Making wine and beer at home has become a popular hobby for many Oklahomans, especially since laws now allow for the brewing of “strong” beer, rather than the low alcohol content limits previously on statutes. With a license, a private citizen can make up to 200 gallons of beer or wine per year, with a few restrictions.
Some new home kits available online claim to turn store-purchased vodka into gin by adding certain ingredients. Perfectly legal, these kits amount to about the same thing as making a mixed drink, since the store-bought vodka has already been distilled, according to the Oklahoma Alcoholic Beverage Laws Enforcement (ABLE) Commission.
But don't even think about distilling your own booze. It's a felony in Oklahoma to possess even a small tabletop still, as long as officers can prove intent to distill alcohol and not a legal product such as essential oils.
“A lot of people don't realize that moonshining is a felony,” said Capt. Joe Daniels, special agent-in-charge of the McAlester District Office of the ABLE Commission. Daniels has worked for the commission for 22 years.
Despite its felony status, Daniels said that more moonshining busts have been made this year than in the last several years combined.
“I used to tell everybody we would average taking down one still a year,” Daniels said. Keep in mind, he says, the ABLE Commission is understaffed and tasked with regulating all legal operations serving alcohol in the state. ABLE officers work illegal cases as often as time allows, Daniels said, depending mostly on tips from the public.
This year, the commission has already taken down eight stills, varying in size from a small stove-top model to a few large 400 gallon cookers capable of making hundreds of gallons of shine per week.
Several things contribute to this rise in busts. The home beer and wine making industries are thriving, acting as gateways of sorts into illegal manufacturing. Recipes and exact directions for making liquor can be found with a simple internet search.
Officers are now being trained to be more observant and knowledgeable about distilleries, thanks in part to CLEET certified classes Daniels teaches.
Blame also goes in part to “Moonshiners,” a Discovery channel docudrama about the lives of moonshiners in the Appalachian Mountains of North Carolina, Virginia, and South Carolina and the law enforcement officers working to thwart them.
Shows like this have a way of arousing interest in illicit activities, Daniels said.
An all-American culture
Really, the culture of moonshiners has endured the centuries since it began, early in American history.
“People think of ‘The Dukes of Hazard,' The Morrison sister shiners from ‘Andy Griffith Show,' the Recipe Machine from ‘The Waltons,' those little old ladies and those well-meaning gentlemen out there earning a living, trying to scratch it out any way they can,” Daniels chuckled. “That's what people think. That's not really how it is.”
Moonshining has long been a common practice in many rural areas of the country, including the southeast portion of Oklahoma.
“It's just a way of life people do down here,” Daniels said. “I've probably taken down more stills in Le Flore County than I have anywhere in the state.”
Daniels' own family tree includes moonshiners and, ironically, a slew of law enforcement officers (his grandfather was a Pittsburgh County deputy sheriff in the ‘70s and has 19 descendants that are currently or retired law enforcement officers in Oklahoma).