Because he is undoubtedly an artist — and because he also, from time to time, makes Civil War-grade artillery pieces — we'll just say that The Colonel is a character.
For example: On the website where he sells a rather amazing array of all-copper moonshine stills — coppermoonshinestills.com — The Colonel has details on how to get diplomatic immunity, and documents he's filed in his ongoing lawsuit in Alma municipal court accusing the city of dry land piracy for giving him a traffic ticket. He insisted that I refer to him in print only as The Colonel; not because he's afraid the government might find out who he is, but because he's worried that some of the old folks in his church might read our story and give him hell for building stills. When I countered that his photograph, name, phone number, address and even maps to his house in Mulberry are posted on his website — along with high-resolution photographs of stills he has made and sold, ranging from 1 1/2 to 220 gallons (including the one he built for the film version of “The Dukes of Hazzard”) — The Colonel explained that those old timers in his church read the newspaper, but never look at the Internet.
But, all that aside, as I said, the whiskey stills The Colonel builds are undoubtedly art. For a gadget geek like me, there is a loveliness to The Colonel's creations that is not unlike the loveliness of a tumbler of good whiskey. Forgoing the stainless steel that most modern still makers use, The Colonel favors more traditional — and more finicky — copper construction. As a result, his stills glow with what seems to be an inner, amber light, all hand-wrought and hammer-seamed, burnished and polished to within an inch of their lives.
Before we go any further, however, let me note the elephant in the room: There is appreciating the craftmanship, then there is making whiskey. Before you buy one of The Colonel's stills and do a damn fool thing like actually using it, please read the sidebar (far right) on the legal perils of becoming a moonshiner.
The Colonel got his start as a still maker six or seven years ago. He can't quite recall exactly what year. Back then, he was working rebuilding electrical power distribution transformers.
“I learned to work copper,” The Colonel said. “The copper wire was really sheets that are about 36 inches wide because it carried so much amperage. I'd learned to shoe horses, so I could run a forge. All that stuff kind of came together.”
Out of the blue, his boss came to him and asked The Colonel to build an ornamental copper flowerpot for his wife. Later, when the boss decided he didn't want it, “I finished it up as a still and I sold it on eBay,” he said. “I made a little money off of it, so what the hell, I built another one. One thing led to another and I quit work over there, and I do this full time now.”
Though he started out trying to “fly underneath the radar” about building stills, attempting to dodge the Feds by saying his creations were solely for artwork and display, the threatening letters from the Treasury Department kept coming anyway, so he decided to practice his craft in the open. These days, you can't get much more open than his website, which features whiskey recipes, music about white lightnin' and photos of stills with the capacity to go far beyond the needs of a home distiller. While The Colonel said he didn't want to seem like he was trying to rub the government's nose in it, he reasons that if Arkansas or the Feds wanted to get him, they would have gotten him already.
Though it took him two weeks to finish a still at first, now he can knock out three a week. When we spoke, he was months behind on his orders, with around 75 stills already sold and waiting to be built. So much for the recession.
In the end, however, the question has got to be: Why would anyone risk all the legal hang-ups to make his own whiskey when a legal bottle of booze can be found reasonably cheap on nearly every block?
“The main benefit I see is the flavor and the safety of the thing,” The Colonel said. “If you find somebody that makes good whiskey and distilled products stuff, it's so smooth. You see them shows on Westerns where the cowboy comes in and takes a shot and make a big ol' ugly face and stomps the floor? That's not a well-made whiskey.”