The federal government has kept an eye on alcoholic beverages since 1862 when Congress imposed taxes on alcoholic beverages and other products and created a commissioner of internal revenue--with three "detectives"--to collect them.
But illegal operations involving distillers and politicians began springing up around the country to avoid the billions of dollars worth of taxes. It wasn't until the commissioner discovered that his own revenue agents were involved that the so-called "Whiskey Rings" were broken.
With the departure of most of the corrupt agents, some companies turned to other methods to maintain their high profits, often putting various kinds of pressure on retailers to get them to buy exclusively from them.
In 1919, prohibitionists succeeded in getting the 18th Amendment ratified. It prohibited the manufacture, sale or transportation of intoxicating liquors. The death of the legal liquor industry brought forth the illegal liquor trade, complete with speak-easies and gangland slayings. The Bureau of Internal Revenue set up a prohibition unit in 1919 and by 1925, it had grown to 3,700 employes. That year, seven agents were killed and 39 injured in the line of duty.
In 1930, the FBI took the lead in enforcement until 1933 when the 21st Amendment was ratified, repealing prohibition. The next year, alcohol regulation shifted back to the IRS under an alcohol tax unit that evolved into the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. And in 1935, the Federal Alcohol Administration Act was passed to prevent the worst abuses that had occurred before and during prohibition.
The BATF says organized crime no longer is illegally involved in alcohol, although bootleggers had illegal distilleries in New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania as recently as the 1960s.
Today's illegal operators are the so-called moonshiners--small operators who produce lower-proof spirits. Most activity is centered in the southeastern part of the country. While violence has diminished, 56 investigators from the bureau have been killed in the line of duty since 1934.