• Master distiller Jerry Benson was an integral part of Discovery Channel’s “Moonshiners”
• He was hospitalized due to high blood pressure in 2021 and has since recovered
• Lance Waldroup, a colleague of Jerry, died in 2021 from congenital heart failure
• Steve Ray Tickle has had close calls with death on two occasions
• Popcorn Sutton, an inspiration to moonshiners, committed suicide in 2009
For the past few years, master distiller Jerry Benson has been an integral part of Discovery Channel’s “Moonshiners”. The show follows real liquor makers in the Appalachian region of the USA, who make their living by distilling homemade spirits of dubious legality.
Benson has been showing off his craft in the series for more than a decade, but about a year ago it became apparent that he might not be able to continue, due to his health issues.
He ended up at a hospital
Due to high blood pressure, the “Moonshiners” star had to spend time in hospital, where the doctors hooked him up to IVs and blood pumps. Reportedly, Jerry had suddenly felt a weakness in his legs and arms, combined with excessive sweating and vomiting. He had to be transported to the nearest hospital as the situation seemed extremely worrying, and a few days later, he was transported to a hospital in Asheville, after the doctors found that he had internal bleeding.
According to Jerry’s co-star and business partner, Mike Cockrell, Jerry’s condition was caused by abnormally high blood pressure. ‘His blood pressure is at a stage where he should be dead at this point. (…) Something is definitely going wrong with the mind, with the brain. Jerry’s in pretty rough shape right now. I always try to hope for the best, I just hope that he gets better.’, Mike said shortly after the news of Jerry’s condition broke.
Jerry’s girlfriend, Keira also confirmed what Mike said, revealing that she had traveled all the way from Indiana to visit him at the hospital. In September 2021, the official “Moonshiners” Facebook page posted a photo of Jerry wishing him a speedy recovery. Fans of the series rushed to show support for Jerry. ‘I hope he gets better soon! I think he is a calming influence on Mike. Love you Jerry!’, one fan wrote under the photo.
As of December 2022, Jerry seems to have fully recovered. From what we can see on his social media, he is as active as ever, working in his distillery and enjoying his hobbies.
Who has died on “Moonshiners”?
While Jerry might have escaped death, sadly one of his colleagues from the show wasn’t so lucky. Back in March 2021, news broke about Lance Waldroup’s death. As per a TMZ report, the “Moonshiners” star was discovered unconscious in his bedroom, and was pronounced dead at the scene. He was only 30 years old.
We are saddened to hear about the loss of Lance Waldroup, an adventurous distiller who was featured alongside his father throughout the early seasons of Moonshiners. He will be sorely missed.
— Moonshiners (@MoonshinersTV) March 1, 2021
Before his untimely passing, Lance seemed to be doing fine, and was just having an ordinary day before retreating to his room to play video games. The autopsy revealed that he died from congenital heart failure likely caused by obesity – Lance weighed more than 500lbs at the time, over 270kgs.
On the show, Lance worked with his father Jeff Waldroup operating their distilling business in North Carolina, and was known for being hard-working and keeping a positive attitude at all times.
Another “Moonshiners” star, Steve Ray Tickle has had a close call with death on two occasions. The first time, he fell off a roof he was fixing which resulted in him breaking six ribs and being unable to work for nine months. More recently, he was involved in a serious car accident, which even fired up rumors about his death. Steve was pronounced guilty of the accident, and was thrown in jail, all while he was on probation.
Although he was never officially a member of the “Moonshiners” cast, the late Popcorn Sutton is one of the staples of the show. Clips from the 2002 documentary about him, “This is the Last Dam Run of Likker I’ll Ever Make”, were heavily featured in the first season of the series, and it’s clear that he was a big inspiration to the new generations of moonshiners and bootleggers.
The infamous Popcorn unfortunately suffered a tragic fate – after spending his whole life as an outlaw, in 2009 he was sentenced to 18 months in federal prison for illegal alcohol production, and owning an unregistered weapon. Sutton, who was 62 at the time and in declining health, asked to serve his sentence under house arrest. His request was denied, and a few days before he was to be sent to prison, he committed suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning.
What happened between Jerry and Mike?
If you’ve seen the last several seasons of “Moonshiners” you know how iconic of a duo Mike Cockrell and Jerry Benson are. Cockrell joined “Moonshiners” in 2016, and Jerry a few seasons later, and became one of the moonshiners on the show as well.
Before Jerry’s health issues came to light, rumors circulated on the Internet that he and Mike had split up, or even got busted for illegally producing alcohol. American laws about making alcohol are quite strict, and many moonshiners have been busted in the past, most notably Popcorn Sutton. However, it’s still possible for independent distilleries to obtain a license and sell moonshine legally – such is the case with all moonshine that we see being made in the show. Despite what the producers want us to believe, it’s unlikely that any illegal activity could be publicly broadcast without the authorities catching on, although a case for arrest can only be made when ‘caught in the act’; the actual episodes are aired sometime later.
The rumors in question appeared in March 2021, after Mike and Jerry separated their Facebook pages, and stopped posting about each other for a while. It was later revealed that Mike joined forces with the Tennessee Shine Company, while Jerry kept working on his own. It’s possible that this business deal caused a rift in their relationship for a while, but it’s hard to tell, since both of them prefer not to share too many details about their private lives.
