Moonshining in Alabama


By Jessica Gertler

The backwoods of Alabama are often shrouded in secrecy, because in many cases that's where fiery, illegal alcohol is being made. Moonshine has been outlawed for centuries, but that hasn't stopped the business. It's thriving in Alabama.

A dangerous and illegal operation is booming in our backyard. Bootleggers and moonshining are still around. In fact, "white lighting" has struck the River Region.

A recent reality TV show called Moonshiners on the Discovery Channel gives viewers an inside look at the illegal whiskey business. It has sparked a curiosity among its viewers and has caused more people to look into the multi-million dollar industry.

"It is prevalent, and we are seeing it more and more now that some of the television shows have come out," says Sgt. Wayne Mackey with the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board.

ABC agents say they've been fighting illegal liquor distilling for decades. Agents haven't allowed the media to see their undercover operations, but for the first time, they're letting Alabama News Network tag a long.

After trekking through the woods, we spot it. A moonshine still near the Crenshaw and Pike County line.

"That's actually an old car radiator, completely rusted," says Mackey. "It's not uncommon."

Yes, you heard that right. An old car radiator is being used to stir the moonshine.

"There is a lot of danger from the led salts and things that can come from this type of operation," another ABC agent tells us.

Mackey says that's part of the problem. Those who buy the stuff don't realize what's in it.

"We've actually found still sites with empty Clorox containers and rubbing alcohol containers," he says.

Every moonshine still has to have a water source, and sometimes it's the water source that's hazardous. Take a still that agents recently busted in Lowndes County. The water trickling into the barrel is coming from a hose connected to a sewage line.

"This stuff is actually put into the product to help, what they say, give it a kick," says Mackey.

The moonshine business dates back hundreds of years. Kenny May is what some call a moonshine historian.

He grew up with it.  His dad, Clyde May, was a legendary moonshiner in Bullock County.

"His claim to fame was that he made the best whiskey," May says. "He actually spent eight months, in the federal penitentiary."

May says there are three reasons why moonshining became widespread in the River Region. He says early settlers were Irish-Scottish. Secondly, he says rivers and creeks are plentiful in the area. And lastly, May says the soil south of the Conecuh River was poor for farming, so families had to find another way to make money.

"[Moonshining] had a very rich, romantic history. There were so many people doing it, and they fed their families," says May.

But ABC agents say the business has transformed over the years becoming a threat to the state and taxpayers.

The average tax on a gallon of liquor in Alabama is $22.50. Therefore, the state loses more than $327,000 in taxes a year from one 40 barrel still. The still owner walks away with more than $100,000 in profits.

It's difficult to tell how many moonshine operations are scattered across the River Region. As one shuts down, another pops up. A never-ending cycle  that some say gives the River Region an edge.

There is a way you can set up a legal still. You would have to obtain a micro-distillery license from the federal government. May tells me he is in the process of doing that. He says he plans on making his dad's famous whiskey.

If you are caught distilling illegal alcohol or selling it in the state of Alabama, you can face up to five years in prison on felony charges.

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