What is “Moonshiners”?

The gripping American docudrama TV series “Moonshiners” airs on the Discovery Channel. The Magilla Entertainment production offers viewers a glimpse into the life of supposed illegal moonshine makers in Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Kentucky’s Appalachian Mountains: the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Over the years, the show’s authenticity has been doubted, especially since the Virginia Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) stated in March 2012, that if any illegal activity were actually taking place, they would’ve taken action. Apparently, the ABC also requested that the producers add a disclaimer clarifying that the show was a dramatization, and that no illegal liquor production was taking case. The team at Magilla Entertainment insist to this day that the show is 100% genuine, whatever that means

The show contains archival footage of Marvin “Popcorn” Sutton, a famous American moonshiner and bootlegger, from Neal Hutcheson’s 2002 documentary “This is the Last Dam Run of Likker I’ll Ever Make”. The documentary was edited for TV in 2008, and broadcast on the Documentary Channel and PBS with the new title of “The Last One”.

Sadly, Marvin was arrested in 2007 by ATF agents, for possession of a handgun by a felon, and for illegally distilling liquor. After being diagnosed with cancer, and to avoid serving an 18-month federal prison term, he committed suicide in 2009 at the age of 62; as such, he never lived to see the show inspired by his life.

The first season of “Moonshiners” premiered on 6th December 2011, with the first episode of season 11 airing on 20th October 2021. Dramatized or not, “Moonshiners” is a huge success, and continues to pull in millions of viewers eager to learn more about the trials and tribulations of the cast members.

Cast

The show’s main cast is comprised of Tim Smith, Steven Ray Tickle, Jeff and Lance Waldroup, Mark Ramsey, Jim Tom Hedrick, Josh Owens and Eric Manes, although over 20 moonshiners have appeared from seasons one to 11.

Perhaps the most famous face of the series, Tim is a third-generation moonshiner, who turned his family’s century-old moonshine recipe into a major national brand. The Original Climax Moonshine has been dubbed by some “the best moonshine being made anywhere”, and the Vancouver native has since branched out to include Tim Smith Southern Reserve and Climax Spirits. Fans can also visit his property, Belmont Farm Distillery, and discover how whiskey and moonshine are made – with the added benefit of getting Tim’s autograph.

Steven, typically referred to as “Tickle”, is another popular TV personality who lives in Pittsylvania County, Virginia, working in the nearby town of Gretna.

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A 2013 article claims that he was a union carpenter who had lived in the Washington area for two years while working in Clyde’s Restaurant. In the same year, Steven was also reported to be considering running as an independent in Virginia’s 5th congressional district, against US Representative Robert Hurt. Controversially, he dubbed the Affordable Care Act “crap” in a blunt October 2013 interview with Washington Secrets.

Without a doubt, Steven is the most colorful character on “Moonshiners” with a lengthy criminal record. After being arrested for public intoxication in March 2013, he was re-arrested for possession of a sawn-off shotgun just over a year later, convicted on 1st February 2016, and in March given a three-year suspended penitentiary sentence –he actually served five months after violating probation that summer. More recently, Steven had another run-in with the law after being involved in a car accident while driving on a suspended license.

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Luckily, not everything has been doom and gloom for the docudrama star, as in 2019 he married a bail bondswoman Carol Ann in a moonshine-themed wedding. According to Steven, Carol had pursued him for six years until he finally relented, and went out on a date with her.

Jeff, who made his last appearance in “Moonshiners” in 2019 alongside his son Lance, is a much more private individual. Although fans were upset by the duo’s absence, it’s believed that the Waldroup patriarch is working on starting his own business, following the good publicity he benefitted from by being in the show. A seventh-generation moonshiner, Jeff came from humble beginnings and has always been a hard worker, namely in the logging industry and as a qualified bulldozer operator.

Lacking some of his father’s intelligence and business acumen, Lance committed many errors while on the show, but constantly received Jeff’s support.

One memorable incident is the time Lance tried to sell absinthe for triple the going rate, and was confused when nobody bought it. With that said, his affable personality made him a definite fan favorite, and before his untimely death, some viewers held out hope that he would return to the small screen.

Born and raised in East Tennessee, Mark is another dedicated moonshiner who’s devoted his life to perfecting his brewing techniques, including incorporating new flavors. As a young man, he was introduced to a local moonshine specialist, and made the most of their friendship to learn all the necessary trade secrets. He and his wife Sally Jane Clark, have been spotted by fans at many moonshine-related events, but keep their off-screen lives away from social media. When not filming, Mark is hard at work in Sugarlands Distilling Co., which he co-founded with his business partner Eric.

Jim Tom, a regular on the show from seasons two to seven, is something of a legend in the moonshine trade, and worked closely with Marvin. Born on 25th December 1940, it’s thought that Jim Tom took a break from TV to enjoy his golden years with his loved ones, which would be understandable given that he’s been making moonshine since just 15 years of age. In 2014, he thought about pursuing a career in the music industry, but has since settled down doing what he loves most: teaching the next generation of distillers everything they need to know.

