so she gives me the route number.

Exploring the nooks of Endicott after dark doesn’t seem too appealing, so I head back toward Rocky Mount. On the car radio, I tune in a classic-rock station in Roanoke, one of those FM trillion-watters that still blare Zep on the hour. The DJ announces that he’s gotten another call for a song called “Franklin County Moonshine” by a local band, the Thrillbillyz. He says the group’s singer was inspired to write the song after drinking some bootleg. In the wake of the Stanley scandal, it’s become the station’s most requested tune, a good yukety-yuk for the drive-time crowd.

The song is a fairly wretched boogie blues, spraying notes all spastic, like a jostled beer keg foaming at the mouth. It’s a rank blasphemy against the anarchic music that Poole lived and died for. Poole’s fiddle-and-banjo drones sprang directly from the shitfaced spirit of illicit spirits; their circular, repetitive patterns prove that real drinking music aspires to an astral plane more conducive to trance than dance.

Still, the Thrillbillyz have their hearts in the right place, if nothing else, and the chorus gets right to the point: “That Franklin County moonshine—it’ll make you fly, it’ll make you high, it’ll make you lose your mind.”

After driving through Rocky Mount, which is packed with factory workers getting off the day shift, I head south. I figure I might as well pay a quick visit to Danville, last capital of the Confederacy, just across the county line. On the way, I stop to get gasoline at a market. I go inside to pay, grab a beer, and put it on the counter. Reaching for my money, I mention that what I’d really like to buy is some local moonshine.

The woman behind the counter smiles mischievously and murmurs that she knows where I can get some. She says she keeps some at home, as she has for years: “I take some before I go to bed if I’m feeling poorly.” She says that she’s seen alcohol ruin people’s lives, including a neighbor who is steadily drinking himself to death on local moonshine. “It’s nothing to fool with,” she warns.

Nearby, a man who’s been listening to our conversation, blurts, “I got damn some.” Or that’s what it sounds like he says. He explains that he has some moonshine spiked with damsons, a kind of locally grown plum. He’s a fairly young guy, maybe 35, but he seems even younger, maybe because of his baseball cap and his goatee swiped from a Stone Temple Pilots video.

“It’s the best stuff around,” he brags. “Wanna try some? Got some back at the house.”

I follow him the mile or so up the mountain to his trailer. Except for an autographed Davey Allison clock on the wall, the place clearly shows a female touch: decorations, crafts and stuffed animals, even a cake on the kitchen table. He explains that his wife and sister have gone shopping, so we can sneak a few sips before they get back. “They don’t touch it,” he says, pulling a jar of purple liquid from a cabinet.

He holds the half-gallon Mason jar gingerly, admiring its glow in the dull light of the trailer. He opens the lid and lets me take a whiff. The fumes set my nose back and take my breath away. He says he got it last Christmas from a friend who’d made a special holiday batch. It’s the real stuff, small copper still and much more than 100 proof, and the damsons—big and dark as choice grapes— have been soaking in the hooch all winter. The longer you wait, the better it tastes. “The damson takes the bite off, makes it smooth,” he says.

He has been waiting to share his prized hooch with some buddies, but what the hell—now’s as good a time as any. Pouring liberal portions into two glasses, he hands me one and swigs from the other.

“My Lord God, that’s good stuff,” he gasps.

The phone rings, and he gets engrossed in a

conversation.

I take a gulp. It’s as strong as it smells and about as smooth as Mad Dog 20-20 multiplied by a thousand or so. Like a grape brandy, sort of—or better yet, like somebody took grain alcohol and stuffed it with plums and buried it in the ground for a few years. Which is sort of what happened in this particular aging process, I guess.

“She and sis went down the road,” he says into the handset, as he returns to pour me another helping. “Lord, ain’t it the truth.”

After the second dose, a warm sensation hits. I can feel my temperature rise. The trailer suddenly feels as cozy as an opium den.

“She had a baby girl?” he shouts. “Anna Marie? Well, well, ain’t that something.”

He hangs up and fills my glass again. I tell him it is indeed good stuff.

“I’ll sell it to you for $20—that’s what I paid.”

As I’m leaving, hugging the three-quarter-full jar in my arms, a pickup truck eases into the gravel driveway, and two massive women disembark, nodding a stern greeting as they pass. I drive away to the sounds of hollering and the trailer door slamming.

On the way to the motel, I stop by a highway bar called J&R Tavern. I really don’t have much choice: In a county with 150 churches, there are only two joints that serve booze in Rocky Mount, a Chinese restaurant with a three-booth bar and a steak place called Ippy’s. Inside J&R, everybody’s drinking the local favorite: red-eyes, a concoction of beer and tomato juice. A raven-haired woman with a stuffed mouse hanging out of her ass pocket commands the pool table.

One guy at the bar ignores the red-eye custom, and instead he pours Texas Pete hot sauce into his bottle of Bud.

The moonshine makes me feel a strange pity for these beer swillers, lost in their lowly suds and tomato juice. The buzz sets my tongue flapping, and I can’t help but brag about the evening’s purchase. So I start to rave to the guy about the goodness of damson liquor and the glory of Franklin County moonshine.

He looks at me sympathetically and says, “Damson’s good, but fox grapes is better.” He says you’ve got to pick those wild mountain grapes and let them ferment in a bottle of hooch for a few months—then you’re set.

Than he adds, “Franklin County ain’t made nothing good for years. They done got greedy. Georgia’s got the best moonshine now.”

A few days later, I’m back in Rocky Mount. I’m going with the ABC agents to check on that still.

