Richard Hyatt: There's something about moonshine

March 4, 2014 

What is it about a moonshine still that makes a lawman reach for his camera? There always seemed to be a photographer around when revenue agents busted some character from Snuffy Smith, and there was one around Tuesday when Sheriff Heath Taylor and the boys tramped through the woods to shut down an illegal operation in Russell County.

Wearing camo and carrying high-powered weapons, officers posed around a collection of rusty barrels in a scene that was a throwback to days when illegal hooch was the gangster's drug of choice.

It was fitting that the Russell County sheriff was dressed for a hunting trip. It was a turkey hunter who gave him a tip about the second still shut down in the county over the past six months.

"I was sitting in my office when the fellow called. He asked me if I wanted him to take me to a still. I said what any lawman would say," Taylor said.

That still produced what Alcohol Beverage Control agents described as a high-class product. The state shut down the other one, so this was Taylor's first brush with untaxed liquor since he was a young deputy.

"We used to hit them all the time," Taylor said. "Nowadays, other drugs have taken its place."

Moonshine is part of our history. Dating back to the 18th century, the distillation of corn, apples or peaches was accepted as part of southern culture even though it was turning out the devil's brew.

The image was cultivated by a comic strip that featured Snuffy Smith, an ornery little cuss that avoided federal agents who chased him around Hootin' Holler.

But moonshiners weren't fictional characters. If E.J. Hancock were still around he would tell you so. He had the nose of a bloodhound and could sniff out stills better than any thirsty customer. Liquor distributors paid the Columbus resident to help lawmen track down moonshiners who waited until the sun went down to make their brew.

He was portrayed on the big screen and written about in books -- including his role in the cleanup of Phenix City. He went all over the south shutting down stills. Hancock died in 1987.

The sheriff didn't need the old fellow's nose. A helpful turkey hunter was his guide. What Taylor did Tuesday was more than an effort to collect taxes. The bottom line is that moonshine can kill you.

"People say you can make beer and wine at home, and that's true. But the law does not apply to distilled liquor," he said.

There will always be demand for 'shine in a Mason Jar. Recipes are as prevalent as recipes for Brunswick Stew. But there will also be lawmen ready to tear a still apart.

As long as there's a camera nearby.

Richard Hyatt is an independent correspondent. Reach him at

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