Is Moonshiners Real? Does the TV Show Make Real Moonshine?

The Moonshiners TV show on Discovery Channel

Moonshiners is Discovery Channel's hit docudrama series (media photo courtesy of Discovery Channel)

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Whether you happened upon this phenomenon randomly while channel surfing or you’ve been a long-time fan of Discovery Channel’s hit TV show “Moonshiners”, you may have pondered at some point: Is this real life?

The short answer is: No, it’s television. This is not reality. 

But here’s the question you should be asking: Is any of it real? 

When shows like “The Real World”, “Survivor”, “Fear Factor” and “American Idol” debuted generations ago, the concept of reality TV was groundbreaking. 

Now, with hundreds if not thousands of reality shows coming and going in the intervening years, viewers are savvier. Our expectations have changed. 

Do we still think that everyone who brings an exotic item into Rick’s pawn shop just walked in off the street? Have we ever found it odd that every time the “American Pickers” arrive at someone’s house, even on “surprise” visits, the homeowner is all mic’d up?

Do we think if the cast of the Discovery Network show “Moonshiners” had really been thumbing their nose at the revenuers for twelve seasons, somebody, somewhere wouldn’t have gotten busted? 

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Is the show Moonshiners for real?

That, my friend, is a complicated question that includes a discussion about the very nature of reality, the intertwining of myth and legend with expectation. And, of course, just how much folks want to accept a level of fakeness and believe their own bull.

We’ll start with the obvious. The very act of observing reality changes it.

This is a TV show with cameras and producers, directors and editors. In fact, it is produced by Magilla Entertainment, a production company that is also associated with other reality TV shows. In addition, many of the cast members are referred to as actors. 

Some of their other shows include “Long Island Medium”, “Jailhouse Redemption” and “Diesel Brothers”. The most humorous of which might be “King of Thrones”, where they say they are number one when it comes to number two. It’s essentially an HDTV special on toilets.

These shows have something in common. They have people doing a portrayal that is some version of themselves. Maybe it’s a fairly close version of themselves.

Tickle on “Moonshiners”, for instance, is probably not going to the opera or spending a lot of time in the library when not running shine. 

“Moonshiners” is more of a docudrama, meaning it may have some basis in reality but includes quite a few creative liberties.

jars of sugarlands moonshine
In a place like Sevier County, Tennessee, moonshine means big business (photo by Alaina O’Neal/TheSmokies.com)

How do moonshiners get away with it on TV?

Historically, what makes moonshine distillers illegal isn’t the illicit nature of the whiskey cooking. It’s untaxed sales and making it without a permit.

This is why so many moonshine distilleries openly make and sell moonshine. Moonshiners historically battle the IRS and not say, the ATF. 

So if the moonshiners on the show obtain the proper permits and pay the appropriate taxes, they can walk around in the woods making as much corn mash alcohol as they want without ever breaking a law. 

The show is centered around the Appalachian Mountains in Kentucky, South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia and Tennessee.

And so in March 2012, the Virginia ABC Bureau of Law Enforcement confirmed this. They indicated that if illegal activity was going on, they’d have made some arrests. They also stated in the Associated Press that they were not taking part in the false depiction of moonshine manufacturing.

In trying to defend themselves as true outlaws, many of the “Moonshiners” cast members have indicated that television footage isn’t evidence. They could just have water in those stills, after all.

Cast members, whose apparent legal expertise is quite impressive, also empirically state that they have to be caught in the act. 

But there’s an easier explanation that doesn’t require a law degree.

In the mountains, local law enforcement and the police don’t really care that much about moonshine investigations. As long as someone’s not being egregious and selling it to kids, law enforcement has better things to do than run the hollers chasing bootleggers.

Every once in a while, around election time, you’ll see a good gambling or moonshine bust. However, the rest of the time, the moonshiner really has to be doing something else.

In fact, the only reason Tickle was arrested was for possession of a sawed-off shotgun. 

sugarlands in gatlinburg tn exterior
Mark and Digger have been known to make appearances at Sugarlands in Gatlinburg, TN (photo by Morgan Overholt/TheSmokies.com)

How are Mark and Digger associated with Sugarlands Distillery?

