- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 30, 2002

CULPEPER, Va. — The lyrics of the country-Western song refer to the illegal production of moonshine, which a tough city slicker found "mighty tasty" although it knocked him to the ground. That was in the early 1930s, the Prohibition era, when production and sale of alcoholic beverages were forbidden.

Moonshining is still illegal. Early this month, federal "revenuers" and the Amherst County sheriff charged two brothers with illegally manufacturing whiskey in a still hidden in the back of a warehouse.

In September, the feds and state authorities seized $1.2 million in property and arrested 26 moonshiners in Virginia and North Carolina, who pleaded guilty. The so-called Operation Lightning Strike uncovered three moonshining rings that authorities said produced untaxed whiskey shipped for sale to Baltimore, Philadelphia and the District in the 1990s.

Chuck and Jeanette Miller, who live on a 200-acre horse farm in Culpeper called Belmont Farm, produce what they call Virginia Lightning in a Prohibition-era still. It's the same potent whiskey that's called moonshine but it's legal.

Mr. Miller, a commercial pilot until Eastern Airlines folded, made certain of that before he started production in 1989 with the help of his four sons and daughter.

When he moved to Belmont Farm in 1975, he wanted to raise cattle but discovered that low commodity prices for corn and cattle would not support his family. He tried to grow grapes for winemaking in the 1980s, but frost caused too-low yields.

He remembered that his grandfather, John Miller, a trader operating in the District and Maryland from his residence at Eastover in Prince George's County, had distilled moonshine illegally in the 1920s and 1930s.

"He was making a lot of money," Mr. Miller says, but then the federals caught him. To avoid jail time, John Miller paid a huge sum in back taxes.

An uncle had retained the recipe for making whiskey, so Mr. Miller decided to give it a try. Wanting to avoid the same mistake his grandfather had made, he went to the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms to inquire about legal distilling.

The ATF "did a search on my background to make sure I wasn't a criminal," Mr. Miller says. Agents also told him, "You have to own a still to get a license."

Mr. Miller found a still abandoned on a wooded hill near Charlottesville. It had an engraving showing it had been manufactured in 1933, the year Prohibition ended. The huge copper still attracted a lot of attention as he hauled it on a flat-bed tractor-trailer to his Culpeper farm.

Then he had to get permission from Virginia's Alcoholic Beverage Control Board. Even so, not all officials knew about the distillery. Shortly after production began, a Culpeper County deputy came to serve a jury summons on Mrs. Miller, who was doing bookkeeping in the distillery office.

"He looked at me. He looked at the big pot still. He said, 'I know what you're doing here,'" she recalls with a laugh.

Virginia Lightning is produced and bottled within 30 days, much quicker than ordinary whiskey, which becomes stained after storage for months or years in oak barrels that have been charred on the inside. Mr. Miller, who met his wife at Andrews Air Force Base, where she was a student teacher and he was an Air Force pilot, says his children did well in school because they helped in the bottling and casing process when they weren't doing their homework.

He begins producing Virginia Lightning by grinding 1 ton of shelled corn, adding 600 gallons of water and slowly boiling it for 30 minutes. He makes a yeast, which is added. The mixture gurgles and bubbles in ferment for four days. It is pumped into the still and slowly heated again.

The alcohol begins to evaporate out at 173 degrees, the water at 212. A copper coil carries the evaporation to a condenser, where the alcohol becomes liquid, as much as 150 gallons of Virginia Lightning.

Cases of newly distilled and labeled Virginia Lightning from Belmont Farm are shipped to the ABC warehouse in Richmond for distribution.

After the hearing when the distillery was approved, ABC "first ordered 90 cases," Mr. Miller recalls, adding, "They called back and asked for 200 cases."

Now, about 2,000 cases of Virginia Lightning are produced annually at a federal tax cost of $13.50 per gallon. At two gallons per case, that figures out to $54,000 in taxes per year.

"It's a steady business, but I don't want it to grow any more," says Mr. Miller, who keeps half-busy producing Virginia Lightning and shipping it for sale also in West Virginia and North Carolina.

Mr. Miller devotes the other half of his working days to his wife's Thoroughbred racehorse business. Mrs. Miller has 20 Thoroughbreds, which eat up a lot of the farm's corn. The Belmont Farm horses race mostly at Charles Town, W.Va.

The Millers' offspring show no interest in taking over the distillery. Their daughter, Chrystal, 18, is more interested in playing soccer, even with an injured knee, and contemplates majoring in physical therapy when she begins college next year.

Three of Mr. Miller's sons are interested in his first profession flying.

Jake, 29, a mechanical engineer, is a private pilot; Kirk, 25, is a charter pilot for Global Air in Murfreesboro, Tenn.; and Zeb, 22, is a flight instructor at Airman Flight School in Norman, Okla.

Luke, 26, has a doctorate and wants to be a professor at Auburn College.


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