Moonshine Days

My first job out of college, I was a police reporter for a small newspaper in North Georgia, situated in rolling foothills of the southern Appalachian mountains. Moonshine country, in fact.

I was hardly a month on the job when agents at the local office of the federal government's Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) offered to let me accompany them on a raid to break up a still. From which I learned that those back-mountain stills tend to be pretty grubby looking.

I got a better education in moonshine - or white liquor as most folks called it - from local firefighters. I hung out at the fire stations some evenings, just so everyone everyone remembered to call me when the big fires came. And also cadging dinners of chicken-fried venison and enormous cat's head biscuits (the size of a house cat head, in case you worried.)

Someone usually had supply of white liquor around and occasionally I went home with a small bottle. And lots of cautionary instructions in case I decided to buy more: 1. Know your moonshiner 2. Don't buy bottles from the first three runs of a still. They were likely to be full of contaminants. 3. Same for the sludgy tail runs at the end. 4. Try to make sure that your moonshiner used only copper for the still and the pipes. 5. Other wise expect a little lead poisoning. 6. Or a lot.

I'm in Georgia this week to visit family and friends and to do several events for my book, The Poisoner's Handbook, and in the spirit of the visit, I thought I'd return to those moonshine rules. White liquor is still brewed in the Appalachia and not that hard to purchase if you know who to ask. And still illegal, by the way. You may remember that six members of Willie Nelson's band were charged in January with the possession of moonshine bought in North Carolina.

And heavy metal contamination has continued to be an issue. The problem is with 'shiners who use lead piping or even lead solder. The alcohol acts as a solvent, leaching lead into the whiskey. A 2004 analysis of moonshine in Virginia found that 60 percent of all white liquor samples were either at or above the recommended EPA guidelines for lead. There can be other poisons, of course. Depending on what they distill (Tennessee moonshiners once famously and lethally tried poison ivy) the end result can be lethal methyl alcohol instead of the ethyl alcohol found in grain whiskey. Other metals can leach into the liquor. A 2007 report, for instance, tracked an outbreak of white liquor-related cadmium poisoning.

So, if you're down my way and curious, don't forget rule number one.  Also 5-6. And the unwritten rule number 7. If the ATF agents find out you'll be worrying about other things besides what's in that liquor.

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