Every year since 2011, the Discovery Channel has aired a complete season of “Moonshiners.” After watching every season that airs, new viewers rush to their search engines to check whether making moonshine at home, or in the wild, is legal, and come back confused, wondering how a television network can air 12 seasons of a show that depicts people doing an illegal activity without facing legal repercussions. Veteran viewers have no answers for the newbies; they are also unsure whether the moonshine makers in the series are committing crimes but continue to watch as the moonshiners set up their distilleries, mostly across the Appalachian Mountains. The confusion over the legality of the production of moonshine is confounded by a series of arrests of some of the distillers whose activities are highlighted in the docudrama. However, to be arrested you have to be caught in the act of illegal/unlicenced production or selling. Here are some of the moonshiners who have been arrested over the years, and the activities that landed them in trouble with the authorities.
Mark Ramsay and Digger Manes
Mark and Digger are business partners who serve best friend goals in the show. They work together and have even teamed up to serve the occasional cold dish of payback when a fellow moonshiner destroyed their operation in season 11. The two are natives of the Appalachian Trail, along which the show is filmed, and have taken on an informal role of defending their culture and tradition of brewing traditional moonshine while some of the other contestants will do anything, including disrespecting traditions, to eliminate competition. Although Mark and Digger are often targeted by their competitors in the show, and have weathered some attempts to sabotage their process and end product, the duo is exceptionally talented in making moonshine. In fact, Mark and Digger are business partners in a licensed moonshine operation, where they manufacture and distribute a brand of moonshine called “Sugarlands Shine.”
In 2017, Mark admitted to knowing that what he and Digger do in the show is against the law. Their involvement in an illegal and unlicensed production of moonshine for the show while they run a legitimate and licensed business producing the same product has viewers perplexed and wondering why the duo would invite problems with the law. However, Mark shared some tips for evading arrest, such as filming in a season when trees and vegetation are thriving and covered in leaves to conceal their operations. Despite such attempts to hide their operations from the authorities, the duo has had several run-ins with the law. They were once arrested after moving their operations to a warehouse during winter. Currently, they are aware that they are under surveillance, and could be arrested at any moment.
Johnny Wayne Griffis
Mark and Digger’s run-ins with the law are in the past but Johny is currently in legal trouble. Griffis appeared in a “Moonshiners” spin-off dubbed “Master Distillers,” which premiered in 2020. In the show, he went head-to-head with other distillers for an opportunity to win a bottling deal with Sugarlands Distilling Company. In September 2022, two years after the season aired, Griffis was arrested for running an illegal moonshine distillery, and being in possession of prohibited substances. At the time of his arrest, agents of the Alabama Maw Enforcement Agency found the distillery running and gallons of different types of moonshine on the premises. After his arrest, Griffis was presented in court and set free after paying a bond of $3000. His case is currently underway and he’s facing a prison term of up to five years if found guilty.
48-year-old Johnny Wayne Griffis is facing alcohol charges after discussing he was evading law enforcement during the moonshine distillation process on his new television series “Alabama Shine."https://t.co/W2hrQgkPnd
— WEAR ABC 3 (@weartv) September 13, 2022
Marvin “Popcorn” Sutton
“Moonshiners” leaves fans and viewers conflicted over whether to consider the skilled moonshiners in the show legends for their expertise in turning a few ingredients into traditional whiskey, or criminals for engaging in illegal activities. One of the participants who blurred the thin line between legend and possible criminal and left fans in tears over his tragic end is Marvin, who was commonly known as Popcorn to his friends, the judges, fellow producers and viewers. Popcorn was one of the moonshiners whose craft was highlighted in the show’s first season. He came from a family of Scottish-Irish Americans who took pride in their crafts, including making moonshine. Naturally, he became an expert, making him the perfect candidate for “Moonshiners.”
Popcorn’s troubles with the law started long before his short stint in the show. He spent the ‘70s and ‘80s in and out of police cells, and went to prison once for being in possession of moonshine, a controlled substance. After completing his sentence, Popcorn learned how to evade the authorities by operating from a small junk shop. The law caught up with him again when someone called in an anonymous tip. He escaped prison narrowly when a judge issued a suspended license, but was placed under probation. Popcorn swore never to make or drink moonshine again.
