“Moonshiners,” an American documentary/reality television series from the Discovery Channel, has been entertaining viewers for a decade now. Mike Cockrell gained popularity among moonshine enthusiasts, as he’s been included in the hit TV show for the past six years. The illegal production of liquor and the various ways that the moonshiners had evaded the law fascinated a lot of people. Several rumors hounded the show and its cast members since its inception, such as getting busted by the police, and a few names were tossed around on social media, including Mike Cockrell.

Moonshiners, its history and TV premiere

When “Moonshiners” started airing in 2011, it was revealed that in just three months, a moonshiner could potentially earn $100,000 tax-free. Of course it would depend highly on the speed of production and volume of sales, but it came with huge risks, as they operated without the proper license from the government.

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What is moonshining all about?

Moonshining started back when the early settlers landed in America in 1700s, as they made their own distilled liquor at home. The season for moonshining was starting in June and finishing by October, and its production depended highly on the corn harvest, the number one ingredient to make moonshine. It was also the perfect time of the year as the foliage helped with the stealth needed for their operation, as it provided ample cover to the stills that they used. Moonshine got its name from when it was made, by the light of the moon, away from the prying eyes of the law, and when everyone (else) was supposedly fast asleep in their homes. Interestingly, creating moonshine wasn’t considered illegal until the Prohibition era, when there was a call for temperance on the sale of alcohol. It started in Massachusetts in 1838, the first state that the prohibition law was passed in 1846. The rest of the states soon banned the liquor as well.

The hidden business enterprise

Few people knew that somewhere hidden in the deep hollows of the mountains of Appalachia, a battle commenced each summer. This money-driven enterprise motivated the local moonshiners to sometimes risk their lives; they considered the season as the most paranoid time of the year for their families. To avoid being detected by the police, they gathered their ingredients clandestinely, as law enforcement agencies were on the lookout for any unusual volume of sales for its known ingredients. They chose a well-hidden place somewhere in the mountains to brew their most potent liquor, as moonshining was prohibited because the people producing it didn’t have any license or government authorization, and didn’t pay any tax.

The inspiration behind the TV series

The idea of putting together the TV show “Moonshiners” was inspired by the life of Marvin “Popcorn” Sutton. He was a legendary moonshiner from the North Carolina Appalachians, who learned the business of distilling alcohol from his father, a skill actually handed down by his grandfather from his great-grandfather. He was featured in a 2002 movie made by acclaimed documentarian Neal Hutcheson, called “Mountain Talk.” With Popcorn’s colorful life, Neal went on to create a documentary about his moonshining business, entitled “This is the Last Dam Run of Likker I’ll Ever Make.”  Unfortunately for Popcorn, he wasn’t successful in evading the police completely, attributed to his being vocal about his illegal business. In 2007, a raid on his home led to the discovery of close to 1000 gallons of moonshine, and some illegal firearms. He was arrested, but was out on probation, however, this turn of events resulted in Popcorn committing suicide, a choice he made apparently to avoid doing time in federal prison.

TV premiere and viewership ratings

Everyone involved in the business of making moonshine was aware that ‘the victors become the stuff of legend, and the losers face the slammer’ – it was on this premise that “Moonshiners” became a huge hit with cable viewers. The opening narrative, ‘In Appalachia, Moonshining is considered by many to be a way of life. It is also illegal. Any person caught moonshining can be sentenced to prison,’ easily enticed the viewers from the get-go. Each episode featured a group of diverse people making illegal alcoholic beverages, and how they creatively chose their distilling spots and secret storage house to avoid police detection. The series made its TV premiere on 6 December 2011, and an average of close to three million watched the first season, which consisted of seven episodes. Its success led the Discovery Channel to order more episodes, and since then has consistently scored competitive TV ratings.

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Posted by Moonshiners on Thursday, November 10, 2022

The process of producing moonshine

To better understand how moonshine was produced in “Moonshiners,” it would be best to understand its process. One of the basic things moonshiners looked for whenever they built their stills was to find a spot near a water resource, so ensuring that they could get plenty of water whenever they needed it. Moonshine still referred to the apparatus used to distill alcohol, which came in different shapes or sizes. After the stills were set up, the next thing to do was to mix water, sugar and yeast with any fruit or grain; they used mostly corn, and the combination became known as mash. The mixture would be left alone to ferment for a week.

