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Dawsonville embraces its still life
Town ready to capitalize on moonshine history by legalizing white lightnin
Gordon Pirkle, owner of the Dawsonville Pool Room, explains the workings of a moonshine still on display in downtown Dawsonville. - photo by Tom Reed

With bottles clinking in their back seats, they ran from the revenuers. Bootleggers once carried 10,000 gallons of moonshine a week on the back country roads from Dawsonville to Atlanta.

More than 60 years later, 'shine may once again flow from the foothills of the North Georgia Mountains - this time legally.

That is, if three business partners move forward with their plan to open a moonshine museum and distillery in Dawsonville.

"What I would like is to see a moonshine trail through North Georgia, hitting all the towns and working together to boost tourism," said Cheryl Wood, who has applied for a business license to open the distillery.

Wood and her partners, Robert Suchke and Veeral Shaw, want to see that trail start in Dawsonville, where moonshine runs deep in the town's history.

The recipes Wood plans to use have been in her family for more than 150 years and were passed down by her grandfather, the famous Georgia moonshiner Simmie Free.

"(The recipes) came from his daddy. And they said that liquor killed his daddy, but of course he was 109 when he died," she said with a laugh.

During the Great Depression, making moonshine was a way of life in Dawsonville, said Gordon Pirkle, a seventh generation Dawson County resident with roots in the business. Though the craft started to die out in the 1970s, many of the town's older residents carry memories of moonshine from their childhood.

"They'd turn it up and make the awfulest face you've ever seen," Pirkle said, remembering his relatives sipping moonshine out by the barn. "And then they'd say ‘Man, ain't that good!' I just couldn't understand that."

Traditionally, the liquor was brewed using steel stills tucked into the woods. Runners in souped-up cars drove the bottles to Atlanta. Soon, those men became some of the first race car drivers, giving birth to the modern-day NASCAR.

"Back in the '40s, 90 percent of the people here, directly or indirectly, made their income thorough moonshine," Pirkle said.

Today, moonshine is a much-embraced part of Dawsonville's history, with the October Moonshine Festival drawing in more than 100,000 people annually.

It's something Pirkle and Wood say they're deeply proud of and something the town should embrace rather than shy away from.

But there are others who think moonshine isn't something that needs to be capitalized on.
Steve Harmon, minister to students at the First Baptist Church of Dawsonville, said he would support a moonshine museum, but doesn't think selling the brew is necessary.

"I would throw that, personally, in with gambling, where very few people can use it responsibly," he said.

Supporters of the idea say it wouldn't increase alcohol consumption but would add jobs and tourism revenue.

Wood plans to build the distillery next to the Georgia Racing Hall of Fame and offer free tours.
Under current Georgia laws, a business that makes liquor cannot sell or provide samples to the public, so the distillery would have to sell to a distributor. But Wood said some nearby states have recently changed their liquor laws, and she expects the same to happen in Georgia soon.

The first legal moonshine distillery in Tennessee, Ole Smoky Tennessee Moonshine, opened last July, and co-owner Joe Baker said the attraction has seen great attendance.

"We've had a lot of folks come by that are proud of their heritage here in Appalachia," he said. "Our families have been involved in the 'shine mountains of this area for a very long time, and people that have come and visited with us are as proud of their heritage."

Calvin Byrd, Dawsonville's mayor pro tem, said he would fully support a distillery as a much-needed "attention-getter" in Dawsonville.

"The council members and the mayor have been talking about enhancing the downtown area to help the local businesses," he said. "... I feel like if we was about to do this, this would be our draw for the downtown area."

Wood has been wanting to open a distillery for more than three years and has even traveled to Scotland to study the craft. She is currently speaking with contractors and has plans to open the business in July, with the grand opening coinciding with the Moonshine Festival in October.

She and her partners have gone back and forth on the name, but they've settled on Free Spirits Distillery - a nod to Wood's grandfather, Simmie Free, and the other moonshiners who brewed in the backwoods of the North Georgia mountains.