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).
“I grew up in a house listening to my grandfather talk about moonshine,” Daniels said. “My grandfather was a deputy sheriff for years and years and he talked about his father-in-law and his relatives that made whiskey back in the days of prohibition in the '20s and '30s.”
Shining and smiling
Daniels shared a story of family lore told to him by his grandmother.
“My great-grandmother was there one night and the county sheriff (a friend of the family) come running in the door and said, ‘ya'll need to get everything cleaned out because the feds are on the way.' ”
The feds drove cars but you could either go by horseback or on foot and get there faster because the roads were so bad, Daniels said.
“Not many people had cars.”
The family scattered and hid everything outside the house except for one keg.
“They had a keg of moonshine that they had been filling up and it was sitting in the middle of the living room. My (great) grandmother said ‘hang on,' and she threw a blanket over it, went and got the butter churn and sat down and started churning butter, sitting on the keg.”
The feds showed up and searched the house. They told Daniels' great-grandmother she'd have to get up so they could look at the keg.
“She said, ‘I can't get up; you're going to make this butter spoil if I get up. It'll ruin it. They said ‘OK' and they let her sit there and they never found anything, and they left with her sitting on the moonshine the whole time.”
In 1970, Daniels' nearest neighbor wasn't quite so lucky. He got busted for bootlegging which can come with prison time and high fines.
“He had an old Ford pickup and he kept the back end of it level full of loose hay and you could run your hands down in that hay and pull out quarts of moonshine. His brother was cooking it and he would haul it to Tulsa and Oklahoma City and sell it to the bars.
“I've been around it all my life. I always tell people you would be shocked if you knew how many stills are out there.”
The taxing truth
Daniels said many people think the government outlaw moonshine for tax reasons. There's some basis for this thinking in the nation's history. During the Whiskey Rebellion in 1794, Americans rebelled against the federal government for imposing taxes on liquor, after just having warred against the English over their taxing tea.
However, today, safety is the key reason for the prohibition of moonshine, Daniels said. There are many dangers involved in unregulated distilling, including the explosive properties of distilling, vaporizing and condensing the alcohol, the potential for impurities (such as animal carcasses and all sorts of bugs) being cooked into the mash, exposure to heavy metals such as zinc, and the other general health dangers associated with drinking extremely strong alcohol.
One hog farmer may have provided an additive few moonshine customers would have wanted.
“A hog farmer was mixing his mash in the same room he stored his hog semen in,” Daniels said of the bust. “People are finally starting to see how dangerous these things are. How the conditions are terrible that they're made in.”