Making the most of ‘moonshine’

Now, these descendants of North Georgia businessmen who never bothered to get government liquor-making licenses are poised to make moonshine in the unlikeliest of places: Dawsonville City Hall.

If their plans work out, Wood and Bearden of Dawsonville Moonshine Distillery will join a growing group that wants to cash in on moonshine’s raucous past and remunerative future. In Georgia and elsewhere, the art of making small batches of raw liquor — white lightning, panther’s breath, you name it — is becoming legitimate.

Nowhere, perhaps, does moonshining have such a potent past as in Dawsonville, 50 miles north of Atlanta. This is the home of the annual Moonshine Festival and the Georgia Racing Hall of Fame.

As any resident can tell you, hooch and hot cars are not unrelated. The stuff made in Dawson County and other rural communities found its way to Atlanta in modified, fast cars. Some of those early drivers went on to make a legal living on race tracks.

Dawsonville’s most famous native son is NASCAR great Bill Elliott, whose trophies would sink a yacht. And Dawson County at one time made so much moonshine it could have floated that yacht, said Wood and Bearden.

“This is art. This is tradition,” said Wood, 55 and a resident of Dahlonega. “This is ...”

“This is a part of history,” said Dawsonville native Bearden, 55, whom company founder Wood hired to oversee the still’s operation.

The city of Dawsonville has issued Wood and Bearden’s distillery a business license. A copper still is on order, and state and federal permits are pending. Wood is confident things will be bubbling by fall.

New land, old skill

They arrived in Virginia two centuries ago and headed into a great, green land — the Carolinas, Tennessee, Kentucky, Georgia. Settlers from Scotland and Ireland made the territory theirs by ax and gun. They populated the flatlands and hills, built on riverbanks and ridges.

One of those settlers was a Scotsman named Free. He came to the new land with an old skill.

Free — his first name is lost to history — settled in North Georgia, where he grew corn and other crops. Some of the corn wound up in mash that became corn liquor, clear as the sky and fiery as the sun. That whiskey-making knowledge got passed from one generation to the next. Simmie Free, born in 1892 and descended from that long-ago Scotsman, made moonshine, too. He was Wood’s grandfather.

He never paid money for his liquor — never bought the stuff in a store — but he paid in other ways.

He was arrested and jailed at least twice for making liquor, said his granddaughter. And Cheryl Wood’s mother, Simmie’s daughter, recalled a late-night visit from the sheriff when she was a little girl. “Sit on these quilts,” Simmie is reputed to have said, “and don’t move!” The child did not, even when a deputy walked through her room. The quilts hid Mason jars filled with daddy’s hard work.

“He drank it every day,” said Wood, who has a portrait of the old man, who died in 1980 at age 88. It depicts him holding a bottle, mischievous eyes twinkling. “We used it for medicine.”

‘Moonshine fed us’

Bearden is a hefty guy whose right arm sports a tattoo of the Tasmanian Devil, the snarling Looney Tunes character who never managed to get Bugs Bunny. The cops didn’t get Bearden, either.

“Never been arrested,” said Bearden.

He’s nearly as big a celebrity around here as Elliott. Last year, he showed Dan Whitney, better known as the comic Larry the Cable Guy, how the old-timers made moonshine. It was featured in the first episode of “Only in America,” which debuted on the History channel in February.

Bearden, who met Wood through a mutual friend, said he learned moonshining from the bottom up. When he was a boy, his father, Jay Bearden, made him clean empty glass gallon jugs that once held cola syrup to ready them for something far more potent.

In 1972, when Bearden was 16, he bought his first still, a copper jug about three feet tall. His uncle sold it to him for $35.

Did he put it to illicit use? Bearden smiled. When he got married four years later, said Bearden, he promised his wife he’d “do something else.”

Still, he never forgot moonshining. He put on demonstrations at the annual moonshine festival and spoke frequently about the fine art of making liquor without those pesky government taxes getting in the way.

“Me and my daddy, we drank what we made,” said Bearden, who worked at an area mill until it closed recently. “Moonshine fed us.”

Tradition, art

In government speak, moonshine is known as non-tax paid whiskey. Alcohol on which taxes haven’t been paid is illegal.

Some of it’s also dangerous. Manufactured without safety standards in effect, some illegal liquor has paralyzed, blinded and occasionally killed its consumers.

For those reasons, say police, they go after moonshine stills. Like agents before them, they practice methods that haven’t changed a whole lot over the years.

“We get anonymous tips,” said Scott Self, who heads the enforcement section of the state Department of Revenue, charged with enforcing alcohol taxation laws. “We have confidential informants.”

When they find a still, agents have to do what their predecessors did: stake it out, then wait. In the last two fiscal years, said Self, state agents discovered and destroyed 12 stills statewide. They turned up from Savannah-area flatlands to the wrinkled landscape where Georgia bumps against North Carolina.

In the past, “it was the common man’s cash crop,” said Joseph Earl Dabney, a Dunwoody resident who wrote “Mountain Spirits” and “More Mountain Spirits,” books that detail the history of moonshining. “For the old-timers who made it just to feed their families, it was a noble thing.”

Whiskey-making was more than just business to some moonshiners, said Barry Stiles, curator of the Foxfire Museum and Heritage Center. Located in Mountain City, in Rabun County, the museum showcases early life in the Appalachians.

“A lot of that was a tradition and an art,” said Stiles.

A city’s heritage

Wood and Bearden won’t be the first Georgians to be “craft distillers,” little guys in an industry dominated by Jack Daniel’s, George Dickel, Maker’s Mark and other giants. That distinction belongs to 13th Colony Distillery of Americus, which has been producing spirits for two years.

Others in Georgia want to cash in, too, and are getting the necessary permits. In Columbus, Back of the House Distilling plans to make rum from sugar cane. Tallulah Falls Distillery also is readying for production.

The Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, an advocacy group that represents 70 percent of the nation’s distillers, has about 250 craft distillery members. A decade ago, it had about two dozen.

“There are more craft distillers coming to the party all the time,” said Frank Coleman, the council’s senior vice president of public affairs. “And it’s getting to be a pretty crowded party.”

Wood and Bearden are eager to get started. They want to start renovating their leased space — like the racing museum, it’s in a wing of City Hall — by June 1. The Dawsonville City Council in March voted unanimously to lease the space to the distillery.

“We’re just tickled to death to have them,” said Mayor Joe Lane Cox, who thinks the distillery will complement the museum’s refurbished race cars and other reminders of Dawsonville’s motoring past. “It’s part of our heritage — racing and moonshine.”

Wood and Bearden want their product on display in time for the 44th annual Moonshine Festival Oct. 22-23. According to Georgia law, the distillery could sell only to a distributor, not directly to the public.

The distillery, they say, will start small, producing about 13,000 gallons a year of 70- to 100-proof whiskey. The good stuff could sell for $65 a gallon and up.

“Yeah, I would like to make money,” said Wood. “But it’s bigger than that. I’ve got moonshine in my blood.”

Wood paused, laughed. “Not in my blood right now,” she said. “Oh, you know what I mean!”

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