Dwight Bearden was 6 or 7 years old when he first started helping his father on their liquor still north of Dawsonville.
Now 58, Bearden has been making whiskey for more than a half century. But nowadays he’s brewing “white lightnin’ ” legally at Dawsonville Moonshine Distillery, owned by Cheryl Wood, who herself comes from a moonshine-making family.
Her grandfather was well-known moonshiner Simmie Free, and the pure corn whiskey recipe they use at the distillery comes from her grandfather, Fate Free, who lived to be 109.
“I didn’t go to school much,” Bearden admits, because he was helping his father, Jay Bearden, at the still. He would help fire it up and wash gallon Coca-Cola syrup jugs that they would fill with whiskey.
They would move their stills around quite a bit to keep revenue agents guessing. The agents never found the prize distillery the Beardens built underground off New Hope Road. It was an elaborate operation.
The moonshiners dug by hand a 30-foot-by-40-foot hole in the ground and built a “smokehouse” on top of it. On each end of the building was a car shed. Under one of the sheds they built a foot-thick trap door insulated with sawdust to muffle sounds from beneath. They would park a car over it.
Vents made with end-to-end oil drums equipped with a chicken-house fan led to an adjacent hog pen. The fan would blow odors from the still into the foul smell of the pen, masking them from suspicious snoopers.
Lights connected between the residence and the underground still were used to signal back and forth in case of trouble or if someone at the still wanted to talk to Jay Bearden in the house. Only Beardens, however, were allowed to run the still.
As a teenager, Dwight Bearden would run a still by himself, but he never hauled liquor, leaving that to “trippers,” who used various means to disguise their loads. One such whiskey hauler installed a tank in the back of a panel truck that would hold 100 cases, six gallons to the case
Most of the pure corn or apple brandy the Beardens made was sold to local customers who came to them. They mostly sold large quantities of good beaded liquor rather than a pint or quart here and there.
Jay Bearden did get caught while he was young, and Dwight’s grandfather already was “building time” in prison. All his grandfather ever did was farm and make liquor, Dwight said.
Dwight Bearden also had a legitimate job as a teenager, catching chickens for Tatum Farms in the middle of the night.
He would get off just in time for school, but sometimes didn’t make it. When he did, Bearden said he slept a lot in class.
“I was a slow learner,” he said.
He has held two or three other “legal jobs,” including operating his own poultry farm for 14 years. He would earn extra money making liquor on the side.
Bearden never got caught making moonshine, but he did have a run-in with the law. Revenue agents had been watching him, and stopped him and some cousins in Dawsonville one day. Words and blows were exchanged, resulting in Bearden’s arrest. Federal authorities later dismissed the charges.
But the revenuers kept watching him, and Bearden at age 21 decided to move from Dawson County into Lumpkin County, where he still lives.
“Dawsonville was trying to send me to the federal penitentiary,” he said.
He keeps a collection of non-operating stills on his farm, but doesn’t admit to firing up any except at the Dawsonville Moonshine Distillery, where he makes legal spirits and gives tours and demonstrations.
An old Georgia law, which Wood and Bearden want to change, prohibits sale of liquor at the site where it’s made. They can pass out samples, but the products must be sold to distributors, who then sell to stores.
Bearden’s expertise and authenticity as a mountain moonshiner has landed him on several television programs, including on the History Channel, Country Music Television, Modern Marvels and the Travel Channel.
He acknowledges neglecting his formal schooling. “I can read a little, but I can’t write,” he said.
But if they awarded master’s degrees in the art of moonshine making, Dwight Bearden would be at the top of the class.
Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times. His column appears Sundays and at gainesvilletimes.com/johnny.