Alcohol agents: Where there's smoke, there's moonshine

When Agent C.T. Parker Jr. saw smoke rising from an old tin-walled barn in Nash County, N.C., last month, he knew he was about to close a case he'd been working on for nearly four years.

For one thing, it was 85 degrees that day, and the North Carolina Alcohol Law Enforcement agent knew it wasn't the season for drying tobacco or curing ham.

For another thing, the barn was located behind a double-wide mobile home on Red Oak Road belonging to Joseph Adam Wood, one-half of a pair of brothers suspected of distilling and selling sweet, fruit-flavored moonshine for $20 a Mason jar.

Parker said he made undercover purchases of the illegal hooch in 2006 and 2007 but couldn't find the still. Parker, of Scotland Neck, has been with ALE four years.

"We knew it was there but didn't know where the still was," said Parker, who patrols Nash and Halifax counties for the state alcohol agency. "When I saw the smoke come out, I said to myself, right then, "That must be it.'"

Parker returned about two weeks later, on Nov. 4, and knocked on the door. When Wood answered, Parker told him why he was there.

"He was really cooperative," the modern-day revenuer recalled. Wood took Parker and another agent out back to his barn and showed them the still and a sizable stash of white lightning.

The agents seized 460 full quart jars and a stainless steel distillery with copper components. An ALE media release on Tuesday estimated the "street value" of the haul at $11,000.

Statewide, ALE agents find only a half dozen or so working stills a year.

Joe Wood, 48, and younger brother Herman Paul Wood, 45, were charged with unlawful possession of equipment or ingredients intended for the use of manufactured spirituous liquor, unlawfully manufacturing spirituous liquor without first obtaining an ABC permit and revenue license, and the willful and unlawful possession of non-tax paid spirituous liquor — all misdemeanors.

Joe Wood declined to comment Tuesday when reached at his home, about 20 minutes north of Rocky Mount in the community of Whitakers.

"Our attorney told us not to talk," he said apologetically.

The brothers have clean criminal records, and, if found guilty, are unlikely to see much jail time, Parker said.

Mention moonshine, and most folks conjure up images of hot-rod driving hillbillies holed up at the end of a mountain holler brewing corn-mash whiskey. But Eastern North Carolina has its own rich tradition.

The still that ALE seized was cooking up more of a high-proof rum, made from cane sugar and fresh fruit.

"There was no corn in it. What they did was they took watermelons they grew in the garden, or apples or pears or plums, peaches, strawberries, and they grind it up," Parker said.

The fruit is then put in a mash barrel, along with water, sugar and yeast, and the potion is left to ferment. After 30 days, the booze is distilled through a still fashioned from a steel drum and copper pipe.

The finished product comes out clear as spring water and as strong as sin.