Fermentation would let the mixture turn into 12-18% alcohol, which would then be heated in the first chamber known as the pot. The heat vapour separated the alcohol from the mash causing it to rise to the cap and pass to the arm and over to the thump keg, in which any residual water was deposited. The alcohol vapor would then move to another arm and to the condenser, where it would be cooled back to a liquid moonshine. On a 100-gallon still, moonshiners would always throw away the first pint and a half as they were considered slightly poisonous.

Some of Mike Cockrell’s highlights on “Moonshiners”

Having been born and raised in a family of moonshiners in Sevier County, Tennessee, Mike Cockrell was comfortable in continuing the family legacy. The liquor recipes he used were embedded in his brain while he was growing up; he was always around stills watching his father and uncles create different flavors, and his passion for moonshining developed despite the danger that it entailed in producing and distributing it.

His first appearance on the show

In the sixth season of “Moonshiners,” Mike Cockrell was contacted by one of the cast members, Mark Rodgers, when the latter wanted to set up a new still around his area. Apparently, after arrests were made across the state line, the neighboring territory in Tennessee was up for grabs, so Mark took advantage of the situation with the blessings of his partners, Jeff and Lance, to make more money. It was a huge risk taking over another territory, as a lot of bad things happened when one wasn’t familiar with the environment. Mike provided more protection as he was accustomed to the place and he knew a lot about moonshining. They were pretty much on their guard as they weren’t aware at that time if the moonshiners who were arrested were still in jail, or were out and about.

Mike teamed up with Mark Rodgers again

By the seventh season, Mike had accepted Mark’s offer once again to team-up, as they yielded huge profits at the end of the sixth season, having produced a little over their goal, which was 1000 gallons of moonshine. Mark shared that everything went smoothly because Mike was a hard worker. They had a good game plan that was executed efficiently, because they helped each other from start to finish. This accomplishment pushed Mark to give their partnership another run, as he said goodbye permanently to his former partners, Lance and Jeff.

Moonshiners’ goal was to secure a secluded piece of paradise

All the moonshiners were aware of what they were up against the moment they started in the business. Most of them were superstitious and never stayed long in one place, no matter how efficiently the alcohol still set-up yielded many gallons of moonshine. However, Mike and Mark believed in taking advantage of a great spot, so they took risks in using the same place repeatedly, as long as they didn’t experience any hint of being discovered by others, especially by law enforcement agencies.

A perfect still setup destroyed by loggers

Mike and Mark headed back to their still set-up to check if everything was still in great condition after a harsh winter; they hadn’t been there for several months since the last time they collected their moonshine. Their new goal was to produce about 1200 gallons of moonshine, as Mike had a buyer lined up already with an initial order of 25 gallons. Fortunately, everything stayed the same, and upon closer inspection, they knew that it was untouched. They didn’t have any problem running it again, and left their mixture to ferment for about seven days, feeling great that they could easily complete their orders. However, when they went back after a week to collect the finished product, a piece of huge construction equipment was on the path going to their hidden spot. They discovered that their still set-up was destroyed and nothing could be salvaged from it. Since their hiding place was no longer a secret, they both agreed that they needed to get out of there fast.

Mike blew up another moonshiner’s still

As an act of revenge, Mike blew up Kelly Williamson’s still for allegedly stealing his own moonshine still; however, he made the huge mistake of blowing up the wrong still. The one he blew up was owned by Mark Ramsey and Eric “Digger” Manes, and to make matters worse, he was caught on camera doing it. Mark and Eric were furious about it, but couldn’t sue him as they were all in an illegal business. They were affronted that whatever disputes moonshiners had with each other, they never resorted to blowing up stills, because it wouldn’t be good in their clandestine business. Mike ended up owing the two moonshiners $7,500, which he promised to pay, but had a hard time doing it, as he encountered many obstacles during the production process that season, but eventually squared it with Mark and Digger.