According to the company’s website, the duo partnered with Sugarlands Distilling Company to craft a world-class spirit, Mark and Digger’s Rye Apple. It’s an 80-proof apple-infused moonshine.

Sugarlands, which is also the official moonshine of NASCAR, is located in downtown Gatlinburg, Tennessee in the heart of the Great Smoky Mountains.

Sugarlands will occasionally offer meet and greets with the cast of “Moonshiners”.

Read Also: Best Moonshine Tasting in Gatlinburg, Our Top 6 Distilleries [2022]

Does Tim Smith own Climax Moonshine?

Mark and Digger aren’t the only ones dabbling in legal distilleries. Climax is part of Tim Smith Spirits, a distillery in Culpeper, Virginia.

According to the about page, he is a third-generation moonshiner.

How much does Discovery Channel pay the cast of Moonshiners?

Reportedly, the cast is paid about $30,000 per episode per multiple sources across the internet. I didn’t find a direct source on this, though. So is that accurate? I’m not sure.

The amount that a TV star makes per episode, I’ve heard, can range from roughly $10,000 to $100,000 or more.

But I’d be willing to guess that the number is likely a sliding scale that depends on their screen time.

But rest assured, they are likely being paid well.

Moonshine culture in Appalachia

I want to note that there’s one last layer to the reality that we have to address. It’s the history of moonshine, aka white lightning, and the influence of the culture upon itself.

They say a lot of mobsters adjusted the way they talked, acted and conducted themselves in the wake of the Godfather movies.

Are these moonshiners really portraying the truest versions of themselves or are they acting how they have been taught a moonshiner acts? 

In the first season, “Moonshiners” relied heavily on footage from the documentary “Last Dam Run of Likker I’ll Ever Make” with (Marvin) Popcorn Sutton. Sutton was not around for filming of “Moonshiners” though.

Popcorn Sutton
The legendary moonshiner Popcorn Sutton (photo courtesy of Sucker Punch Pictures)

Who is the most famous moonshiner ever?

Popcorn Sutton is a world-famous moonshiner. He was a shrewd man who was a natural-born marketer.

He was of the mountains, of course, but I think he found behaving a certain way increased his notoriety and his marketability.

How much of what Sutton showed the world was authentic Marvin and how much was a created character? By the end, I’m not sure Sutton himself even knew. 

Read Also: Popcorn Sutton and His Moonshine: 6 Surprising Facts (With Pictures)

Sutton’s legacy looms large over the moonshine community.

How much are others influenced by the way he talked, the way he carried himself or the way he operated? How many are trying to be authentic by imitating, even subconsciously the Godfather of the moonshine community?

Ultimately, that’s a secret that producers don’t want us to know. I suspect most moonshiners would tell you they present their authentic selves to the world. But ego and id are strange, capricious things. 

Is this real life? 

Maybe none of us really know. 

Have you seen the show “Moonshiners” on Discovery Channel? Are you a fan? Let us know in the comments below.

Disclaimer: While we do our best to bring you the most up-to-date information, attractions or prices mentioned in this article may vary by season and are subject to change. Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any mentioned business, and have not been reviewed or endorsed these entities. Contact us at [email protected] for questions or comments.

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24 thoughts on “Is Moonshiners Real? Does the TV Show Make Real Moonshine?”

  1. I love the moonshiners show. Real or not. The people are awesome. I can see that could be done for real. But if it is illegal these guys would be arrested. Keep running the show. It is really interesting.

  2. My father was in the making of spirits and I like the show but some things are not possible that these guys proclaim in their operation

  3. It’s a cool show, needs some women in it ya hurd me ? Maybe some car chases

  4. It’s like wrestling, I know it’s all fake but the characters are hilarious…love it!

  5. In one show Mark and Digger had Daniel make a Ram Pump. Pumped water uphill, must have been a heck of a pump. Showed 2 pictures of the pump, outlet valve was closed both times.

