An unusual hobby leads a local lawyer into some whiskey business.
Some people collect stamps, others baseball cards, coins, or rare books. Ray Jamieson collects stills, and not the kind produced by Kodak. No, the stills that quicken Jamieson's pulse are the illegal contraptions that turn a boring mound of corn and a pile of sugar into a bubbling vat of wicked "white lightning." And the best part about Jamieson's collection? It's perfectly legal.
Jamieson should know; he's been practicing law for decades. "I tell people I'm a lawyer turned honest bootlegger," he grins as he descends a narrow staircase leading to a secret room that houses his collection — over 100 as of this writing.
When he receives a call about a new "find' — usually from friends in law enforcement — he heads out to pick up the contraption, packs it up, and brings it to Memphis. "Sometimes, a little of the 'product' is still inside, so technically, I'm running moonshine," he grins. Not to worry, though. Jamieson long ago obtained a federal license to own his prized finds. Still, he takes care to obey the rules of the road, careful to avoid a run-in with what he describes as "a small town, big-bellied sheriff with a lot of time on his hands." Fortunately, he hasn't ended up on the wrong side of the law, but he has certainly met some interesting characters over the years.
Not all of Jamieson's prized stills come from illicit backwoods operations, though. Some in his collection date back to the Revolutionary War and are worth anywhere from $150 to $2,000 each.
"This is the kind of still George Washington would have used," he explains, holding up a small copper jug (minus the coils and arm) that two centuries' worth of oxidation have turned into a rich brown color. "This was created long before welding was possible, so these were hand forged and hammered. If you look closely you can see the marks," he explains. As he moves through the room, he points to the larger stills and picks up the smaller ones, telling each one's history like a proud father. One still was made from an old fire extinguisher (the better to hide it in plain sight), one, known as a bootlegger's purse, is curved to rest against the hip and attached to a chain that goes around the owner's neck (perfect for traveling by horse), while two others have been created in the shape of a hatchet — a defiant nod to Carrie Nation, the tireless temperance leader. Some are still shiny, others dull and coated with patinas ranging from greens to browns, and the darkest of the bunch are made of lead.
"The lead ones are responsible for the blindness and the 'Jake' leg," Jamieson says, demonstrating the affliction that caused many a sipper to lose the use of first a leg, then various other parts of their bodies before the lead-tainted moonshine won out.
So now that he's got more stills than one room can hold, what's next? Jamieson is creating what he describes as the next Lynchburg (home of the Jack Daniel's distillery) in Kentucky's Fulton County, on the Tennessee/Kentucky ridgeline. His stills have been built, and his dreams of becoming a bourbon tycoon are becoming a reality with each passing day. "My bottles will be in the upper-middle range, between $30 and $40, and my first bottles have done very well in my testing market," he laughs. "That means my buddies that sip it in their duck blinds haven't complained." The first batches should hit retail shelves in a little over two years.
But Jamieson's plans don't stop with his distillery. Also in the works is a B&B (Bed and Bourbon), a museum where his prized stills take center stage, a restaurant, and perhaps even a spa, for the ladies. "It's going to be a true destination. Once everything is finished, I think people will come there for vacations, retreats, even weddings," he grins. "And if the marriage doesn't work out, well, I can handle the divorces too!" M