clyde may

As a teenager, I always loved Sydney J. Harris’ syndicated newspaper column called “Things I Learned En Route to Looking Up Other Things.” I’m still fascinated with the concept of finding important information through the backdoor. The power of derailment on the internet is intoxicating, and I love getting side-tracked when I’m supposed to be being productive. I think most of my favorite academic nuggets and tidbits were learned this way. How else could I have discovered recently that the official state beverage of Alabama is whiskey?

Big deal, you say. Certainly the state beverage of California is wine, the state beverage of Kentucky is bourbon, the state beverage of Mississippi is sweet tea (bless their hearts), the state beverage of Tennessee is Jack Daniel’s, and the state beverage of Wisconsin is beer, right? Wrong. First of all, California does not even have an official state beverage, and Kentucky, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Wisconsin have all chosen MILK as their official state beverage. In fact, of the 28 states that have selected an official state beverage, 21 of them chose milk. The seven states that did not choose milk are as follows: Florida – orange juice (duh); Indiana – water (seriously?); Maine – Moxie (which is a kind of Yankees-only soft drink); Massachusetts – cranberry juice (some obvious urinary tract issues up there); New Hampshire – apple cider (duh, again); Ohio – tomato juice (maybe they were going for a Bloody Mary and chickened out), and good old Alabama with whiskey. That’s right. Whiskey. You’d think if Alabama was going to lean towards fermentation, they’d go with something light, like maybe muscadine wine. No, they went whole hog with whiskey. As in, “Josey Wales stumbled into the saloon, squinted at the bartender, and growled, ‘Whiskey!’” THAT whiskey. So, you know there has to be a good story in there somewhere. As it turns out, there is.

According to the Alabama Department of Archives and History, a particular brand of tippling whiskey produced near Union Springs, Alabama, called Conecuh Ridge Alabama Fine Whiskey, was officially adopted as the state’s beverage in the 2004 Legislative Session. The act was vetoed by Governor Bob Riley, but the state legislature overrode the veto easily. And why wouldn’t they? Who cares that the whiskey in question was originally produced in Alabama as illegal moonshine in the 1950’s; or that the product’s creator, a man named Clyde May, was a notorious bootlegger and convicted felon; or that his heir apparent, son Kenny May, was arrested and convicted of selling liquor in a dry county without a license (basically, bootlegging)? Why not?

Clyde May was a local legend in Bullock County, Alabama, producing some of the purest quality corn liquor that federal agents had ever seen. Clyde called it “branch farming.” The government called it “moonshining and bootlegging.” Every year, Clyde would take a portion of the corn liquor and seal it into charred barrels along with some dried apples and cinnamon. He let these barrels cook in the hot, Alabama sunshine for a year, and gave away the resulting “apple pie whiskey” as Christmas gifts. Clyde was eventually arrested by the dreaded revenuers and sentenced to 18 months in a federal facility in Alabama in 1973. When he died in 1990, his son Kenny took over the business and made it legitimate. Kenny May worked out a contract with a Kentucky Bourbon company to oversee the distillation of his product while still using his father’s precise, original recipe. The result was called Conecuh Ridge Whiskey (based on the source of the Alabama spring water used in the original mash), and legally distributed throughout Alabama. The product’s success and local flavor caused the state legislature to start the process towards naming Clyde and Kenny May’s whiskey as the official beverage of Alabama. By the way, there is an official state nut (pecan), state fruit (blackberry), state butterfly (monarch), state flower (camellia), and state bird (yellowhammer), among other things, and whiskey was adopted as the official state beverage in 2004. Due to the product being made from Alabama ingredients and produced in Alabama by its own people, the joint resolution was passed immediately.

There was a slight hiccup when Kenny May was arrested by state agents and charged with a couple of misdemeanor liquor law violations, and the state House of Representatives reacted by trying to repeal the state beverage resolution. However, the state Senate stood firmly behind Kenny May (or at least, stood off to the side and looked away in indecision), and the resulting “no action taken” means that it is still the official beverage of Alabama. Kenny May is no longer associated with the company, as Conecuh Ridge Whiskey was purchased and re-purchased a few times. As it stands today, Alabama’s state beverage is now being distributed locally, nationally, and abroad for legal consumption.

And whatever happened to Clyde May’s original high-quality moonshine? It’s back. In July, 2013, a different company in Union Springs, Alabama called High Ridge Spirits became a legal distillery using the same high-quality spring water and procedures as Clyde May. With state and federal licenses in hand, High Ridge Spirits began producing a 100-proof rye malt mash called Stills Crossroads ‘Shine that is now available in bars and liquor stores throughout Alabama, Florida, and Georgia. So, pour yourself a tumbler of whiskey on the rocks (or straight up, if you’re Josey Wales), and tell everybody that you’re just being patriotic for Alabama.

Tom Daniel

Tom Daniel holds a Ph.D in Music Education from Auburn University. He is a husband, father of four cats and a dog, and a college band director who lives back in the woods of Alabama with a cotton field right outside his bedroom window. His grandfather once told him he was "Scotch-Irish," and Tom has been trying to live up to those lofty Southern standards ever since.

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