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Authorities learn methods of moonshine
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        TIGER, Ga. — Making moonshine is a vanishing craft in the backwoods and mountain hollows of north Georgia, but it’s a skill that hasn’t completely dried up.
    Authorities have created a ‘‘moonshine school’’ in the heart of what once was a flourishing trade — where bootleggers and ‘‘revenooers’’ sometimes shot it out with deadly results.
    More than 20 officers from as far as Kansas spent four days this week at the site, which is used to keep law enforcement abreast of the latest techniques used to distill illegal whiskey.
    They learned how to track illegal stills, reviewed laws and discovered the relationship between the illegal booze business and ethanol for fuel. They also gained insight into the type of person who builds a distillery to churn out tax-free whiskey.
    ‘‘They’re engineers, they’re chemists, and they’re entrepreneurs,’’ said Maj. Cary Thomas of the Rabun County Sheriff’s Office, which hosts the annual moonshine training along with the Georgia Department of Revenue and the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
    Before dawn broke on the final day, trainees were sent on a mission to find a copper still hidden in the mountainous woods of far northeast Georgia. A real raid, though, could prove dangerous.
    ‘‘This is really how the ATF got involved in violent crime,’’ said agent Marc Jackson.
    The federal agency that evolved into the ATF got a baptism by fire early in the 20th century tracking evasion of liquor taxes. In the years after Prohibition began in 1919, dozens of agents were shot to death in gun battles or ambushed by moonshiners.
    Hours after the demonstration raid, a 55-gallon drum of mash still bubbled with a mixture of mountain spring water, sugar, corn meal, corn malt and yeast. When the bubbles stop, this ‘‘beer,’’ as it is known in the trade, is ready for the boiler.
    Sometimes, apples, grapes or other fruit is fermented to make brandy.
    Fired from a propane tank, the mash is heated and alcohol steams off through a pipe into a condenser in a barrel of water. The spirits cool into 80-proof shine that drips into a metal container, where it is collected and poured into half-gallon jars and hauled to market in Atlanta or other cities in the region.
    The aroma produced by the process is unique and unmistakable. It’s something like a cross between a beer-stained sweat shirt and cheap tequila, with a whiff of a sun-ripened garbage bin. That scent can lead agents straight to a still.
    Randall Deal, who now works for the sheriff’s department and was pardoned by President Bush for liquor violations more than 40 years ago, said propane is used because wood-fired stills create smoke.
    ‘‘The moonshiners took care of each other. They wouldn’t tell on each other. The neighbors would though,’’ Deal said. ‘‘They were jealous, cause you were making money and they weren’t.’’
    Authorities say bootlegging, like some other illegal activities, tends to ebb and flow with the economy. It was common from the 1950s to the late 70s, then tapered off as more jobs came to the mountain region.
    Amid the economic slowdown, though, it seems to be heating up again.
    Grand juries returned federal indictments in Roanoke, Va., and Springfield, Mo. last fall. A man accused of operating three 1,000-gallons stills on his property is expected to be sentenced soon in Greeneville, Tenn.
    And authorities raided a Rabun County still a year ago that produced 100 gallons every five or six days. That earned the operator about $1,000 a week until a Chattahoochee National Forest ranger stumbled across it.
    Authorities crack down on stills for reasons other than tax evasion. Sometimes isopropyl alcohol or other additives are introduced to the product for extra kick, or impurities such as lead leach into the shine from the distilling process.
    Despite the risks, some are still drawn to the drink.
    ‘‘It’s a novelty item,’’ said Johnny Brown of the state revenue agency, ‘‘to say that you’ve got a pint of peach or apple brandy that’s made in north Georgia.’’

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