  6. I know this show is as fake as it get’s. It’s about being entertained. I love the show & watch it every week.

  7. With the correct permits Discovery company can make as much liquor as they want as long as they pay revenue taxes. The cast are just employees making the spirits no matter if it’s in the woods or out back in the barn. So yes it’s real in as far as they are a legal distillery but the cast are not making it illegal. Tim Smith (Climax Distillery) and Sugarland Distillery are business partners with DISCOVERY. Love the show.

  8. I feel as though I’m right there. Even better when they show old pictures…. I will definitely keep watching. Thank you all. 🏆

  9. I love the show as well. Master Distillers, too, although this one is in total support of their commercial arm, which is taking over &, I believe, compromising the show’s integrity. Pipe it down, boys. Remember the truth of Lance’s father puking at first taste of a shine they made? Brutal honesty. Now, every single concoction anyone comes up with is “the absolute BEST thing they’ve ever made.” Then it appears in the store. Give us a break! Of all the people to go corporate! Tim Smith is my least favorite because of his arrogance. Digger seems tired. Take care, good man. Mark Ramsey looks like another of my favorites, James Spader [in “Blacklist”]. All good wishes to Jerry– give your rehab its due time & course. Commit to it. Won’t have to be forever if you do it right at this time. Mike became likeable because of his love for you. Surprised even himself, & impressed me. I’m surrounding you in white lights, Jerry.

    Other than that…….. THIS IS MY FAVORITE SHOW, hands down & bottoms up!

  10. Who cares whether it’s real life or just fantasy it’s great entertainment and there is a wealth of knowledge if you watch a lot of people and watch the show and learn a lot where I’m from Dart very many of the old Moonshiners left the newer generation has begun to leave it smart but nothing like the older folks and it’s not about sales it’s about friendships bonfires and Backwoods fun so keep the episodes are coming you ever want to meet some decent Moonshiners there’s a whole lot of Us in holler heaven West Virginia

  11. Fantastic show, I look forward to watching it every week. These people are carrying on a Family Tradition that hopefully will never be lost.

  12. Been watching the show from day one when Tickle fell off the roof and busted ribs. Tim found out the extreme cost of going legal. People are right though as long as taxes are being paid they’ll pretty much be left alone. Only thing I wonder is in the woods the health dept can’t be down their throat to keep the product clean and safe but then again they use new jars and it’s being boiled to make sterile. I live in Ky and one day I’m going to get south or east to meet some these guys and find out what’s real and what’s not. I’m sure a lot is staged but regardless these guys are mountain guys. Don’t care a lot for time he tries to talk and be more professional than he is. Master Distiller I think their running out of ideas these days.

  13. Really enjoy the shows. I like the guys brewing, the scenery and the antics. Please keep it going, It’s great to watch!

  14. When Jim Tom thought he could sing and went to a studio to record, now THAT was reality. All the rest, like Mark and Digger cooking off a test batch in a small town building? Not-so-much. I do enjoy the technical discussions about mashing-in and new ways to fast-age.

    But the big question. Could someone do this at home for personal use without getting caught or voiding their home insurance?!?

  15. All I know is this. Several years ago, my wife and I were returning to NY from vacation in Richmond, Va. I don’t remember how I discovered it, but I learned that Tim’s Distillery wasn’t too far out of the way (or so I thought) while heading toward Culpeper. We went “over the river and through the woods” on a cold, rainy day, and when we finally reached the distillery, I thought, “I’m so far off the main road that glad I’m packing … ” Naturally, it was a great place, the store clerk was really nice; I bought a case of “shine” and made a clean getaway. Turned out to be a great experience, and I’d recommend the side-trip just for the fun of it. (I can buy the same stuff down the block at the liquor store here in NY.)

  16. The State of Oregon runs the liquor stores in this state so it is sometimes hard to find unique products.

  17. Great show, been watching since day one. Love the characters, especially Josh, that pour [guy] gets himself in more doo doo than anyone I know and keeps on going, but I myself am not a fan of Tim and Howard trying to recreate shine from the past (boring to me) put Tim back in the woods….looking forward to next episodes

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