“Moonshiners: Master Distiller” is a reality TV show competition, created in 2020 as a spin-off from the popular Discovery Channel docu-series “Moonshiners”. Each episode follows three distillers from different parts of US, as they compete in making a liquor of choice for the title of “Master Distiller”. The show is hosted and judged by Eric Manes, Mark Ramsey, Tim Smith and Jeremy Schwartz, who guide the audience through the competition process with their entertaining commentary. Aside from publicity, each winner sees their liquor get a limited release through Sugarland Distilling Co. in Tennessee.
Where does “Moonshiners: Master Distiller” take place?
While the original series, “Moonshiners”, takes place in the Appalachian mountains of the northeastern US, this spin-off is mainly being filmed in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, the city known for its numerous distilleries. It’s a home to many major moonshine-making companies, such as Sugarland Distilling Co., Thunder Road Moonshiners and Ole Smoky Moonshine, among others. However, “Moonshiners: Master Distiller” isn’t limited in its location, and welcomes people from all over the US as possible competitors.
Don't forget to tune in to a brand new episode of Moonshiners at 9 p.m., followed by an all-new series Master Distiller…
“Master Distiller” Clash of the Champions
In late April 2022, Discovery Channel started airing the fourth season of the show, entitled “Master Distiller: Clash of the Champions”, in which six top winners from previous seasons make their return to the competition. The series follows an elimination format in which our contenders must design elaborate still builds, and run liquors from raw ingredients, while the last master distiller standing will compete with the judge of their choice for the ultimate title.
As of the time of the writing, the series is still on air and the winner hasn’t been announced yet. In the first episode, we saw previous winners compete in making a classic corn-based liquor in just three days, with Mena Killough Pratt from Charlotte, North Carolina unfortunately ending up leaving the competition.
— Howard (@MoonshinerHowie) May 5, 2022
Mena’s elimination came as a bit of shocker, since she had actually won not one but two episodes of “Master Distiller”, and was the first female winner of the competition. At the time of her first appearance on the show, she had been making alcohol for less than six months. In an interview she gave for the magazine “Queen City Nerve”, Mena shared the doubt she had at the time, saying ‘I was like, ‘Who am I to think that I could compete with masters? I just started, I’m only going to look like an a****le’’. However, when a Discovery Channel casting agent heard of her work through social media and contacted her, Mena ultimately accepted the invitation. After weeks of intense preparation, she confidently came into her first challenge, making the winning Absinthe liquor. Prior to appearing on the show, she worked as an herbalist, and founded the local Green Faerie Apothecary. Her love for herbalism eventually led her to becoming a professional distiller, a moonshiner, and now the head distiller at the Wood & Grain Project.
Mena isn’t the only double winner of the cast though, as Richard Landry from New Iberia, Louisiana also has two “Master Distiller” titles under his belt. Richard is a self-taught distiller who’s been making moonshine at home for over a decade, while working as a truck driver full-time. He actually became interested in the craft while watching the original “Moonshiners” series on Discovery Channel, never even dreaming that he would be featured in the similar show one day. ‘I was fascinated by the idea that people were actually making alcohol, and I thought I could do it too. And I went through their progressions and their successes and their failures, and graduated from Moonshiners University.’, Richard said in an interview he gave for the website “The Advocate”, comparing his learning experience with graduating university.
When the opportunity to be on “Master Distiller” arose, Richard was initially caught off guard, thinking it must be some kind of a scam, but as his wife assured him that he’d actually been contacted by people from the network, he travelled to Gatlinburg to compete. In the first episode, Richard and his competitors were tasked with making cherry bounce, allegedly George Washington’s liquor of choice. Despite losing the mini-challenge, Landry’s version of cherry bounce which featured fresh cherries, cherry juice, roasted cherry pits, along with honey and spices swayed the judges and earned him his first title. Through his distilling career, Richard has experimented with making numerous kinds of liquor, but his favorite is rum, made from local ingredients including sugarcane and sweet potatoes.
Another “Master Distiller: Clash of the Champions” star is Daniel Maner, from Sevierville, Tennessee. You may be familiar with him from his previous appearances in the original series, as he’s actually close friends with Mike Cockrell. While he’s showcased great talent in making alcoholic beverages, he still considers moonshining as a hobby, and primarily works as a mechanic at Blalock Companies. Daniel is also the proud father of two, and has been married to his wife Kimbery for over 22 years now.
Similarly to Daniel, Howard Thompson was also featured in the original series prior to competing in “Master Distiller”, and has additionally appeared on “Moonshiners: American Spirit”. In the first episode of the “Clash of the Champions”, we saw him struggle at first, but his crystal-clear corn liquor managed to impress the judges. As for his achievements away from the show, Howard has been making liquor for more than five year, citing Tim Smith as his biggest inspiration. In early 2022, the two collaborated in releasing their own brand of commercial moonshine called Moon Chasers.
The second woman to win an episode of “Master Distiller”, who also featured in the newest season ,is Amandy Bryant. Born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to parents David Bryant and Kelli Horger, she currently resides in Pocono Lake with her husband. She previously worked in the hospitality business, and in restaurants, while taking up moonshining as a side project. After she won the season three episode “Nuts on the Line” with her hazelnut-flavored liquor, Amanda became a rising star in the liquor-making community, and turned moonshining into her career.
