Bottled Moonshine. Photos by Michael Winters
In the hills of Central Alabama, a couple miles outside of Union Springs and just off of Bullock County Road Seven, lies High Ridge Spirits, Alabama's first legal moonshine distillery since prohibition.
"There are a whole lot of stills out here, and mine's one of the only legal ones," the owner and brewmaster of High Ridge, Jamie Ray, says. "It's also one of the smallest."
Jamie's operation consists of a two drum still, capable of producing around 25 gallons a day of shine. It's inside of a small barn, located next to a truck farm, which is just a sprawling graveyard of rusted-out trucks and abandoned trailers.
Compared with some of the illegal distilleries recently busted by the Moonshine Task Force/enforcement.aspx), an entity of Alabama's Alcohol Beverage Control board, or ABC, Jamie's operation is relatively small. The Board, which operates a statewide monopoly on liquor sales, is funded by a liquor tax/serve.aspx) and performs its own enforcement of Alabama's notoriously strict alcohol regulations. Recently, enforcement has taken the form of a massive crackdown on their only competition: bootleggers.
An ABC Beverage Store. Part of the same organization that's busting bootleggers
"Just up the road, they busted an eight drum still last week," Jamie says as he uncaps a bottle of clear liquid and pours two shots. "I mean, that's almost 300 gallons a day."
While Jamie is capable of expanding his operation, he doesn't see much point. With ABC acting as the middleman in all transactions with bars and nightclubs, he can only produce as much as they deign to sell. "I've probably got $70,000 in inventory in their storage," Jamie says. "There's just no way I can continue producing if they're not going to distribute."
There is nothing illegal about the distilling of shine, which is essentially the same process as making whiskey, only with sugar added to the mash. Issues arise when distillers don't go through the proper legal channels with the state and federal alcohol boards in order to satisfy costly licensing fees. While Jamie Ray couldn't give an exact number in regard to how much it cost for his operation to become legal, he estimates the fees in total were somewhere around $25,000.
For most moonshiners in Bullock County, the process of shining has been passed down for generations, both as a cultural practice and as a means to make money. The latter is especially the case now, as Bullock County has the 27th-lowest per capita income in the United States, at a mere $10,000 a year.
Like many counties in the rural South, Bullock was once an agricultural economy, but after much of the farmland dried up and was bought out as private property for hunting, the county has struggled to find any source of sustainable industry. It also doesn't help that since Bullock is an hour's drive from the nearest interstate, it's isolated from the rest of Alabama.
Sheriff Raymond "Buck" Rodgers, a lifelong resident of Bullock County, understands the dilemma in enforcing a law against one of the last viable industries for residents living below the poverty line. "It's impossible to survive in a county with no workforce," Rodgers says. "People have to eat."
Distilling isn't the only way residents make profits off of the moonshine trade—many locals operate shot houses in the back of their homes. Oftentimes a shot of moonshine can run as low as $0.50, and a gallon can be as much as $45. As a result there are very few bars in Bullock, and most residents drink in the privacy of boarded-up trailers and wooden shacks.
Driving around the downtown area with Rodgers, he points out several suspicious-looking houses a couple blocks apart. "See that white truck right there?" he asks, pointing to the driveway of a beige home. "That's a shot house. Now you see how close they are—one street over from the last one."
As the car accelerates past a particularly run-down trailer on the outskirts of downtown, he says, "That's a 90-year-old woman who lives there. She's been selling moonshine out that house for years, but what am I gonna do?"
Willie the Elder
In one of these shot houses, two men introduce themselves as Willie and Willie. Both are now retired and were born in Bullock County. The older of the two Willies occasionally sells shine out of the house, which he shares with his grandson, a county correctional officer. After several minutes, one of the Willies returns from the kitchen with a gallon water jug filled to the top. He pours shine into several red solo cups and cuts the alcohol with grapefruit juice.
The first sip is strong, despite the juice, and smells like diesel fuel. When the older of the two Willies offers a cup to the younger Willie, he refuses and holds up a pint of Seagram's gin. "I had a stroke at the brain about two months ago," the younger Willie says, pouring gin into his cup. "Been drinking it all my life," he says, nodding at the gallon jug in front of us. "Can't do it no more."
Sergeant Richard Holston, ABC agent and one of the founding members of the Moonshine Task Force, which has been responsible for 17 distillery busts in the last six months, believes the revamped effort to prosecute moonshiners has little to do with unpaid tax revenues and everything to do with issues of public health.
A bootleg still
"If people actually went out to a site and saw the way this stuff is being made, they'd be disgusted. Some of the stills are being run through old radiators, or you've got waterlines being run through sewage-drainage ponds," Holston says. "I've even pulled rats and animals out of the mash." Open-air fermentation can allow pests to float on the surface, but since this step occurs before distillation, it's common for even name-brand whiskey companies to let it happen.
For now, though, the Moonshine Task Force will continue its prosecution against illegal distilleries, and moonshiners will continue producing their hooch. And while the process of backwoods distilling will always be a reminder of Bullock County's historic ties to moonshine, it is now, more than ever, an act of desperation and a means to survive in a dying county.
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