Cookin' Up Some Shine
 
 

 

Willie Green piled the hickory logs high on the tiny wooden cart hitched to his horse Buddy. He could barely see in the dark of the night, but the moon cast just enough light to get by. He heaved the last log on top of the pile, walked up to Buddy’s head, rubbed the old horse on the nose, and said, “Well friend, here we go.”

Willie led Buddy down the rocky dirt path that curved around past the cornfield behind his shanty home and eventually up the side of the mountain. Within a half hour, both Willie and his horse arrived. Willie lit his lantern and turned the flame down as low as he could get it. There it was. There was the contraption that would save him.

For weeks Willie had been slipping off to this spot, building his first moonshine still. He’d never made much of the stuff outside of helping his pa make it when he was a kid. It had always been a fallback for his ancestors since the late 1700s. And if ever Willie needed a fallback, it was now. They’d started calling it The Depression. Whatever it was, Willie didn’t like it. He’d farmed for many years, but now he wasn’t getting enough off his crops to feed his family.

Willie laid some of the hickory around the bottom of the still. With fingers caked with dirt around the nails, he lit a match and went to work. Willie was just doing what he had to in order to survive. He didn’t think it should be illegal anyway. Little could he imagine that his very act of survival would pass into folklore, become the topic of documentaries and popular TV shows, and even turn into a thriving, legal business enterprise.

Flash forward nearly 80 years. Mike Haney sits in his Barlow, Ky. garage, looking at another completed still. The orders for new stills are piling up, and he can’t wait to complete his new production facility and showroom in order to speed up the process. The crude still built by Willie Green in the backwoods of Kentucky has given way to sleek, tech-savvy designs that form the basis of a new, thriving business enterprise called Hillbilly Stills.

“If I’d of sat down and tried to imagine what kind of business I could get into, this wouldn’t have been it,” says Mike as he tries to explain his amazement over the moonshine still enterprise. “I worked at the paper mill in Wickliffe since I was 19, and my goal was to work, build a good living, and be able to retire at 55. Along the way, my wife was diagnosed with severe, rheumatoid arthritis. It was extremely important for me to be here with her at all times, so I found something I could do at home. So I started researching and reading.”

Mike’s chosen field of study was moonshining. “I’d heard stories from my grandfather about my family from old Kuttawa and how making moonshine was something they’d done. So it was part of my family history, and I wanted to know more about it. I could do it at home and still be with my wife.”

After looking at information on how to build stills, Mike decided to try his hand at crafting one. Now is when most people slam on their mental brakes and ask, “Isn’t that illegal?”

“I knew the talk would go around,” said Mike. “I could hear someone going to the sheriff saying, ‘He’s a brewing shine right there in Barlow.’” So Mike got off on the right foot and got his ethanol alcohol permit so that he could test stills he’d built. Not only do moonshine stills produce drinkable spirits, they produce ethanol fuel as well. The ethanol fuel permit allowed Mike to legally run stills for testing.

“Once I was licensed, I experimented with different designs. Most of the stills out there were very slow. It would take 7 to 8 hours to make a quart. I talked to a guy in Australia, and we decided to work on a design together. We came up with something that produced a gallon an hour. I made a short video, posted it on a forum, and next thing I know, people are hounding me to buy one.”

It wasn’t long before a distilling company interested in selling Mike’s stills contacted him. “Just before it was put on their website, they told me I better get ready. And they were right!” Mike was immediately flooded with orders. “I could only build about one a month in my garage in my spare time. And then I got the idea of selling them on my own website. Things just got crazier.” And it’s no wonder. The number of craft, micro-distilleries has grown over the past decade. In 2000, there were only distilleries in 12 states. As of 2011, 45 states had them.

Within a few weeks of launching hillbillystills.com, Mike had order totals that eclipsed seven figures in dollars. “I was amazed. After 32 years at the paper mill, I had to turn in my resignation in order to focus on all these orders. I retired at age 52!”

Mike’s son Matt, who’d been off work with a broken arm, jumped in to help his dad. “I’d helped him some in the garage when I could, but I had kind of thought the whole thing was a bit crazy,” says Matt, “that is until I was here all the time to see what was really going on and the demand for these stills.” Matt sees the whole business as one of the ways God has pulled his life and his family back together. “I was a meth addict for 8 years until I went to Lifeline. I know my family had lost me for quite sometime, but now the Lord is bringing life back together. Now I can give back. Now I can use this as an encouragement to help others who feel like they have no hope.”

Even though Mike has sold stills in all 50 states and countries like Switzerland, Russia, and China, he says most of his business comes from the West Coast. “Micro-distilleries are buying these. First of all, I can provide them at a lower cost. Secondly, we are bringing these stills up to date with technology.” Mike enlisted the help of Arch Environmental to design a control box that allowed the stills to be heated solely by electricity. He is also working on a way to heat with non-pressurized oil as opposed to steam, which is often dangerous and creates insurance headaches. “We are always looking at constant improvement, constant evolution.”

So what is next for the booming business of Hillbilly Stills? “We want to get our own distilling permit and set up a micro-distillery in a place like Paducah. We have everything we need to make it, now we just need the permit and the time.”

 

 

The moonshine trade in America is nearly as old as the nation itself. And at its root is a singular issue: government control over the sale of alcohol.

A federal tax on spirits emerged just after the Revolutionary War in order to pay for a new nation already straddled with debt. The common man’s solution to avoid the tax was to make it clandestinely and sell it with no government involvement. Anger over the taxation led to the Whisky Rebellion in 1794. The taxation issue came back during and after the Civil War. 

In the early 1900s, the problem wasn’t taxation, it was prohibition. Alcohol, being completely illegal, made moonshiners even more profitable while also making them enemy number one to federal agents.

For most moonshiners, the business wasn’t a hobby or a get-rich-quick scheme. It was about survival. Many were simple farmers who grew corn and found that using it for liquor was about the only way to get by during tough economic times.

Moonshining self-perpetuated a culture and even localized mafia rings in the south. In the 20th century, vehicles played a large role in quickly moving product around and evading the police. This culture eventually led to the popularity of NASCAR as bootleggers usually had the fastest and best cars for racing.

So what is moonshine anyway? It is an alcoholic beverage that is made in secret in order to evade government regulation. The term comes from having to do the job at night by the light of the moon. Most commonly it is made with corn, sugar, yeast, and water through the process of distillation.

Moonshiners usually bottle up their product and sell it right away. If it were allowed to age properly, you end up with what is commercially known as whisky. The typical still operator doesn’t have the luxury of allowing the aging and mellowing process to take place, but they often flavor their products with fruit or bark.

Making moonshine is illegal without the proper permits. And illegal operations are still big business in some parts of the country, especially in Appalachia where some bootleggers can make upward of $5000 a week, tax free.