Regular clean alcohol

By the 10th season, Mike was producing moonshine with Jerry Benson – it wasn’t their first partnership, as they first teamed up in 2019. The moonshine still with a long column that they used didn’t give out any flavor even if they added fruits to the mash. The particular still was designed to produce clean alcohol. The two now preferred creating regular clear alcohol as most of their clients at that time liked it. He found a market for it during the early part of the pandemic as their finished product could be mixed with anything.

Was Mike Cockrell arrested while doing moonshine?

When the Alcohol Beverage Control Authority agents were reported to have made several arrests regarding illegal alcohol production and distribution, fans were worried about their favorite moonshiners. Mike Cockrell was one of those names that surfaced online to have been caught, but to everyone’s relief, he was never arrested. The rumor might have been caused by what happened to his secret storage house during the 10th season of “Moonshiners.”

Mike’s client was questioned by the police

In the finale episode of the 10th season entitled “Backwards Bonanza,” Mike and Jerry were on their way to Kentucky to deliver moonshine to a client when they received a phone call that gave Mike chills. Another moonshiner, Daniel, warned them that Mark and Digger heard that one of Mike’s clients that season was questioned by the police; he told Mike that it would be best if they went back to town to check it out. The two made moonshine in the past, but it didn’t work out due to differences of opinion. However, Daniel said that while they might not have a great relationship, he didn’t want to see anyone get busted.

Mike and Jerry’s stash house was raided

Jerry said not to worry because their goods were inside their secret stash house, but Mike remembered that he met the client on a road somewhere near the stash house, and most people sang like a canary when interrogated by the police. Mike instantly knew that he made a huge mistake of getting excited to sell moonshine that one time, and didn’t take proper precautions. They rushed back to town, and on their way to the stash house, they saw a police car on the road leading to it, and a man was poking around. They passed by and knew that the place with 150 gallons of moonshine inside was already compromised.

An update on Mike Cockrell’s whereabouts

During the peak of the pandemic, Mike and Jerry hadn’t sold any liquor for months, and were almost financially broke when the 11th season started, because most of their moonshine supply back then was taken by the police. The partners were spooked and left Tennessee to start over in North Carolina, where Jerry was originally from.

Boom time for moonshiners

Most of the moonshiners underwent a rough patch during the pandemic, but by the spring of 2021, things started to normalize as most people went out again, and corporations, big or small, went back to doing business. There was a demand for alcohol once more, because people wanted to celebrate. It was the perfect time for the moonshiners to get back what they’d lost due to the quarantine protocols enforced by the government.

Mike married his long-time girlfriend

It took Mike seven years before marrying his fiancée, Jenna Hurst. She was from Monroeville, Ohio, but moved to Sevier Country, where she finished high school. He first laid eyes on her when he was buying a property that later became their home. They shared that they underwent a long engagement because they wanted to be sure that they both wanted to build a life together. They were finally married in September 2021, and spent their honeymoon in Florida.

Mike and Jerry had a new help in the 12th season of “Moonshiners”

When Discovery Channel teasers were out during the promotion period for the launch of the TV premiere of the 12th season of “Moonshiners,” a man with a familiar last name was added to the cast – Solomon Sutton. He was the son of the legendary Popcorn Sutton, whose life as a moonshiner inspired the creation of the TV show. Apparently, Jerry knew him and invited him to join their team. While Mike didn’t have any idea about Solomon’s character, he trusted Jerry, and was familiar with Solomon’s last name.

Fans have wondered why cast members weren’t arrested for their moonshining activities since the TV show started; manv suspected that the reason behind it was that the TV show was scripted. Some of the cast members who were interviewed said that for a moonshiner to be arrested by law enforcement agencies, they would need to be caught performing the illegal act itself. Everything that was seen on TV was already filmed, and they were long gone from their secluded still set-ups when each episode was finally aired. Viewers should also realize by now that most of these reality-TV shows had guided content. It meant that most of the scenes that were shown were real situations that happened to the cast members but not in real-time, as editing and some scripting took place, to fit in with the episode time frame..

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