North Philly moonshiner blows up

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THIS IS THE real Schuylkill Punch.

One-hundred-fifty-proof homemade hooch, the kind of serum that provides full-body anesthesia before removing the hair from your chest.

One sip is enough for a good jolt. A cup’ll put you down for the night.

Judging from the size of an illegal still discovered in a derelict North Philly garage, Philadelphia has a powerful taste for moonshine.

The booze factory exploded in a roar Tuesday when one of its boiling kettles overheated, investigators said.

The gaping hole on the third floor of the building, on North Uber Street near Montgomery Avenue, exposed a full-scale distillery with at least six 500-gallon tanks.

The setup included plumbing, heating, ventilation and waste-disposal systems. Dozens of plastic jugs were piled inside.

“This is huge,” said Sgt. Stacey Marshall, of the state police Bureau of Liquor Enforcement. “We’re talking about an extremely sophisticated operation with huge steel vats.

“I guess there must be a lot of people with a taste for this stuff,” said Marshall.

“There are legal microbreweries that are not as well-put-together as this place. “

And it was operating without notice for months, maybe years, right under the nose of neighbors and law-enforcement agencies.

No suspects had been named by last night, said a spokesman for the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, which is heading the investigation. No one was found inside when the place exploded, and officials had not yet located the building’s owner.

“It appears to be a fairly well-organized still,” said Mark Chiat, the ATF assistant special agent in charge of the Philadelphia office.

“We don’t uncover these very often, especially inside the city limits,” Chiat said. “It’s the kind of thing you usually see in remote areas. “

Marshall agreed: “I was always under the impression that it came up from the South. “

Moonshine is sold mainly in neighborhood speakeasies that operate well under the radar of law enforcement.

Though licensed bars and liquor stores provide an ample supply of booze to the community, the illegal joints are preferred by thousands of Philadelphians because they are convenient and cheap. They are often open 24 hours a day, and a shot can be had for a buck.

Depending on supply and demand, a gallon ranges from $12 to $25.

Backwoods distillers in North Carolina and Virginia have provided much of the city’s supply for generations, going back before Prohibition.

In March 2000, 27 people were indicted for running confederate moonshine into the city.

Authorities estimated that the captured moonshiners produced 1.5 million gallons of liquor between 1992 and 1999, ducking nearly $20 million in taxes, the Associated Press reported.

With the Southern pipeline broken, it appears at least one entrepreneur moved his operation north of the Mason-Dixon line.

The explosion provides a rare look at a small but potent industry. Chiat said investigators hope to learn more about the sizable distribution network that must have accompanied a facility of this size.

Throughout the afternoon, federal and local agents wearing rubber gloves searched through the crumbling garage.

They emerged with gallon jugs, pint-size plastic bottles and mason jars filled with a clear liquid.

How did it taste?

The ATF wasn’t offering samples. Instead, Chiat said it would be sent to the agency’s laboratory in Rockville, Md., for analysis.

From the description of those inside, the sauce was probably 100 percent rotgut.

“You’ve got all kinds of run-off, of chemicals and waste,” Chiat said. “Really, there was a danger to the community. It’s powered through gas or propane; you’re heating chemicals, mixing by-products. The potential for something to go awry was big. “

“It’s disgusting in there,” Marshall said. “It’s a mess. “

Neighbors, meanwhile, professed ignorance about the operation. They said they never smelled any unusual odors or saw any signs of mass distribution.

Instead of moonshining, they believed the occupant of the garage made barbecue kettles out of 55-gallon drums.

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