McCARR, Ky. — Levi Dorton spent a lot of time hiding out in the hills from the law. But he speaks with grudging admiration of one "revenuer" who was always out looking to bust up his moonshine stills.
"That Wince Trimble, he was like a red fox," the old moonshiner says of the Treasury agent who pursued him decades ago. "Wince was in the woods continuously. If it wasn't at our place, it was somewheres else. . . . The man got a lot of exercise. I'd say that man earned his money."
Trimble caught Dorton's moonshining mentor, uncle Sherman Maggard. But he went to his grave without catching Dorton.
These days, you can still find Dorton, 71, cooking up his mountain magic. But instead of crouching near an open fire up in the hills, he's sitting in front of an electric fan in the concrete-block outbuilding behind his house on Peter Branch near the West Virginia border.
He continues to use the same corn-and-sugar recipe he learned when he was 19. But he no longer jumps at the snap of every twig.
Nobody bothers him much nowadays. If anyone does question him, he just whips out his fuel alcohol producer's permit from the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.
"I'd done and quit," he says. "But after I got my permit, yeah, I went right back to making it."
Since 1987, Dorton has been using his pot still to make "gasohol" for use on his mountainside farm. His permit allows him to make up to 10,000 proof gallons of alcohol a year.
And the revenuers haven't come to call since.
"When we get complaints on it, mainly it's their wives that call up and tell us that he's producing this and drinking it," says Alan Graham, Louisville-area supervisor for the ATF. "And then that's when we take action."
According to the agency, Dorton is one of 725 alcohol fuel producers licensed across the country. There are only 19 permits in Kentucky, all small, unbonded operators such as Dorton.
Dorton says he's made "shine" off and on since he learned how. He worked with his uncle for a while, then "spangled off" on his own when he was about 30.
"I was working in the coal mines and running that too," he says. "I had a good family and I had to support them. Me and my wife had seven, and her sister had four. I helped raise them."
The still he has now is about 10 years old, but the method hasn't changed much since he started.
After fermenting his corn mixture for a few days, Dorton places it in a rusty-looking cooker inside a gas-fired cement-block kiln. The mixture rises through a pipe to an old beer keg called the "thumper"--because it knocks and churns as the liquid flows through.
Another pipe carries the vapor into tubing that runs through an old Valvoline drum filled with cold water. After a while, the cooled alcohol begins slowly running from a pipe at the base of the drum into a funnel lined with a clean handkerchief and cotton balls.
The resulting nectar is as clear as spring water.
Dorton says he's never produced more than 300 gallons in any given year. He says it works great, mixed with a little gas, as fuel for his trucks and farm equipment.
"Now, it's got the power," he says. "I tore my lawn mower up with it. I didn't put enough gas in it."
He doesn't sell it anymore but he gives some away--last June, for instance, to volunteers in town for the Jimmy Carter Habitat for Humanity project.
"I tell them plain, it's for gasohol, not for drink," he says. "Of course, you know after they get out, whatever they do with it is their business. It ain't mine."
Dorton acts surprised when told that ATF regulations forbid him to even give the stuff away. The rules say he can transfer it to another fuel alcohol plant, but first it has to be made undrinkable by adding something to it.
Dorton says he does put a little gasoline in the jug before he lets it go. ATF officials are somewhat skeptical.
Graham questions whether alcohol fuel is economical on such a small scale. That may be why the number of permits is down nationally from 928 in 1994.
His methods are also questionable.
Joe Darmand, vice president and general manager of Leestown Co. in Frankfort, which produces Ancient Age and Blanton's bourbons, says most people won't use alcohol fuel unless it's at least 190 proof--95% alcohol.
"I wouldn't think a pot still would get you much over 130 proof," he says. "We can't ever get up high enough to make gasohol here."
Dorton's permit is good unless it's revoked or surrendered. He says he's been in semi-retirement for about three years and only fired up the still recently because his brother-in-law was thinking about applying for a permit.
But he says he's definitely not going to pass on his knowledge to his 12-year-old son, Levi Jr.
"No sir," he says. "I'm afraid that he's liable to take up drinking, and I don't want him to drink. I don't want him to drink and I don't want him to smoke, neither one.
"It's not good for you to drink too much."