WJTV News Channel 12 - Moonshine – From forbidden to for sale, few can make it legally

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Moonshine – From forbidden to for sale, few can make it legally

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Tiny Roberson - whose real first name is Neil -  is the "master distiller" at East Tennessee Distillery in Piney Flats, Tennessee. Tiny Roberson - whose real first name is Neil - is the "master distiller" at East Tennessee Distillery in Piney Flats, Tennessee.
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JOHNSON CITY, TN (WJHL) - Tiny Roberson doesn't try to pretend.

"Anybody can make alcohol.   It's not hard," he said, bottle of moonshine in his massive hands.  "But only a few people can make it legally, and not all of that is fit to drink."

Roberson - whose real first name is Neil -  is the "master distiller" at East Tennessee Distillery in Piney Flats, Tennessee.   He and two business partners oversee the production, sales and marketing of moonshine in what once was headquarters for a locally owned lumber company.  The company's old garage is now a processing center where Tiny makes and bottles moonshine - a.k.a. distilled alcohol - in various flavors and levels of proof.  

"Over the years, people figured out how to make it and make it good," said Byron Reece, business partner and marketing manager.   "I'm really proud to be carrying on that tradition."

East Tennessee Distillery is one of 13 licensed distilleries in Tennessee.  About half of the legal alcohol makers are in East Tennessee, and 8 more applications are on file with the Tennessee Alcohol Beverage Commission, that agency which oversees regulation and enforcement of state alcohol rules.

Reece and his friends took note when, in 2009, Tennessee law changed allowing for more distilleries to get permits.   Prior to 2009, Tennessee had only four legal distilleries, all in Middle Tennessee.  Now, 40 of Tennessee's 95 counties are eligible for legal alcohol distillation.

"I've got a way of saying it," said Reece.  "We partner with the government.    We do pay taxes on our alcohol, and for that we're deemed legal."

While only a few people could legally make alcohol in Tennessee before 2009, plenty made it illegally, and some still do today.   In backyard sheds, in hollows cloaked by mountains, and in secret locations protected for generations, one of the most infamous "cottage industries" lives on.   And while illicit, it's even celebrated as the Appalachian stereotype played out in TV shows and viral videos about legendary bootleggers like Popcorn Sutton.

So-called "revenuers" intent on arresting illegal alcohol makers have been replaced by state and local law enforcement intent on enforcing the law.

"It is illegal to possess even for personal use," said Terry Hill, Special Agent in Charge for the Knoxville District of the Tennessee ABC.   "Anything below 5 gallons is a misdemeanor.  If you're caught with more than 5 gallons of illegal alcohol, you can be charged with a felony."

Hill said the law goes even further.     

"It is against the law to possess a moonshine still or the parts thereof with the intent to manufacture intoxicating liquors," he said.

To be considered legal in Tennessee, licensed distillers must keep up with loads of paperwork and must pay $17.90 in combine state and federal tax on every one gallon of 100 proof alcohol.

The increased popularity of moonshine helped Tennessee collect $39,137,982.60 in wholesale tax on distilled alcohol in 2013.

That popularity is, in part, due to masterful marketing.    "The successful ones seem to understand the moonshine customer," said Phil Scharfstein, owner of One Stop Wine and Liquor in Johnson City.  There, the "shine"  section is the first things customers encounter when they walk through the front door."People want it to look like they got it from a friend, in a jar with a simple country label."   

And that explains a lot about Tiny.   Towering above everyone else in the room, his hair and beard reach down to his expansive chest.   Overalls and flip-flops with socks complete the look.   In the retail area of the operation, T-shirts and even a life-sized cutout of Roberson make one thing very clear: the Master Distiller is a walking mascot for a business that's booming.

"People love our stuff," Tiny said.

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