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UNION SPRINGS, Alabama — Alabama’s first legal distillery since Prohibition has opened in a county famous for producing illegal whiskey.
High Ridge Spirits operates in a former horse barn. Its shiny metal tanks and spotless concrete floor look like any food processing facility. The relaxed pace of its employees indicate there are no worries about a raid by state liquor agents.
“It’s a little different from the way they do it in the woods,” founder and head distiller Jamie Ray said.
Alabama had distilleries before Prohibition in 1920. But it had not welcomed them since then until the Legislature began rewriting liquor laws more than a decade ago, allowing brew pubs first and then other liquor production, higher-alcohol beers and larger beer containers.
Bill Owens, president of the American Distilling Institute, said High Ridge Spirits is among 602 craft distillers in the country, and the number is growing about 30 percent annually. He said the development of craft distilleries is similar to the rapid growth that began years earlier with craft breweries.
Ray, 49, got into the distillery business after 22 years as a brewer, including working at brew pubs in Montgomery and Auburn and helping start a brewery in Gadsden.
“The best distillers come from a brewing background because the beer mash can make beer or whiskey,” Owens said.
Ray said people’s desire to try beers beyond the major brands now extends to liquor, which is why craft distilleries are booming. He chose to locate his business in rural Bullock County because he and his wife already had a small horse farm there and because the location gave him a promotional tool. The sparsely populated, rural county has been famous for decades for producing moonshine from illegal stills hidden in its rolling, wooded hills.
“It’s still here,” Ray said. He pointed to news stories about several stills that were found in surrounding area last winter.
A creek behind his distillery holds the remnants of a still raided many years ago, including two rusted 55-gallon barrels with ax holes in their sides.
Building on that history, Ray is making moonshine from rye and sugar. He calls his product Stills Crossroads Alabama ‘Shine for the unincorporated community where his business is located, 15 miles southwest of the county seat of Union Springs.
“It’s got a really clean flavor with a sweetness up front and a peppery finish. That’s the signature of the malted rye I use,” he said.
Ray chose to make moonshine not only because of the county’s history, but because it offers a quicker return on the more than $100,000 that he and his partners invested in the distillery. It takes one to two weeks from starting the process until the product is in the bottle, he said.
He delivered the first 37 cases to the state liquor agency Oct. 21. The product will be available initially in state liquor stores in areas around Montgomery and Union Springs, but the plans are to expand it to other parts of the state as Ray’s production increases.
High Ridge Spirits won’t be Alabama’s only distillery for long.
Mad County Winery in Madison received a distillery license in July and has made practice batches of moonshine and rum. Cotton Williams, who operates the business with his wife Melinda, said he doesn’t know when their product will be available for sale because they are waiting on federal approval of labels for their brands. “We are completely at the mercy of somebody we don’t see or know,” he said.
Williams said he doesn’t expect a flood of distilleries in Alabama because he said they involve as much hard work as wineries. “The only reason I got in it is a massive case of ignorance, but I’m glad I was that ignorant,” he said.