Since before the Civil War, the people of Cannon County had a reputation for offering spirits distilled from extra corn grown on their farms. When Prohibition made such enterprises illegal, the moonshiners kept on working.
It’s said that Al Capone supplied his speakeasies with ‘shine produced by Cooper Melton at the Short Mountain spring. Cannon County’s unofficial industry gained further notoriety when Uncle Dave Macon sang of it from the stage of the Grand Ole Opry.
In March 2012, though, the industry found itself back on the right side of the law when Short Mountain Distillery began production as the state’s sixth licensed distillery, offering authentic 105 proof Tennessee moonshine.
The Kaufman brothers, Billy, Ben and David, own the distillery operating at the farm. Josh Smotherman is the head of production, using a large 250-gallon copper still and modern production methods. But the recipe he’s using has been crafted and perfected over generations by three of Cannon County’s premier moonshiners.
Billy Kaufman said, “When we opened, we already had 150 years of distilling experience thanks to these three guys.”
Ricky Estes, Jimmy Simpson and Ronald Lawson all traded in the thrill of illegal wildcatting to work with Short Mountain Distillery. Ricky and Jimmy have been making ‘shine since they were both 8 or 9 years old, learning the trade from their fathers, uncles and grandfathers.
Ricky Estes was born and raised only three miles from Short Mountain, and his father, Will Estes, taught him and his brothers the business.
“Daddy made moonshine with us four boys,” Ricky said. “We’d team up and work together all day long, just like a job, sawing wood to feed the still. It was a way to make a living.”
When his dad gave up the business, Ricky and his brothers carried on, and he says he made moonshine most of his life, with batches made the last 15 years just because he wanted to. Most of that he gave away, he said.
Ronald said he started a bit later in life, when he was 16 years old. When you’re in the illegal liquor business, he said there was a little rush, and you were in charge of every aspect of the business, from securing materials to production and bottling and on to distribution and collecting the money.
He had a few brushes with the law, escaping arrest several times during his life.
“It’s a dying art,” Ronald said, noting many people of his generation didn’t follow the family business into moonshine. Instead, some went into another illegal venture, growing marijuana, and only a few carried on the old recipes learned from previous generations.
And while the thrill of an illegal enterprise is gone, that’s OK for these three former moonshiners, who work on new concoctions for Short Mountain Distillery.
“Your nerves are not so high and you sleep a little better at night,” Jimmy said.
Ricky had kept his sons out of the moonshine business while they were growing up. Now that it can be done legally, he’s looking forward to passing the craft on to the boys.
Billy Kaufman said, “It’s really something worth preserving.”
The distillery is a way to save a piece of the area’s heritage.
“They might be lost in another 10 to 20 years, and no one knows how to do these things again,” he said.
But the road to legal moonshine in Cannon County, a dry county even today, wasn’t easy. The Kaufman brothers, whose family brought industry to Middle Tennessee with the location of a Samsonite facility producing folding chairs and card tables.
Billy returned to his Tennessee roots from California in 2001, operating the first organic farm in Cannon County. He follows stringent controls for erosion protection, water conservation and fencing on Little Short Mountain Farm, about 300 acres of land Billy wanted to not only protect but use as an economic engine for the community.
He saw the possibility of starting a legal moonshine distillery when the Tennessee General Assembly approved allowing distilleries in dry counties throughout the state. The next hurdle was getting a referendum approved by the voters of Cannon County. Previous referendums for package liquor sales had failed miserably in the county, so the Kaufman brothers attacked from another side, selling voters on the idea of an agricultural enterprise that would also offer the opportunity to become a tourist attraction and bring visitors to the rural area.
Every precinct in the county voted in favor of allowing distilleries.
It’s a homegrown project from start to finish. The corn used to make the corn liquor is grown right there on Little Short Mountain Farm, and the water is from the spring on the property. Kaufman also tries to buy as much of his supplies and materials locally to support his neighbors and keep money in the community.
The distillery can make about 500 bottles of moonshine a week, and bottles can be purchased at the distillery store, after being sold to a distributor and bought back.
Tours walk visitors through the process and offer free tastings with proper ID. Families also enjoy visiting the farm for picnics and talking with Ricky, Jimmy and Ronald, who regale visitors with stories of their wildcatting days. Just ask and they’ll be happy to sign a bottle of their moonshine, too.
Currently, two varieties of moonshine are producted, Short Mountain Shine and Apple Pie, a pre-mixed cocktail that launched last weekend with a celebration.
The distillery is currently offering winter hours, with the store open Thursday, Friday and Saturday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tours are available to scheduled charter buses until March 20, 2013. Regular summer hours are 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, with free tastings, and free tours offered Friday and Saturday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.
To learn more about Short Mountain Distillery, visit www.shortmountaindistillery.com.
Located on Hwy. 146 in Cannon County
From Crossville, take Hwy. 70 W. to Smithville and turn left onto Hwy. 146. Short Mountain Distillery is on the left about 10 miles down the road. The trip takes about one hour and 15 minutes.