Distillery draws upon tumultuous history of bootlegging moonshine

Seth Schwartz
Special to Southern Kitchen

The history of Dawson Distillery is rooted in the foothills outside Leighton, Alabama, where spring water has long flowed. That water, which flows through and is filtered by limestone just like Kentucky bourbon is, becomes Dawson’s moonshine. Moonshine in modern times mostly means unaged corn whiskey. 

“There was always a still in LaGrange Mountain; it’s a prime spot,” said Billy Ray Dawson, a moonshiner who made the distillery a licensed operation in 2017. “The limestone aquifer water comes out of the springs under the bluffs. We have the best tasting water in north Alabama.”

Even though Dawson’s is now among a handful of the state’s legal distilleries, its origins stretch back through a more tumultuous history of bootlegging and bank robbery. 

Today, Dawson and his wife, Joanna Dawson, operate Dawson Distillery off Highway 157 halfway up the 800-foot LaGrange. The cozy, rustic operation also makes aged whiskey.

Bootlegging roots

Billy Ray Dawson and dog Sadie stand inside the barrel barn where alcohol is aged at Dawson Distillery in Leighton, Alabama, on Oct. 14, 2022.

Billy Ray Dawson has kin among both the Dawson and Campbell families, who were among the 19th-century pioneers to northwest Alabama who sought new opportunities in communities such as Florence and Muscle Shoals. 

The Campbells began making moonshine before the Civil War. The family, who had Irish and Cherokee roots, enlisted with the north while the Dawsons fought for the Confederacy.

After the war, Red John Campbell, Billy Ray Dawson’s grandfather, took over the moonshine business.

The Dawson family lived in the next holler over and began expanding the bootlegging operation from the 1940s-70s with a network of people in neighboring states who hid stills in their barns.

“The still held 600 gallons and was always buried in the ground. We used a 50-gallon diesel drum to heat it,” Billy Ray Dawson said. “You’d cover it with leaves and a brush pile. With the woods and forest, it was very hard for the Feds to find.”

The original copper still found at the spring head at Dawson Distillery in Leighton, Alabama, on Oct. 14, 2022.

The illegal moonshine developed a devoted customer base. Locals would pay up to $8 per gallon, but the bootleggers could get up to $25 in Chicago. They’d make 200 gallons monthly in the summer. In the winter, it was roughly 100 gallons.

"They’d drive a stolen truck with a Cadillac or Ford motor in it to Gary, Indiana, with 200-400 gallons,” Billy Ray Dawson said. “It would take a day to get there. If the police came, they’d run off and leave the truck.”

Over the years, Billy Ray Dawson’s father Pride Dawson racked up 68 charges for bootlegging. He got him off every time except once when he ended up doing a year and one day in prison in the early 1960s.

Joining the family business

Meanwhile, Billy Ray Dawson grew up on a farm with seven siblings at the base of LaGrange Mountain. He would walk with his mother a quarter mile before sunrise to get creek water for cooking and cleaning. His baptism in moonshine came at age 10, and he dropped out of school in the eighth grade, joining the family business in short order.

“I picked everything up quickly. It’s the little things it takes to make a great product,” he said. “You had to have top quality, and you had to have it on time.”

Billy Ray Dawson shuffles cards at Dawson Distillery in Leighton, Alabama, on Oct. 14, 2022.

By age 12, he began making deliveries within a 25-mile radius himself.

“I put a pillow under my butt, and that gave me just enough to see over the dashboard,” he said. “I never got caught. A few times the sheriff escorted me to the destination.”  

His dad and uncles bootlegged until 1984. By age 15, Billy Ray Dawson quit working at the still and robbed his first bank with a friend. At 20, he was sentenced to nine years in prison. When he got out, another robbery added another nine years. He got out again in 1994, and met his furture wife, Joanna, in the spring of 1997 while he was still on parole. The two married three years later.

A legal distillery

In 2016, Dawson made five gallons of moonshine to share, which was met by praise. That prompted the couple to try to make the family business at long last a legal one. 

Now, the distillery sits on a portion of 66 acres Dawson bought in 2009. He built a road through a wooded area himself, put in the plumbing and electricity, prepped the ground and assisted with construction of the 2,400 square foot building, along with Joanna Dawson’s brother, Buzz Michael. There’s also a tasting room with space for 30 people. 

Billy Ray and Joanna Dawson stand at the bar with dog Sadie at Dawson Distillery in Leighton, Alabama, on Oct. 14, 2022.

In 2020, Billy Ray Dawson cut down trees from LaGrange Mountain, had the wood milled and added a 2,400 square foot barnthat serves as an aging space for 60 Kentucky white oak barrels.

“We’ve been busy since day one,” Joanna Dawson said. “I think the Dawson name got peoples’ attention.”

The Dawsons’ innate warmth is palpable as patrons become friends. Billy Ray Dawson is also getting acquainted with extended family.

“My mom was one of 12 kids and my dad’s family had 16,” he said. “At least once a week I have people coming in telling me, ‘Hey, I am your cousin.’” 

Since the Dawsons have expanded their portfolio, their two-year-aged corn and rye whiskeys now account for almost 70% of sales. Their spirits are sold in Mississippi, Kentucky and Florida along with New Hampshire and Hawaii.

The bar, retail shop and lounge area at Dawson Distillery in Leighton, Alabama, on Oct. 14, 2022.

At the end of October, Billy Ray Dawson had enough fruit from a 50-year-old, 70-foot persimmon fruit tree on his property to make a limited three-gallon release he share with friends like Joe Jackson, who makes the 25-mile trip from Hartselle a couple times monthly.

“Billy takes a lot of pride in getting everything set up to distill the corn and rye whiskeys,” said Jackson, 73, who was sipping his dad’s moonshine bottles by fifth grade. “Mixing the right amount of corn and water, getting it to the right temperature, there’s so much involved. He’s truly an artist.”

And the dozen fruitier options hit the spot, too, Jackson said.

“Joanna’s flavoring is incredible. The Strawberry Lemon, what it does to a 120-proof whiskey is unreal. It’s like a chilled fresh fruit drink.”