LAWRENCEVILLE -- A neighbor on Carriage Way caught wind of a suspicious burning smell Saturday and called the authorities. The concern was that someone had started an illegal fire in the quiet neighborhood that branches off Old Peachtree Road near Lawrenceville.
Gwinnett County Fire Department arson investigators traced the smoke to a homemade distillery in the backyard of a split-level home at 2033 Carriage Way, at which point they called in agents with the Georgia Department of Revenue. The homeowner, 63-year-old Vasile Casna, was arrested on felony charges of possessing untaxed whiskey.
Casna's arrest warrant refers to his backyard distillation endeavors as "moonshining," but it's a claim that the Romanian expatriate's friends denied Wednesday. Instead, they said Casna was using grapes to distill a traditional and potent Romanian spirit called "tuica" for strictly personal consumption.
"He was not trying to make moonshine. I don't think he knows how to make moonshine," said a friend who identified himself only as George. "He was not going to sell it, that's for sure."
Casna, who was released from jail on $5,400 bond the day of his arrest, did not return a message left at his home Wednesday. Friends said he legally emigrated from Romania more than five years ago and works as a carpenter, specializing in hardwood-floor installation.
Authorities found that the distilling process had just begun at Casna's alleged still, where they confiscated 40 gallons of grape mash. Tuica is traditionally made in Romania from plums, but a shortage forced Casna to use grapes here, his friend told the Daily Post.
Bootleggers who produce moonshine have the reputation of residing in the North Georgia mountains or other rural areas, and they've been running from tax collectors since the Prohibition era. More recently, legal moonshine has cropped up in haute eateries, and its origins have become the source of cherished lore and celebration. Dawson County devotes an entire festival to the hooch, and has for 45 years.
Jud Seymour, Georgia Department of Revenue spokesman, said underground distilleries are uncommon in general and especially in Atlanta's suburbs. Data on the number of stills dismantled in recent years was not immediately available, he said.
"While illegal distilling is still around, it's nowhere near as prevalent as it used to be," Seymour said.
Gwinnett County Jail records show that only seven people, including Casna, have been charged with possessing untaxed liquor in the last 20 years. Georgia law forbids the distillation of any spirits without proper licensing, under a penalty of one to five years in prison if convicted of the felony.
The most recent Gwinnett bust bore similarities to Casna's case.
In 2010, at another unassuming Lawrenceville residence about 13 miles away, authorities arrested another Romanian expat, Constantine Ana, 66, on similar charges.
Deputies who went to the duplex to evict Ana discovered a still that used fermented apples and potatoes on his back porch. Authorities said at the time they confiscated 37 gallons of liquor.
Ana pleaded guilty under first-offender status in October and was sentenced to a year of probation.
Seymour said distilling spirits at home is inherently dangerous, both to those who drink the liquor and nearby residents. Drinkers can ingest lead or other toxins born of non-sterilized production instruments. "Also, fires and explosions are not uncommon," he said.
Samples of the grape mash at Casna's home were sent to the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau for analysis. The distilling apparatus was disassembled and transported to a Department of Revenue warehouse for storage, according to a report.
Components included a 40-gallon distilling pot, a metal lid, plastic jug and two metal pipes.