Moonshining is on the rise in southeastern Oklahoma, state liquor authorities say.
The Internet has made it easier for do-it-yourselfers to learn about distilling. The process is relatively simple, and equipment explanations and recipes abound online. Many kitchen experimenters are simply curious. Others might find inspiration in pop-culture, like Discovery Channel’s Moonshiners television series, says Oklahoma liquor agent Capt. Joe Daniels.
But another factor might be driving illegal distilling: “Any time the economy dips, we have higher activity,” Daniels says.
Officials with Oklahoma’s Alcoholic Beverage Laws Enforcement Commission have noticed an uptick in reports on illegal distilling, which come from both the public and various authorities throughout the state. Historically, such an uptick is often economically driven, says Daniels, a special agent in charge ABLE’s southeastern division.
“People think about Uncle Jesse and the Morrison Sisters on Andy Griffith with the steel bin in their flower shop, or the Baldwin Sisters on the Waltons with the recipe machine,” Daniels says. “It’s not that way.”
Proof of Concept
Evidence of the trend is largely anecdotal. Daniels says ABLE has experienced an upswing in public phone calls and complaints about illegal distilling operations, but measurable data on moonshining is sparse.
State liquor agents raid a single large-scale distilling operation in a typical year, Daniels says. Those resource-intense operations involve undercover investigators, surveillance and search warrants.
But much of the evidence of illegal distilling is a lot smaller scale and lower-profile, Daniels says. A Highway Patrol trooper might find a quart of moonshine while searching a car after arresting a driver, for example. Or a forest ranger might stumble across a still operation in southeastern Oklahoma’s Ouachita National Forest.
“If I had the time and the manpower we could work them every week,” Daniels says.
Oklahoma’s statewide unemployment rate is low — 5.1 percent in August 2012 — which was considerably less than the U.S average, which was 8.1 percent that month. But unemployment is much higher in eastern and southeastern parts of the state, where the bulk of illegal distilling occurs, state liquor agents say.
Unemployment Concentrated in Oklahoma’s Moonshine Country
The unemployment rate in Le Flore County, for example, was 10.7 percent in August — more than twice the statewide measure of joblessness. Poverty is also concentrated in southeastern Oklahoma.
Illegal distilling has surged, ABLE officials say, but it’s hard to tell if the increased activity is from a flurry of new DIY distillers, or if current moonshiners are simply expanding distribution.
“I tend to believe it’s from more people trying to cook, but I don’t have anyway of proving it,” Daniels says.Obviously, moonshiners “aren’t paying taxes, buying licenses or reporting income,” on profits from their products, Daniels says. And while most illegal distillers aren’t full-scale commercial operations, moonshiners are escaping considerable tax liabilities from such outlaw enterprises.
A few years ago, state liquor officials collected details on a handful of illegal still operations and forwarded them to the federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau. The four stills — which ranged from small storage shed-sized operations to elaborate stills capable of producing hundreds of gallons of liquor — had a collective tax liability of more than $1 million, Daniels says.
Finding an actual moonshiner willing to do an interview is, understandably, challenging. StateImpact contacted several Oklahomans that have been charged with illegal liquor distillation and related crimes, but none were willing to weigh in.
Although some Oklahoma moonshiners are in it for business, others are motivated by the affordability and independence of homemade hooch, Daniels says.
And while joblessness and poverty is a major factor driving most moonshiners here, Daniels says you can’t overlook the influence of the area’s infamous history, a legacy illustrated by nearby Robber’s Cave, a sandstone hideout-turned state park made infamous by outlaws Jesse James and Belle Star.
“A lot of those relatives are still here,” he says. “That culture is still here, and that culture has something to do with moonshiners. If I can make it, I don’t have to go buy it.”