Other winners of the show
Although the potential second installment of “Clash of the Champions” hasn’t been confirmed by the network yet, there is a lot of potential given the large number of winners from previous seasons of “Master Distiller”
The last season of “Master Distiller” was perhaps the most exciting to date, featuring professional moonshiners making 21 different types of liquor, including corn whiskey, slivovitz (Eastern European brandy made from plums), and Italian Grappa. One of the distillers from season three we may potentially see compete for the ultimate title is Leo Sawadogo, who won the ninth episode with his baobab brandy.
Interestingly enough, it was Leo’s second shot at winning, as he’d already competed in season two, but his peach brandy ultimately wasn’t chosen by the judges. However, as he revealed in an interview he gave for the magazine “Montclair Local”, the legendary Tim Smith still saw a lot of potential in him. ‘I learned a lot the first time. And I came back [to Montclair], fine-tuned my stuff. And then, luckily, Tim Smith, who became one of my good friends, called me back and said, ‘Hey, I don’t think I’ve seen half of what you can do. I need you back on the show.’’
Also one of the season three winners is Bryan Hamner, recognized for his long beard, who won with his Breakfast Booze liquor inspired by blueberry pancakes. Bryan comes from Maine, a state better known for their beer-making industry, but Maine is also a home to more than 35 licensed distilleries, which produce gins, vodkas, whiskey and many other spirits. Bryan is notably the president of the Main Distillers Guild, and a distiller at New England Distilling in Portland, Maine. It’s unclear whether he was contacted about appearing on “Clash of the Champions”, but Bryan has said that he would like to compete in the show again.
A big congratulations to our head distiller, Bryan Hamner, for becoming a Master Distiller on @discovery’s Moonshiners:…
Another winner we may see again is Chis Uyehara, the owner of Last Shot Distillery in New York City, who won back in season two with his Japanese-style whiskey. Chis himself is of Hawaiian and Japanese ancestry, and works as a chef and culinary instructor at Syracuse University’s Falk College, and is also a world-renowned ice carver.
Is moonshining legal?
The original “Moonshiners” series started airing back in 2011, highlighting the life of people who produce moonshine in the Appalachian region. It immediately made waves, as the show labeled a lot of activities that took place as illegal. However, despite its dubious history, ‘moonshine’ that we see produced on the show appears to made legally. Virginian authorities have even stated that they didn’t observe any illegal activities on the show, and if it was the case, it would result in prosecution. They have also said that they requested the network to add a disclaimer, clarifying that the show is a dramatization, but the request was apparently ignored.
What is usually referred to as ‘moonshine’ is any type of liquor produced at home, without a license. However, in recent years the term has taken on a new meaning, and in stores, we can often come across various types of spirits labeled as ‘moonshine’. What the name refers to in such cases is usually either a neutral grain spirit or white un-aged whiskey, often flavored with fruit or spices. Commercial moonshine has become very popular in the US because it’s a lot easier to produce compared to whiskey and bourbon, which may take years to mature, meaning that a lot of small distilleries can come up with their own brand of moonshine, and start selling it right away. The name itself also carries a dose of mystique, as moonshine is often associated with outlaws and the prohibition era.
History of moonshining
Moonshine historically refers to white whiskey made with barley or corn mash, which actually has its origins in Scotland and Ireland, but was popularized in the US.
Moonshining became a common practice in the US in the years following the American Revolution, as the US government started placing taxes on alcohol in order to pay off its depts. American farmers who had been producing grain-based liquor for years up to that point were very displeased with the decision, which led to the so-called Whiskey Rebellion, in which George Washington led a crackdown on farmers producing alcohol from their grain. In 1862, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives passed the infamous 1862 Revenue Act, which officially imposed a tax on alcohol, and outlawed distilling without a permit.
Unsurprisingly, moonshining accelerated during the Prohibition era (1920-1933), as it was impossible to produce alcohol any other way. Moonshine production primarily took place in the Appalachian region, where the limited road network made it easier to avoid revenue officers, and where the locally grown corn had more value as moonshine than in its raw form. After the distillation process was completed, drivers known as ‘bootleggers’ or ‘runners’ would go out and distribute the moonshine to customers, in cars specifically modified for speed and carrying capacity. After the ban on alcohol was lifted in 1933, the out of work ‘runners’ kept their skills sharp by organizing races, which eventually led to the formation of NASCAR (National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing) in 1948.
After WWII, moonshining still remained a somewhat less common practice, usually done with the intention of avoiding taxation. One of the most famous moonshiners of all time is Marvin ‘Popcorn’ Sutton, whose life story was featured on “Moonshiners”. He came from a long line of moonshiners, starting with his Scottish-Irish ancestors. He was convicted five times for producing and distributing untaxed alcohol, and died of suicide in 2008, allegedly to avoid a prison sentence. During his life, he wrote and self-published a guide to moonshining, released a home video depicting the moonshining process, and was the subject of several documentaries.
Aside from the US, moonshining is a common practice in other parts of the world as well, particularly in areas of Eastern Europe, where fruit brandies such as rakija, slivovitz or soplica are often distilled at home, and sold without a license. On the other hand, Finland is known for their home distilled vodka based on fermented water, called pontikka. Unlicensed moonshining is illegal in Finland, but making pontikka is often considered as a hobby, and isn’t prosecuted unless the authorities are made aware that the product is being sold.
Perhaps the most notorious moonshine is arki odngtol, made in Cameroon, which has an alcohol content of up to 80%!