OXFORD — I started hearing about Kiln moonshine whiskey by the time I was old enough to know what moonshine was.
My grandfather had worked in the sawmill industry in that part of Hancock County during the South Mississippi timber boom of the early 1900s.
He and my uncles, some of whom were born in that area, used to talk about Kiln and its reputation for good whiskey. They never admitted in my hearing to drinking it, but I wouldn’t be surprised if a couple of the uncles did.
During prohibition, Kiln earned a national reputation for both the quantity and quality of the illegal whiskey distilled in the area.
Now, legal whiskey is being produced in Kiln, borrowing on the community’s colorful past. Crittenden Distillery is said to be the largest distillery in a state that historically has been better known for illegal hooch.
But it’s hard to let go of old ways. The 77-year-old Willie Necaise Jr. of Kiln recently entered a guilty plea in federal court to unlawful production of distilled spirits and interstate travel in aid of a racketeering enterprise. He’s due to be sentenced in October.
Authorities say that over time, Necaise obtained at least 569,775 pounds of sugar, a primary ingredient for moonshine, as well as large deliveries of propane gas to a rural shed in Hancock County.
Based on the records of the sugar purchased, it was determined that more than 74,070 gallons of whiskey would be produced. The government claims Necaise owes the ATF Tax and Trade Bureau $898,692 in federal excise tax and the Mississippi Department of Revenue $369,752 in state excise tax.
This reminds me of a couple of encounters I had with moonshine in my younger days.
In 1954, the summer I turned 19, I had a temporary job helping harvest virgin pine stumps on a tract of land near Citronelle, Alabama. The stumps, remains of the virgin pine forests, were rich with resin which was extracted in a plant in Hattiesburg and used as raw material in a number of products.
My job was to assist a man named Stony who operated a Caterpillar tractor pulling a trailer we used to haul stumps to a gathering place where they were loaded onto trucks.
Stony was a veteran stumper whose skills included the ability to pluck a live wasp nest off a tree limb without getting stung. He would put his right hand in his left armpit on a hot July day before using it to remove the nest. The sweat and body odor on his hand paralyzed the wasps.
One day, as we passed near a secluded house, Stony abruptly shut down the Caterpillar, got off and started walking around. “I smell whiskey,” he declared.
Sure enough, he did. The tracks on the Cat had crushed a couple of gallon jugs of moonshine buried up to their tops. The place was like a mine field as we noticed other jugs nearby. We got out of that immediate area, doing as little damage as possible. No, we didn’t sample any.
Later, as we worked along a dried creek or branch bed, we came upon a still. It wasn’t in operation because the water supply had dried up. But it had been operating and probably did again after the rains returned.
A few years later, out of college — where I was glad to return after that summer in Citronelle — I was a reporter in Jackson.
Mississippi was legally dry, but there was a lot of whiskey being sold in the state, including both moonshine and legally made booze bootlegged into the state.
Sometimes when the authorities were going to bust up a moonshine still, they would alert the press to allow us to get pictures of them in action.
A sheriff in the area obviously coveted good relations with reporters, so he once gave a few of us a gallon each of the contraband.
I tried maybe a sip or two, but it wasn’t of Kiln quality. I ended up pouring it out.
It was like the whiskey in a joke about a man giving his employee a bottle and later asking him how it was.
“Just right,” the recipient replied. “If it was any better you wouldn’t have given it to me, and if it was any worse I couldn’t drink it.”
Dunagin, who lives in Oxford, is a retired longtime Mississippi newspaperman.