THREE RIVERS AREA — When Tami Edgin took a job as Ed Ward’s assistant, she really had no clue what was to come, because the 83-year-old businessman was full of surprises.
What seemed like a normal workday turned into an adventure for Edgin, Ward and everyone involved in his new project.
“He turned to me and said, ‘We’re going to start a new business, and I want you to be my partner,’” Edgin said, and then she asked Ward what they were going to do. “He said, ‘We’re going to start a moonshine business.’ I laughed, but then he told me he was serious.”
Edgin got right on the project and worked to help Ward obtain the first and only license to legally manufacture moonshine in Arkansas, and Ward bought a building in Newport and set up a still.
Soon after the moonshine hit liquor-store shelves in November, Ward suddenly died, and the fate of Arkansas Moonshine is now unknown, Edgin said.
“We may be taken over by a new owner, and we hope the product stays the same,” Edgin said.
In an interview before his death, Ward said he decided on moonshine because bourbon and vodka are everywhere, and moonshine is one of those novelties that people associate with backwoods illegal stills.
“Once you make moonshine, all you have to do to call it bourbon is put it in a jar and put it out in the sunlight,” Ward said with a chuckle as he explained that the only difference in the two is the aging process. “Moonshine is clear as water when it comes out of the still. Aging it in oak barrels gives it coloring, and straight bourbon is aged.”
Down the back roads of the Ozarks, illegal moonshine stills continue to operate, and some old moonshiners continue to look over their shoulders for revenuers to show up. Ward’s crew legally brews up an old recipe at the “shinery” in Newport.
Arkansas Moonshine sells on liquor-store shelves instead of at some clandestine meeting place.
“Sales are great!” said Tim Williford, general manager of George’s Liquor Store in Newport. “[Arkansas Moonshine] has generated a lot of interest.”
During the Depression, making moonshine was a necessity for many farm families.
“In my times, it was a means of survival,” Ward said. “Us eight kids lived in a lil’ old one-bedroom house. Dad had a [moonshine] still by a spring.”
Ward said he vividly remembered the day his dad’s side business was discovered by the law.
“I heard [Sharp County Sheriff] Adam Hulett chopping it up with an ax, and he burned Dad’s still,” Ward recalled. “[Dad] hid in our old barn that was full of loose hay.”
Ward’s father, Owen Ward, hid until dark so he could escape without being detected.
“Mother fixed him a knapsack full of vittles, and he walked to Swifton — I don’t know how he crossed the Black River,” Ward said.
Ward brought the moonshine out of the hills and into society with his Arkansas Moonshine.
“I think the stigma that goes behind moonshine makes people interested,” Williford said. “People I’ve never seen before are coming in and buying it; it’s a novelty. I’ve had calls from all over the United States who want me to ship it, but of course, it’s illegal [to ship liquor across state lines].”
“I tell people all the time that anyone can make moonshine, but it takes an artist to make good moonshine,” Edgin said.
Using an old recipe, old-time moonshiner Larry Bishop runs Ward’s distillery in Newport and calls upon the skills he learned in an Arkansas cave more than 40 years ago from what he calls one of the best old moonshiners.
Bishop recalled the first batch of shine he made in his wife’s kitchen.
“She wasn’t happy,” he said as he checked the proof of a batch of moonshine fresh from the legal still.
“It’s good medicine,” Bishop said. “I remember grandpa was chopping wood and cut his leg real bad. They poured moonshine on it and put a bandage over it.”
Many consumers swear by the medicinal benefits of moonshine. Bishop said he believes that a swig a day improves his health, despite its legality.
Ward said, “If you’ve got a dream, stay with it, and the bigger you dream, the better chance of making it.”
Edgin added, “Being the first [legal moonshine distillery] is really neat because you learn with everybody else. It’s almost scary.”
For more information on Arkansas Moonshine, visit www.arkansasmoonshine.com.