As one of the younger and more attractive cast members, viewers consider Josh to be the show’s most eligible bachelor. Dubbed “the professional motocross racer turned distiller making waves on Moonshiners”, Josh shared a lifelong friendship with Barney Barnwell, a former cast member and passionate moonshiner himself. At the time of his passing, Barney had asked Josh to build an underground still in which to distill moonshine; in honor of his memory, the latter decided to complete the project, and continue Barney’s legacy.

Shortly afterwards, the producers of “Moonshine” approached Josh and asked him how he’d feel about being a cast member. When not filming, the social media sensation enjoys racing bikes, and spending time with his daughter, Elizabeth Reese Owens. Although the TV star appears to be single right now, he was previously in a relationship with Amber Lyne Gabric, and to this day, the former couple share a dog, Cutiepie.

Last but not least, Eric, also known as “Digger”, has featured in over 114 episodes of the show since his first appearance in 2014. Hailing from Newport, Tennessee, the master moonshiner was believed to be in a relationship with his business partner and best friend Mark. However, that couldn’t be further from the truth: Eric is happily married to Allison Manes, a small business owner who enjoys travelling and spending time with family. Eric and Mark’s joint Instagram profile has almost 6,000 followers as of March 2022, and have become a fan favorite on-screen duo thanks to their close bond.

Tragedies & Controversies

On 25th February 2021, Lance was discovered dead at his home in Robbinsville, North Carolina, at the young age of 30. The tragic news was confirmed by his father, who preferred not to disclose the cause of death, and shocked fans and casual viewers alike.

In a tribute, the official “Moonshiners” Facebook page posted: “We are saddened to hear about the loss of Lance Waldroup. An adventurous distiller… Lance was always looking to take his flavorful recipes of ‘shine to new heights’. He will be sorely missed”.

If that wasn’t heartbreaking enough, internet sleuths soon discovered that Lance was preceded in death by his siblings Lamar and Lindsey, who died aged 20 and 11 respectively. In order to raise money for a memorial fund, the Waldroup family set up a GoFundMe and revealed that Lance was a recovering drug addict who’d turned over a new leaf after a stint in rehab.

Lance was survived by his parents and both sets of grandparents, as well as several aunts, uncles, cousins, and friends who mourned his passing. The memorial service was held at Cedar Cliff Baptist Church in Graham County, NC, with the committal services taking place in a local cemetery.

Understandably, Jeff declined to give any further comments regarding the incident.

It appears that bad luck follows some of the show’s cast members: Bill Canny was forced to leave the program after being diagnosed with an undisclosed illness, although it’s also been speculated that tensions with his colleague Josh were the real cause for his departure. Factoring in Steven’s criminal past and the deaths of other cast members, “Moonshiners” has definitely been plagued by tragic events in recent years.

The History of Moonshine

Moonshine and American history seem to go hand in hand: in fact, the first wouldn’t exist without the latter. When the American government began taxing and controlling the alcohol industry shortly after the American Revolution, the moonshine industry was born, with the illegal spirit receiving that name because they were mostly made under the light of the moon.

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Taxing spirits and liquors was seen as an effective way to generate revenue for a government that was struggling to pay the costs of a lengthy war, and at the same time, moonshining became a part-time job: farmers saw that high-value whisky could be made out of cheap corn crops, and regarded moonshine manufacturing as a way to get through bad years.

Government agents who came to collect taxes were often attacked, and the tension between the government and American citizens escalated into a conflict dubbed the Whisky Rebellion, which kicked off during George Washington’s presidency in 1791. Despite the Whisky Rebellion being a violent resistance movement, less than 15 people died. George Washington led 13,000 militaria troops into western Pennsylvania, the center of the rebellion, to suppress the conflict.

The successful suppression of the Whisky Rebellion marked an important point in American history – in 1801, Thomas Jefferson and the Republican Party repealed the liquor tax, however, the government once again imposed liquor taxes on its citizens to fund the Civil War, with IRS officials and revenuers cracking down harshly on moonshiners, and thus setting off a chain reaction of bloody conflicts throughout the country.

Moonshiners were considered heroes doing the Whisky Rebellion for taking a stand against an oppressive government; however, attitudes changed after the Civil War, and they were widely seen as thuggish criminals. The tide changed again with the Prohibition, when illegal liquor became one of the country’s most profitable businesses, due to a lack of legal alcohol.

The moonshine business was taken over by organized crime syndicates, with distillers springing up across the states to keep up with demand. Moonshiners enjoyed a good run until 1933, when Prohibition was repealed, but the impact of the industry throughout the last few centuries is undeniable – Marvin Sutton is still viewed as a relevant figure in pop culture to this day, as demonstrated by the 2014 documentary “A Hell of a Life”, and the photographic book “Popcorn Sutton: The Making and Marketing of a Hillbilly Hero”.

Marvin’s widow Pam is also keeping the legacy alive, as in November 2010 she partnered with J&M Concepts LLC and Hank Williams Jr. to distill and distribute “Popcorn Sutton’s Tennessee White Whiskey”, which was based on Marvin’s secret family recipe, and distilled using his techniques.

As for “Moonshiners”, the beloved series has spawned two spin-offs, entitled “Moonshiners: Whiskey Business” and “Moonshiners: Master Distiller”, which aired in March 2019 and March 2020 respectively. Such an established tradition clearly isn’t in demise.

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