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Moonshiners reunite
Former bootleggers reflect on way of life
3 Moonshine pic1
Bob Suchke, right, demonstrates how to test the potency of a jar of white lightning to Jerry Birdhead Densmore of Ball Ground on Saturday during the Old Moonshiners Reunion at the Dawsonville Moonshine Distillery. Suchke shook the bottle and examined the bubbles. - photo by Michele Hester Dawson Community News

Pete Bearden was 12 when he made his first batch of moonshine in the backwoods of Dawson County.

"I helped my daddy," he said. "Moonshining, that's all he ever done and all his parents had ever done and his brothers and all the Bearden family."

By Bearden's account, his family was not alone in the local illegal liquor trade.

"I'm not ashamed of it. It was a part of my family and a part of a lot of families here," he said. "All the big families in Dawson County, if you look around, 90 percent of the people that's done well here, one way or another, it was with moonshine. That's the way we paid the bills."

Bearden was among several dozen illegal liquor-makers, both past and present, who reflected on their moonshine lineage Saturday during the Old Moonshiners Reunion at the Dawsonville Moonshine Distillery.

Bearden said keeping the illicit business under the radar was the key to his success.

"The local law, they knew. The locals, they didn't force the issue," he said. "The federal agents were who was really after us."

While local law enforcement tended to look the other way, Bearden said federal revenuers kept a watchful eye on the area, which has a long history of moonshining.

"I was only caught once. They got me with 1,302 gallons," he said. "It was in 1974 and I started my time the second day of '75. Six months at Maxwell Field, the federal penitentiary."

Days after his release, Bearden was back in business.

"Me and a friend of mine made 35,000 gallons in 42 days, one batch," he said, referring to his biggest haul. "It was money, and we made a lot of liquor, but we didn't get rich from making 'shine."

According to Bearden, if he found himself in a bind, "I'd do it today, if I had to."

Also at the reunion was a batch of new liquor makers, who stake claim as the first legal distillers in Dawsonville.

Bob Suchke has only been making moonshine for the last three years at the local distillery, where the reunion was held.

"Oh my God, it's the most fun you can think of. I enjoy it," he said.

The distillery was the first in the state to be cleared to offer samples after the General Assembly passed a tasting bill last year. The measure allows visitors to sample up to a half ounce of spirits per person, per day when touring a distillery.

Bearden said the ability to offer tastings is exciting for Dawsonville, especially since he's out of the illegal business and has no immediate plans to pass on recipes or technique to his children and grandchildren.

"I just finished up some we made 45 years ago and it was still as good as it was then," Bearden said.