It is Saturday night and the muddy all-terrain vehicle careers through the dark primordial woods. So it comes as a bit of a surprise when the driver turns and yells over the ear-splitting whine of the engine: “We’re in the middle of shine country now, eh.” There are no arrows pointing out the moonshine trail through these mountains in western Nova Scotia, near the New Brunswick border. No tourism department literature trumpets the stills, hidden in the hillside, that produce illegal liquor. And no signs point the way to the backwoods cabin where three of the best-known producers of the “good stuff,” as the locals call it, gather over big tumblers of their home-made hooch. The still in the back shed sits idle tonight, waiting for the proprietor to begin running his next batch. But in this room full of bleary eyes, cigarette smoke and sports chatter, the defiant, irreverent spirit of the outlaw lingers like smoke from the wood fire.
It is an underground art, practised in basements, woodsheds and forest hollows by men with names like “Moonshine Bill” and “Deepwoods Dave”—their secrets passed down from generation to generation. They are not about to put the government liquor stores out of business in Atlantic Canada. But production is on the rise in the region, whether in the mountains of Nova Scotia’s Wentworth Valley, the woods of Cape Breton or the coves of Prince Edward
Island. According to Staff Sgt. Don Ray, head of the RCMP’s customs and excise section in Halifax, there has been a marked increase in the number of complaints and tips received by the police about the activities of local moonshiners. “The increase is probably because of the poor economy,” he explains. “But there’s a historical factor at work in a lot of these areas—they’ve just always made their own liquor.”
The process is deceptively simple: start with a liquid base that can be as fundamental as water, add yeast and sugar and let it ferment for a week or so until the alcohol level hovers around 12 per cent. Put the “mash” in a cooker, which could be anything from a steel beer keg to a large copper tank. Place it over heat and wait for the alcohol— which boils at a lower temperature than water—to form a gas, which is siphoned off and cooled until it distils into a highly concentrated liquid. Then, repeat the process. “It all depends upon how many times you run ’er through,” says Bob (not his real name), a 35-year veteran of the craft whose father, ironically, spent the Prohibition years as a police officer chasing rumrunners in New Brunswick.
Bob is no hillbilly—a retired engineer, actually. And like a fellow moonshiner—a mid-
40s father of one and James Joyce afficionado who sits across the table talking knowledgeably about Bonnie Prince Charlie’s failed attempt to capture the British throne at the Battle of Culloden in the Scottish Highlands—Bob refutes the backwoods stereotype. At the age of 70, he takes pride in his work, distilling his product three times, once using charcoal filters, before he deems it drinkable. “The stuff that only goes through twice can be God-awful.” Not to mention dangerous: some local moonshiners reportedly use car radiators to manufacture their elixir and some of the stills are constructed with lead solder—adding to the potential for lead poisoning.
But for every person warning about the rotgut in rural Atlantic Canada, there appears to be another who swears by it. More than 70 per cent alcohol, it goes down like liquid fire and sells for $35 per twolitre pop bottle, which is $5 higher than most of the competing contraband. “I’m not a commercial maker,” he explains. “I mainly make it for my own use.” In that regard, he’s like about half the still owners in the region who balk at paying the high prices at the government liquor store—or simply prefer their own throat-numbing concoctions to the paler varieties made by legitimate distillers. “One drink,” he adds, “and you’ll know why.”
The man sitting across the table, on the other hand, sends a trunk load of the stuff to Halifax once a week. There, it magically appears on the waterfront and at other spots where men like their drink plain and potent. For his troubles, he pockets about $500 a week.
The underground life can have its share of hazards, though. Hardly a month goes by without the RCMP, often aided by pure-at-heart neighborhood snitchers, nabbing a moonshiner—from backwoods bandits operating seven-foot-high stills to small-time operators making a little stuff in kitchen pots under the sink.
But the craggy land, a two-hour drive west from Halifax, seems to favor the outlaws. Unless they sell to underage drinkers, or a relative blows the whistle, they say they are usually safe. There are so many unofficial lookouts in the region, one of them brags, that by the time the authorities reach their stills there is often nothing left but a whiff of spirits in the air. That and the faint echo of laughter somewhere in the hills.
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