Most people would lay low to avoid going back to prison, but Popcorn decided to chase fame by writing a book and being featured in a documentary about Appalachian culture. Popcorn’s fame clearly got to him and presumably made him feel invincible, because he forgot his vow and started making moonshine again. It was during this period that Popcorn agreed to take part in the premier season of “Moonshiners.”
His second mistake was bragging to an undercover officer that he’d made plenty of moonshine, and was looking to offload it soon. The undercover officer organized a raid, which uncovered close to 1000 gallons of the controlled drink, and had Popcorn’s freedom cut short when he was instructed to present himself to a federal prison to serve a sentence of 18 months. At 62, Popcorn couldn’t bear the thought of going to prison so he go,t in his car and committed suicide through carbon monoxide poisoning. The producers of “Moonshiners” used footage from a documentary he’d shot a few years earlier for the parts of the seasons that were filmed after he passed away. Popcorn’s widow blames the federal government for his death.
Steven Ray Tickle
Steven is one of the most memorable moonshiners in the show; at least the producers believed so when they gave him a spin-off entitled “Tickle” in 2013. In his role in both “Moonshiners” and the spin-off, Tickle demonstrated extensive knowledge and expertise in the distillation of moonshine from grain. Like most of the participants, he understood that the show, and his participation in it, is illegal and explained that they evaded arrest by constantly changing the location of their distilleries, and avoiding filming in areas that have identifiable features. Besides, the footage is edited and inadmissible in court, and the authorities would need their own footage to prosecute anyone from “Moonshine,” which is difficult since the woods around the Appalachian Mountains are expansive and difficult to traverse.
Ticke has managed to escape arrest for producing moonshine in the show, but isn’t as lucky in his personal life. In March 2013, the police were called to a convenience store after an inebriated man was spotted drinking in public. The man turned out to be Ticke, who was arrested in Danville, Virginia, for public intoxication. The then 35-year-old was released on the same day. Two years later, Tickle was arrested again, this time for being in possession of a shotgun; at the time of his arrest, he was driving when his driver’s license had been suspended. After explaining that the gun belonged to a friend of his, he narrowly escaped incarceration again, but wasn’t as lucky to walk scot-free, being handed a suspended sentence of three years. Months later, he violated the terms of his release and was sent to prison for five months. He was released in 2017.
After his release, Tickle made the same pledge that Popcorn had made. He vowed to leave the moonshine business and forge a new direction in his life. However, his resolve was short-lived, since Tickle went back to making moonshine on television, and has remained a regular in “Moonshiners” spin-offs, including “Master Distiller,” “American Spirit,” and “Smoke Ring.”
Josh adds to the long list of “Moonshiners” cast members who have found themselves on the wrong side of the law. His crime? Setting up his distillers in a building without the owner’s authorization. In season 10 of the show, Josh was looking for a new location for his distiller, and his friend Chris offered his building to Josh, who accepted eagerly and moved his operations there, not knowing that Chris didn’t actually own the building. When the owner found out about the unlicensed moonshine distillery in his building, he called the cops on Josh, whose absence for most of the season led viewers to believe that their favorite moonshiner had been arrested. After his return to the show, Josh moved his operations to the Appalachian wilderness to avoid another run-in with the authorities.
Josh’s troubles did not stop with the disbandment of his operations – he has set fire to his property more than once. Once he was studying new ways of making moonshine, and discovered a way by using maple syrup. He tried out the new procedure in his house, hoping to create a superior whiskey, but ended up starting a fire that burned his house down. He’d started a similar fire years earlier, burning down his trailer and everything in it. Just as he was recovering from losing his house and belongings, Josh came close to losing his life, but this time sustaining near-fatal injuries in a motorcycle race in early 2023. He still hoped to make a full recovery in time to film the new season of “Moonshiners.”
In June 2023, the producer of “Moonshiners” and its spin-offs was hopeful that the show will be renewed for 13th a season. It will be interesting to see the creative ways that the moonshine distillers will use to evade arrest, even if most can’t seem to escape run-ins with the law in their private lives.