As we prepare to set out, I tell them I got a taste of some damson, describing the hooch as if it were some precious nectar. Naturally, they want to know who had it and where. All I tell them is that it sure was good.

“That was just some sorry-ass liquor from the last run,” says Beheler. “That’s the worst stuff you can get. That’s why they put those damsons in there, ’cause that’s the only way they can get rid of the stuff.”

But the guy told me it was from a small-batch copper still, made for family and friends.

“That’s what they all say,” Beheler sighs. “It’s all black-pot liquor.”

Born and raised in Franklin, Beheler has been chasing moonshiners for nearly two decades now. A former Roanoke policeman, he came home to Franklin in the early ’80s to help bust up the moonshine business, which had rebounded from a decline due mostly to inflated sugar prices. Beheler is an intense man, especially when decked out in camouflage and chain-smoking Merits, organizing a raid. On the job, Beheler often runs down long-haired still hands half his age. At first he got some harassing calls, and his liquor-patrol beat still gets him ostracized in some social settings. He plays mandolin in a bluegrass jam every Wednesday night in nearby Gretna and attends the annual old fiddlers’ convention in Galax, the sort of gathering where moonshine’s as common as coffee. But his buddies make sure Beheler doesn’t find himself in a compromising position: “They respect what I’m doing and they know better than to put me in that situation,” he says.

Beheler’s illegal whiskey unit is the only one of its kind, a throwback to Prohibition days—the only full-time still-busters still out there. Other Southern states, like Georgia and Tennessee, have their share of moonshine, but only Virginia devotes an entire task force to combatting the black-market booze.

On the drive, Beheler and the agents rehash some highlights of a recent two-day workshop they attended in Roanoke. They downed plenty of red-eye and generally tried to have some fun, compared to the other agents, a bunch of dull party poopers. It sure isn’t like the wild and crazy days of yore, when they went to that bar that featured Velcro midget-tossing contests.

We jump out at the same spot as before, and I find pretty much the same briar patches along the way. But when we reach the still, it’s obvious that a great deal has transpired since our last visit.

There are four empty propane tanks and mash slop all around, and most important, all the plastic gallon jugs are gone. “Well, they made the first batch and shipped it out,” says Beheler. “We’ll have to come back and try again.” That’s how it often goes. Sometimes it takes weeks to catch the still-hands cooking the mash. Beheler and his agents have spent entire days and nights waiting and watching.

Moreover, the stills don’t stay clean after the first run. Agents have found everything from animal carcasses to beehives in the sour mash; the stillhands simply cook it all together. Worse, much of the black-pot whiskey is already dangerous stuff, high in lead content and often distilled through unflushed car radiators. Even the nontoxic moonshine is sugar-based, because that makes for a cheaper and stronger booze. It’s rare to find any of the old corn liquor made in copper pots, the so-called “box-still” booze on which Franklin made its reputation.

“I’m telling you they make this stuff to move it,” Beheler says. “There’s no art to it. That’s a bunch of crap—they do it because there’s big money in it.”

Let me eat when I’m hungry

Let me drink when I’m dry

Give me a dollar when I’m hard up

Religion when I die

The whole world’s a bottle

And life’s just a dram

When a bottle gets empty

It sure ain’t worth a damn

—from “Moonshiner”

As I’m leaving Franklin County, I spot an old man sitting on his porch watching TV. Something tells me to pull over. He’s a small wiry man with a ravaged face, bulbous, gin-blossomed nose, and cobalt-blue eyes. We get to talking and he tells me he’s been on strong medicine ever since a 12-year-old boy ran a car into his house a few months ago. The house has been repaired, but his nerves are still pretty shot.

It turns out he’s a retired sheet-metal worker who used to make copper caps for moonshine stills. Used to drink the stuff, too, but he quit both vices more than 20 years ago. He knows all the bigwig bootleggers around and says they’re nice people who do bad things. You know, taking care of business. “They’re worse than drug dealers,” he says. “They ain’t like me and you. They’re atheists, and they breathe what they do, regardless if they have to step on a baby and stomp it in the ground, they’ll do it without any hesitation. They’re just cruel. They’re more animal than they are people. They’re friendly with me, but I don’t have much to do with ’em. They got greedy, you see, so I don’t mess with ’em.”

He says that a few years back, Beheler busted his son for moonshining—ran him down from a still site across a country road and arrested him. Best thing that ever happened, because his son quit the racket right after that, and now he’s running a successful business in town. Even got his voting rights back. “He saved my boy, Jimmy Beheler did. He’s a good person, but he’s tough—he don’t have no pets, he’ll catch anybody. No, you ain’t gonna buy off Jimmy Beheler. He’s all cop. And don’t you know those bootleggers cuss him up and down. They hate him.”

I tell the old man I’ve got some damson in the trunk of my car, and I ask him if he could tell if it’s copper or black-pot. I want to know what I’m hauling home. His eyes light up and he says he’ll check it out.

He says the black-pot liquor is poison, pure and simple. “It’s more addictive than drugs, breaking up families and killing people. They’re killing the niggers drinking that black-pot, and that’s about as sorry as you can get,” he adds.

After carefully unscrewing the cap, I hold the Mason jar under his blood-shot nose, and he takes a whiff. Then he reaches his trembling hand over the threshold and dips a bony finger into the moonshine. He dabs it on his tongue, and puckers his cheeks, and swirls it around before announcing his verdict: “No, that ain’t black-pot—that’s box liquor, that’s what you got there. I can still taste the bitter taste, and that’s good—if it was black-pot, it’d have a sting to it. That’s box liquor—the longer you keep it, the better it gets.”

I thank him and head north with my stash of Franklin County moonshine.CP