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Carolina Moonshiners: Still Brewing After All These Years

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BENSON — Those who grew up in North Carolina are likely to have known at least one person who made moonshine. The few remaining moonshiners learned their trade decades ago and they're still proud to be a part of a dying tradition.

WRAL-TV5'sDavid Crabtreefound one of the last of these craftsmen of the still in Johnston County.

Everyone laughed when Andy and Barney busted North Carolina moonshiners on the "Andy Griffith Show", and were tolerant of the elderly sisters' "recipe" on "The Waltons", but the manufacture of homemade liquor used to be a very serious crime.

Junior Byrd has been making moonshine for 55 of his 70 years. He's also made a few appearances in court.

"I went to the federal pen in Montgomery, Alabama," says Byrd. "Ten times. [I served] a year and a day in federal penitentiary."

Running a still was a felony then. Now it's a misdemeanor. Byrd's still doesn't look like the ones depicted on television and in the movies. Those were Hollywood's versions. Byrd's Johnston County version and is the real thing, and so is his wine. Wine is the first stage in the long process toward making moonshine, and Byrd says it's about three times stronger than that found in a retail outlet.

In less than a half hour, a red hot fire turns last fall's wine into moonshine. Byrd grew up in Johnston County, and says he made his first batch when he was 15.

"It's just something that gets in your blood," he says. "You know, you enjoy it, and once you ever get at it you never forget it."

Byrd adds that there is a certain taste he's going for with his processing, and that he usually gets it right.

"I've never thrown any away cause i know what to do with it ahead of time," Byrd boasts.

Nevertheless, he says he rarely drinks any of his product.

"Very, very little. I could tote in one hand what I've drank in 60 years. I don't drink. It's not made to drink. It's made to sell. Remember that."

Byrd told Crabtree that the old joke about alcohol for "medicinal purposes" has some truth in it.

"It's good for -- no kidding -- for colds, flu, congestion, anything," he says. "It's the very best. I give it to folks, to old folks. They come up here and want it for medicine and I fix them up. I'm right continuously fixin'' a gallon."

A moonshine still is not something now seen very often in North Carolina. It's still against the law to manufacture moonshine.

"Another thing i want to tell y'all about [is] ABC officers," Byrd told Crabtree. "I know them all. They come by here every two-to-three years just to make sure everything's okay."

If he's caught with his still running, there's still a small fine to pay, and while the fine may not be what it used to be, the result could still be ... a dismantled still.

A French winery has invited Byrd to come to France and educate the winemakers there in the art of moonshine production. So far, he has turned them down.Editor's Note:

Byrd emphasized what he made in his demonstration with Crabtree for WRAL was not for sale.