by John H. Snowden, III
Article originally published August 15, 2002 in The Independent
Editor’s Note: The following story contains exclusive photographs, and other information which no other area media outlets carried.
Acting on an anonymous tip, the Currituck County Sheriff’s department discovered an operating liquor still in the swamp west of Barco, early on morning of Monday August 5. By about 1 p.m. of the same day, a team consisting of a sheriff’s deputy, and an Alcohol Law Enforcement (ALE) agent, had destroyed the still.
The still, which was located at the far end of Swain’s Lane, was approximately 1.5 miles due south of Central Elementary School, in an isolated area of the county adjacent to the North River Game Lands.
In an exclusive interview held onsite prior to the destruction of the still, ALE Agent George Basnett and Sheriff’s Deputy Wayne Twiford walked through the method by which the still operated.
Basnett pointed out that from the looks of the mash, the starting product from which corn liquor is made, the operators had probably been at the still within the last 2-3 days. The mash, held in 8 – 55 gallon drums is a mixture of water, sugar and various types of grains.
Mash in the barrel ferments with the assistance of yeast to form a weak water and alcohol mixture similar to beer. Basnett pointed out that simple possession of mash is not illegal, since production of mash is similar to that used in homebrewing beer.
Agent Basnett estimated that each 55-gallon barrel of mash could produce approximately 2-3 gallons of distilled corn liquor. Basnett added that if the operator timed the maturation of the mash properly, or in stages, the still could have had several runs of liquor over the period of a few days.
Basnett explained the distilling process as we moved toward the mash tank, which consisted of a 255-gallon fuel oil barrel laid on its side. Basnett pointed out a small gas powered pump attached on one end to a well point and the other to a long hose. Basnett stated that this pump was used to supply water to the operation, as well as possibly being used to pump mash from the 55 gallon barrels into the mash tank.
Continued with his explanation, Agent Basnett pointed out that the weak alcohol water mixture travels from the mash tank to the cooker, a cylindrical unit that is used to heat the mixture to the boiling point of alcohol. Basnett noted that while most cookers involved in illegal liquor manufacture are fired by propane, the cooker at this site was fired by coal.
From the cooker, a rubber hose carried the alcohol steam back through the mash tank and on to a series of barrels connected by rubber hoses. Basnett indicated that this configuration was probably helpful in using the alcohol steam to pre-heat the mash mixture in the tank before continuing on to the cooling or evaporation coils.
Basnett continued to the evaporation coils, which consisted of two copper coils immersed in a wooden box filled with water. Two one-inch pipes protruding from the bottom of the tank is where the freshly distilled corn liquor would be gathered.
Concluding his primer on distilling, Basnett picked up an old 5-gallon bucket with some corn liquor in the bottom. Basnett noted the final stage was “charcoal” filtration. A crude yet functional filter was fashioned from a 5-gallon water jug cut in half and tied with rope to a small tree. The funnel shaped jug was then stuffed with cotton and some chunks of coal. Deputy Wayne Twiford pointed out that the filter had been here so long, that the rope had grown into the 1-inch thick sapling.
Basnett poured the corn liquor mixture through the filter, where another dirty 5-gallon bucket captured the “filtered” end product.
Basnett concluded that the final product, which resembled Tequilla in odor and water in clarity, would likely be bottled in gallon jugs for transport.
In discussion with Basnett, he noted that this particular still was not a very elaborate operation. Basnett added “I wouldn’t want to drink anything from this still”, referring to the lack of cleanliness of the equipment.
Basnett reiterated that the still was crude in construction compared to others he had seen. Judging from the accumulated trash, and discarded equipment at the site, both Basnett and Twiford concurred that the still had been in operation for some time at this location. Twiford said, “this things been here for years”, and later reiterated that the still had probably been in the area for 10 years or more.
According to Twiford, the Sheriff’s dept was acting on an anonymous tip. Twiford stated that due to the close-knit nature of the community, word had probably already gotten out that the still had been discovered. As a result, the decision was made to destroy the still, rather than spend further hours observing and attempting to catch the operators.
Basnett indicated that the ALE had known of a still in the area for some time, but just couldn’t find it.
Deputy Twiford stated that after the department received the initial tip, he had taken some time earlier in the morning to investigate, and with a little legwork, found the still. He noted that he had hunted on several occasions in the area, and had been not more than 50 ft from the still, without knowing it.
ALE District I Supervisor Pat Forbis indicates that his office has been investigating complaints regarding the manufacture of illegal liquor in that are since he came to Currituck in 1989. Forbis added, “(our office) has always had complaints since the last (still) was busted in the late 1980’s”. Forbis went on to point out that the last illegal moonshine operation discovered in Currituck in the late 1980’s, was located in the same area, about 500 yards closer to Swain’s Lane.
ALE District I includes Bertie, Camden, Chowan, Currituck, Dare, Gates, Hertford, Hyde, Pasquotank, Perquimans, Tyrrell and Washington Counties. Forbis noted that District I is “the only district in the state that’s issued hip boots.”
According to Agent Basnett, most complaints of illegal liquor production in District I come from Bertie, Camden, and Pasquotank Counties. Forbis compared searching for a still in the woods to looking for a needle in a haystack.
According to Forbis, spouses who are tired of their husbands drinking, or spending excessive money on liquor, file complaints about the illegal liquor operations. Forbis also noted that occasionally complaints arise from competition.
Forbis calculated that with 440 gallons of mash, and an approximate yield of 10%, the still could produce 44 gallons of illegal liquor, with a street value of $30 – $40 per gallon. Forbis added that if the operators cut or diluted the liquor, they could make much more. The illegal liquor at $40 per gallon is bargain when compared to a fifth of grain alcohol at $15, or $75 per gallon. Forbis pointed out that the difference between legal and illegal liquor is the taxes paid on sale of the liquor.
Besides the loss in tax revenue, corn liquor poses possible health problems, caused by contaminants introduced during the distilling process. Typical contaminants include ethylene glycol (antifreeze), bleach (used to speed the mash process), and lead salts, which leach from the equipment throughout the distilling process. ALE District Supervisor Forbis, in commenting about the lack of sanitation of the distilling equipment, “ranks that one as the nastiest ones I’ve ever seen.”
Forbis noted that still operators are definitely “not lazy”, referring to the task of hauling corn, sugar and equipment to the remote locations used to hide their illegal operation. According to Agent Basnett, the first offense of operating a still is a Class I Misdemeanor. Charges filed against operators would be manufacturing non-tax paid liquor and possession of non-tax paid liquor. Any second offenses would be charged as a felony. Both charges could result in seizure of all equipment used in manufacture, including vehicles, and homes.
After our interview, and an opportunity to take photographs, all equipment associated with the still was destroyed at the site. Hoses were cut with machete, and barrels and other items where shot with pistol and shotgun. As a message to the operators, and per tradition, Agent Basnett left his business card attached to a nearby tree, in plain sight of the still.
Investigation by the Sheriff’s department and ALE continues. Anyone with further tips on this operation or others is encourage to contact the sheriff’s Departmnet at 232-3771, or the District ALE?Office at 491-6561.
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