Moonshiners - The Law Comes Knockin'

Moonshiners, Season 1, Episode 3

Moonshiners follow Tim and Tickle, moonshine partners, during the trials and tribulations of making and selling the liquor. The show also follows Jesse, an official with the Virginia Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control, as he busts fellow moonshine operations and others on the wrong side of the law. In this episode, legendary moonshiner Popcorn Sutton describes his method of making shine, Virginia authorities bust a speakeasy, and Tim and company fire up their still - though slightly paranoid that they're being watched.

JT Moonshiners

"The risks of moonshine, there are great risks," Tickle admits while at his and Tim's still, hidden away in the Virginia woods. Tickle says he makes moonshine to survive, but that it is also something that he loves. Despite the dangers of the lifestyle, including the risk of getting caught and incarcerated, Tickle decides that he wants to continue making moonshine. He explains that it is difficult to find a replacement for something he loves so deeply.

Another personality on Moonshiners, Popcorn Sutton, is a legendary moonshiner with a long passion for the craft. He tests his moonshine for quality the old-fashioned way - by sampling it himself. Getting close to the pipe from his proofing barrel, Popcorn curses and reels away, coughing and laughing. "Instant drunk," he exclaims. Popcorn is famous for making extremely potent liquor - up to 160-proof moonshine - from his particular distilling techniques. He jokes that he makes different types of moonshine, including the "fighting kind, the loving kind, the crying kind…" He says his special technique is to trickle out his moonshine slowly from the proofing barrel.

"This one I'm gonna make today got four damn fights to a pint," Popcorn says, laughing and filling a jar full of his potent product.

After months of planning and preparation, and weeks of staying away from the law, Tim and Tickle are ready to fire up the still and begin brewing. "I guess you could say it's like NASA getting ready to take off to the moon," Tickle says as they hold the light to start the cooking.

Tim lights the fire under his still, turning up the propane until the flames are strong and even against the pot. Once the mash within the pot reaches 175 degrees Fahrenheit, the alcohol vaporizes. The vapor is transported inside copper piping to the thump keg, where it doubles in proof. From there, the vapor travels to the worm barrel. In the worm barrel, the alcohol vapor condenses into moonshine via a copper coil cooled by the water that surrounds it. Once the liquor is transported to the proofing barrel, the alcohol is cut with water and the finished product is bottled.

While Tim and Tickle use a thump keg and worm barrel to increase the proof and condense the alcohol vapor, modern stills accomplish these tasks more efficiently. For example copper column stills use a tall cylinder filled with copper scrubbers instead of a thump keg.  Alcohol vapor increases in purity as it moves vertically through chambers created by the copper scrubbers, which increase the efficiency of the distillation process and results in a higher proof of alcohol during a single distillation run.  These stills also do away with the worm barrel in favor of a an inline condenser mounted on the drip arm of the still.  These are called liebig condensers and they work by circulating cool water through a "jacket" that surrounds the drip arm.  

One risky aspect of home distillation, beyond the threat of getting caught by the authorities, is the potential production of methanol. Ethanol is the type of alcohol in beer, wine, whiskey, and other beverages. Methanol is a toxic chemical that is produced in trace amounts during a typical fermentation process for making wine, beer, or whiskey. Excessive consumption of ethanol usually makes a person feel, warm, fuzzy, and happy.  Consumption of methanol can injure and even kill people.  

One thing to keep in mind is that Methanol is almost always present in beer and wine, but isn't a problem because it is distributed evenly through out the batches. Methanol becomes a problem during distillation because it boils at a lower temperature than water or ethanol. Due to this characteristic it gets concentrated at the very beginning of the distillation run and is the first liquid to drip out of the still - while the temperature is still low. This portion of the distilled spirit run is called foreshots, and moonshiners making large batches of shine always discard it to avoid problems with the methanol. It is actually extremely unlikely that a small (5  to 10-gallon) batch of shine could contain enough natural methanol to injure or kill the drinker.  Nonetheless, if the foreshots are not discarded the liquor will have a foul smell, a sharp taste, and the chemical could trigger a nasty hangover.

In the episode Tim mentions that he pitches about the first five gallons of his brew to avoid the methanol, which sounds like a lot of shine to throw away.  However, he's distilling a 400 gallon batch, which contains about 80 gallons of alcohol. He's actually only discarding about 5% of the run. He says the middle of the run, or "the hearts" is what he is looking to bottle. He does't want the "heads," which comes off the still after the foreshots, or the "tails" which comes off the still at the end of the run. According to Tim, the quality product is in the middle of the still run.  Experienced distillers would agree.

Tim and Tickle have received many orders for moonshine, so they must hurry to fulfill the requests. Tim has been in the business for a while - his moonshine is reputed to be some of the best in the region. The moonshine team has less than 24 hours to brew, proof, and bottle the shine before their distributor arrives to make a pickup. Their bootlegger will transport the finished liquor to a stash house, where it will then be sold.

However, in all their rushing, Tim and Tickle have to stop and hide amid the foliage of the woods when they hear movement around them. When they notice a man walking through the trees carrying a gun - whether he is a hunter or a law enforcement agent - they find that they have no choice to protect themselves and the still. Shutting down a still makes them lose money - perhaps as much as $100,000 during distilling season - but they find they are forced to quit when they believe they are being watched.

There is an ever-present threat of being caught for the show's personalities. Moonshiners segue into one such instance. Several miles away, Jesse prepares to serve a search warrant for illegal gambling and moonshine selling as a part of an ongoing investigation. The tactical operation involves much action as Jesse and his team burst into a residence and arrest several people in the bust. The incident has a lot of shouting, commotion, and possibly gunfire. "This is what we get paid for," Jesse says prior to the bust.

If you liked this article you may also be interested in our article on Moonshiners - Season 1, Episode 4 - Outlaw Brotherhood