Whatever might have happened in the past, Mike and Jerry now seem to be very close as both friends and colleagues.
Is Jerry still on “Moonshiners”?
“Moonshiners” is currently celebrating a decade of being on air – the newest season of the show premiered in November 2022, along with the new season of the competing spin-off series “Master Distiller”. Jerry is making a comeback in the series along with his partner, Mike, who is also one of the judges on “Master Distiller” – work that one out!
In season 12, Jerry and Mike team up with Solomon Sutton, son of the infamous Popcorn Sutton, who helps them come up with new liquor recipes, and improve their distilling techniques.
Also appearing in the new season is Amanda Bryant, one of the first women to show off their craft on the franchise. She made her debut as one of the contestants in “Master Distiller”, in which she impressed the judges with her hazelnut-flavored liquor that secured her a victory against more experienced competitors. Prior to appearing on the show, she was a completely self-taught hobbyist, who learned her craft through reading books and experimenting.
What is Mike doing now?
Aside from his TV work, Jerry’s partner, Mike Cockrell has been busy running his business, Tennessee Shine Company. Starting in Sevierville, Tennessee, the company has since expanded to three more locations: Wears Valley, Pigeon Forge, and Gatlinburg. The Sevierville site, which is the oldest and largest of four, also offers a specialized moonshine tour through which visitors can learn more about the history of this liquor.
As for his private life, Mike seems like a true family man. He recently celebrated eight years of marriage with his wife Jenna – the two married in September 2014, and now have three children together, two daughters and a son. ‘One wonderful year of marriage after eight years together it’s been the best days of my life and also spending this time with our children couldn’t have been better. I love you sweetheart and happy happy anniversary’, Mike wrote in a Facebook post dedicated to his family.
A lot of fans don’t know this, but Mike is actually a Mississippi native, who was born and grew up in Mize, and only relocated to Tennessee after matriculating high school. After moonshining as a hobby for several years, in 2015, he decided to take distilling more seriously and opened Tennessee Shine Co. According to online sources, his net worth is estimated at over $1 million.
“Moonshiners” star Danielle Parton
One of the newest additions to the “Moonshiners” franchise is Danielle Parton – aka Shine Girl. The last name Parton certainly rang a bell for many viewers who made a connection with the famous country singer, Dolly Parton. The similarities are obvious even in appearance, with Danielle looking like a younger version of Dolly. This isn’t all coincidence, since Dolly is actually Danielle’s aunt. ‘Dolly is No. 4 of 12 kids. My dad, Bobby (not Robert), is No. 5. My Mom is Doris Noland Parton, and was best friends with my Aunt Stella, No. 6, growing up,’ Danielle explains.
Both the mother’s and the father’s side of Danielle’s family have been involved in moonshine making. While some fought to shut down illegal distilleries, others produced alcohol hidden from law enforcement. After graduating college in 1998, Danielle became a military pilot. Although she’s not flying anymore, she now serves as the Chief of Public Affairs at the 118th Wing. During her time as a pilot, Danielle earned several military awards, including the Combat Action Medal and the Air Medal.
In early 2022, she started a venture of her own – Shine Girl. ‘My goal for Shine Girl is to produce a line of spirits created by and with women in mind,’ she says. ‘I have a theory, if women will drink it, men will buy it!’
History of moonshining in the US
Moonshining as a craft has a rather long history in the US. ‘Moonshine’ typically refers to white corn whiskey, although the term can be used to refer to any kind of homemade liquor.
After the American Revolution, many US citizens couldn’t afford to buy alcohol which was very heavily taxed by the government at the time. This understandably upset a lot of local farmers, who have been producing grain-based liquor for decades, leading up to the so-called Whiskey Rebellion (1791). As a form of resistance to the government, moonshining flourished, especially in the southern states. The rebellion ended in 1794, following a crackdown on farmers, led by George Washington.
However, the practice didn’t reach its peak until the infamous Prohibition Era, which lasted from 1920 to 1933. During that time, all forms of alcohol were completely outlawed, so many Americans turned to illegally produced moonshine. Rumors say that people in the US have never drunk more than during Prohibition, a clear failure of the latter Act.
A lot of moonshine production took place in the Appalachia region, which had a limited road network making it less accessible to law enforcement. The region also had a very high production of corn, making it an ideal place to start a secret moonshining business. The finished product was distributed all across the country through a network of bootleggers and runners, who were known for modifying their vehicles to increase their carrying capacity, and speed. After Prohibition ended, a lot of them turned to car racing which eventually led to the formation of NASCAR in 1948.
Moonshining was, and is, also common in other parts of the world. Many countries in Eastern Europe are known for producing their own kinds of fruit brandy, going by the names, rakija, soplica, slivovica, and others, which are typically home-produced, and sold without a license. Finland, on the other hand, is known for homemade vodka, aka pontikka. Even though moonshining is officially illegal in Finland, making pontikka often gets a pass unless the authorities have been made aware that the vodka is being sold. Pontikka is typically stronger than American moonshine, or even ‘regular’ vodka, but one type of moonshine definitely takes the cake in this category. Cameroonian arki odngtol has an alcohol content of up to 80%, making it one of the strongest kinds of alcohol in the world.