Times have certainly changed since Dwight Bearden first made moonshine in his old family home.
He remembers helping his father around the still when he was a young boy, washing out empty Coca-Cola jugs they’d get from the fountain drinks in Gainesville to be used to bottle gallons of homemade moonshine.
Now a distinguished distiller on the right side of the law, Bearden spoke to the Dawson County Historical and Genealogical Society at their April 16 meeting about his experience in the illicit business that made Dawson County famous.
Bearden, a fourth-generation moonshiner, said he’s seen a lot of change since his first job washing soda jugs to working with a 400 gallon still at the Old Tennessee Distilling Company.
But in those early days, Bearden said, making moonshine “was just a part of living.”
Moonshine, an illegal high-proof distilled spirit typically made with corn mash as its main ingredient, was a way to make ends meet when times were tough in north Georgia.
“This was the way of them trying to get a little money to feed the family,” Bearden said.
According to Judy Harris, the current president of the Dawson County Historical and Genealogical Society, making a living in Dawson County was tough during the Prohibition era and into the 1940s and 1950s when moonshine production hit its stride.
“I know I grew up very poor, but you know what, I didn’t even know I was poor,” Harris said. “That was our way of life around here then. Everybody was poor and you didn’t think nothing about it. But moonshine was the glue that sort of held this whole area together, because without it there’d be a lot of people that would have really been starving.”
In 1946, the average income was $2,500 and the average cost for a new car was $1,125 and a new home, $5,600.
“It might make a lot of people understand why that moonshine was such an important thing to this county,” Harris said. “There was no industry here. There was nothing to make a living here.”
While there were some stores in the county that provided jobs, the stores sold the sugar and jars to the local moonshiners and were connected to the illicit trade.
“It was all connected. It all had to come together for everybody to make, and really it was a poor living, even with what they had,” Harris said.
During Bearden’s early days in the moonshine business, the standard was copper stills that often needed to be patched up with new sheets of copper so that moonshiners could keep making their product. Bearden said he recently acquired an old copper still found in the western side of Dawson County that had been patched multiple times. He couldn’t bear to see the historic still be taken to the dump.
“I was just amazed with this old still because you don’t keep patching something that many times unless you needed it,” Bearden said.
And making moonshine wasn’t something a moonshiner wanted to mess up because every batch that wasn’t right meant money wasted.
“Back in the day you done it by trial and error,” Bearden said. “When it got to getting into your pocket book you learned how to make it pretty quick because you didn’t have enough money to keep messing up.”
It was tough enough making illegal alcohol in secrecy, but it became harder under the cover of darkness as Bearden recalled using two pound yeast cans filled with burlap and kerosene to create just enough light to work to keep the production going at night.
“It would make just a dim light to where you could have enough light to see how to work around the still, but the law couldn’t see it from very far off,” Bearden said.
Luckily for Bearden, he was never caught by the law – at least for making or moving moonshine.
As a teenager, Bearden left his parents’ home one night in his 1964 Ford, a trip car he used to carry moonshine, and picked up a friend. While headed into Dawsonville, he was stopped by three federal agents.
“One word led to another and ended up me and them agents in an all-out brawl right there in the middle of Dawsonville,” Bearden said.
Though there was no moonshine in the car, Bearden was charged with three counts of assault on a federal officer and was detained for four hours.
As if hiding from the law, or “the Revenuers,” wasn’t enough of a danger for moonshiners, operational mishaps at the still were always a possibility.
Bearden remembers helping his father in the still one day. It was the first time they were using LP gas and Bearden was asked to turn on the gas while his father went to light the boiler. The room filled up with gas.
“When he struck that match that boiler goes ‘ka-boom!’ Goes up, hits the top of the hole, comes back down and knocks him backwards, singes his mustache off, his eyebrows off, and he was laying there with the boiler between his legs… just a cussin’,” Bearden said, chuckling.
Bearden continued making moonshine throughout his life and became a legal distiller once moonshine became legal to produce and sell in the United States in 2010.
With the rich history of moonshine production and transportation in north Georgia, interest in the famous beverage was renewed in the 21st century after its legalization.
Distilleries selling the once prohibited spirit began sprouting up in the southeast, including the Dawsonville Moonshine Distillery which Bearden helped establish.
He worked as a distiller in Dawsonville for about three years before moving to the Old Tennessee Distilling Company where he is today.
No longer part of a backwoods operation, Bearden helps produce 40 different products, including about 25 flavored moonshines and three different kinds of whiskey at his distillery.
Bearden said the biggest difference between moonshine making in his younger years and today is the regulations and technology.
“There are so many rules and regulations. You wouldn’t believe the stuff you have to go through,” Bearden said. “They tell you what kind of bottles you can use. You have to get your bottles approved. You have to get your labels approved. You have to get proof approved.”
Gone are the days of using patched up copper stills and guessing the proof. Now Bearden uses stainless steel stills and a $20,000 hydrometer to proof the alcohol to make sure each batch meets the federal regulations.
Records are also logged, first in notebooks and now on computers.
“When we first started up there, we were putting our records in notebooks and the federal agent, he comes in there, checks us and he said ‘your record keeping’s really good,’ but he said ‘I want everything on computer,’” Bearden said. “I don’t know nothing about a computer, don’t want to know nothing about a computer.”
Bearden admits that the strict regulations take a little of the fun out of it, especially when distilleries need to be prepared for agents to come any time and pull any jar off the shelf. If a batch is off by more than half a proof, it needs to be pulled from the shelves and remade.
“It’s come a long ways, and I’ve been fortunate enough to see the old ways. Them little copper stills right there will work you to death,” Bearden said. “I’ve had some times, had some really, really good times and was fortunate enough to make a dollar or two along to keep me from missing meals, and you can tell I ain’t miss many meals.”
Having been on both sides of the moonshine industry, Bearden is often asked which is better: illegal or legal.
“I said, ‘well I can make more money illegal’ but I said ‘I’m getting too old to be trotting up and down the hill and hollering, and I’m too pretty to go to jail,’ so I say ‘I better stay legal,’” Bearden said, laughing. “We done some hard work back in the day, and we survived anyway. Sometimes we wondered about it but we did survive.”