It was long hard work, but where else could a Fifteen year-old kid knock down Fifty bucks a day for hauling Sugar bales up the side of the mountain? Though many of these entrepreneurial people were 'technically' criminals, they were honorable, their word was their bond, generous to a fault, and once they accepted you as a friend, they were your friend to the end.
Some years ago, in a Universe far away, I had occasion to visit a few of my old childhood "haunts."
To get there, make a left just past the Deer check station and keep going 12 miles until you reach the "End State Maintenance" sign. Take the Right fork and continue up the hill for about two miles. Take a sharp right where Bubba Callands store used to be before it burned down.
Just past the Holiness Church make a left across the log bridge and drive until either, you get really scared, or you run into the carefully hidden pit in the road.
A few Hundred feet past the "No Trespassing" sign you'll find a wooden gate.
Climb over it. Don't worry about the Bulls, as long as you move really slowly they'll usually ignore you. (It's the Goats you have to watch out for!)
Look East and you'll see a Red rag hanging from a Pine tree.
Go to the tree with the rag, stepping over any tripwires you might encounter, and pull on the rope to which the rag is tied, raising the Red rag up the tree, ringing the bell.
Look in the crook of the tree, just above eye level and you should find a 1/2 pint Mason Jar.
Have a seat on any nearby log and enjoy your 'sample' until an armed representative of the proprietor arrives to tend to you and/or your business.
A bit more seriously ...
This still in the photo is a fully working still, called a "Cheater Still," otherwise known as bait.
This one is made with with heavy pine sides and a Steel or Galvanized Steel (sheets available at the local HVAC/Duct shop) cooker.
The wash tub sits over the hole in the cooker and collects the vapors, which are sent down a tube to a condenser in the creek below. This is where the 'product' exits into a jug, cask or can.
This little wood-fired still might produce enough distillate for a few people, for a little while, but these days, it's hardly a commercial operation. The liquor produced by this still kind of still, called Blackpot, would usually make you sick, and occasionally blind, stupid or dead. More on that later.
Instead of using these blackpot stills for actual production, however, they would usually scatter them across the mountain and fire them up. The pots have a serious heat signature and they billow smoke like tires on fire. In other words, they are cheap to build and operate, but attract 'revenuers' like dung attracts flies.
That, however, was the charm of the cheater still. At the time, the Tax Men worked on quotas. The local shiners made certain that our civil servants had no problem meeting theirs, enabling the revenuers to take well deserved time off, spend time with their families and do any number of things OTHER THAN searching for stills. As an added bonus, they got to report that they not only "busted" so many stills, but some dangerous Blackpot stills to boot.
At this point it was usually safe for the professional untaxed distiller to fill the big mash boxes and get them fermenting (which smells to high heaven) prior to firing up the Thousand gallon and larger cookers. These were usually well hidden inside barns and under houses, fired by Propane or pressurised Gasoline, and were vented into the chimney along with the fireplace. A few of these stills looked much like (and probably still do) commercial facilities, complete with scientific quality control.
A well-crafted "country made" Corn Whiskey is much like a fine, premium Tequila. Even at 140+ proof (70% Alcohol) it's really a 'sipping whiskey.' The 180 proof variety mixes well with juices and fruit drinks and makes a superb 'pickling' for pears, peaches and figs. It also makes a pretty good Gas Line Antifreeze.
There's no surprise that the really "good stuff" now rivals or exceeds the price of similar quality legitimate, commercial liquor.
It was long hard work, but where else in the 1960's could a Fifteen year-old kid knock down Fifty bucks a day hauling Sugar bales up the side of the mountain? Though many of these entrepreneurial people were 'technically' criminals, they were honorable and their word was their bond. Generous to a fault, once they accepted you as a friend they were your friend to the end.
If you knew how to stay quiet, keep your word, and were willing to work, you'd always have a well paying job.
The best distillers in the mountains were also craftsmen, and a lot of their facilities were Copper, Glass and Stainless Steel. They studied books on fermentation and distilling, or would have another person (or one of their own children) read to them. The "Snuffy Smith" stereotype didn't fit here.
These craftsmen had no tolerance for the 'poison pushers' who used toxic processes and equipment to make not only substandard, but lethal products.
These included stills built of galvanized steel, also known as "Black Pots." The Zinc laden distillate was called Black pot Whisky, and any weldor who has had to breathe Zinc fumes can tell you, Zinc poisoning is not pretty.
The equally lethal practice of using old car radiators as distillate condensing coils produced a Lead-laden liquor, famous for making imbibers not only blind drunk, but permanently blind or insane from heavy metal poisoning.
Though many of these "untaxed distillers" appeared to live in abject poverty, satellite dishes and state-of-the-art electronics were often the norm rather than the exception. The children lacked for little, especially the important things like values, self-esteem, self-sufficiency, a solid understanding of consequences and of course, parental attention and love.
Unlike today's drug dealers and violent, new-age moonshiners, these people carried firearms only to frighten off the occasional 'city slicker' and to (hopefully) come back home with dinner after a day's work "in the woods", or "at the camp".
When the "revenuers" did make their occasional raid on a working still, the encounter was almost always peaceful, and sometimes even "cordial."
Tom T. Hall, one of the local Treasury Agents once broke up a still belonging to an acquaintance, but gave him a day to go home and get his affairs in order before "reporting" to be arrested. It was a matter of honor, since Hall caught him fair and square. The sentence was rarely more than a fine, or weekend in a local jail, where everybody knew one another and neither the food nor the company were too bad.
Sadly, those days of honorable crooks and thieves are long gone. Today, inadvertantly stumbling upon a pot field, crack cabin or lean-to meth lab while wandering through many of the same, once peaceful woods and forests throughout the South can be, and occasionaly is, fatal.