Special Report: White Lightning in the Natural State

Special Reports

HOT SPRINGS, Ark.- Hot Springs has a rich history of operating just on the other side of the law. From gambling, when it was illegal, to alcohol, when it was also illegal. Still illegal, making your own liquor without the okay from the government. One man has taken the craft out of the hills and woods of Garland County and dropped it smack dab in the middle of Hot Springs.

“Some people are born fearful, I wasn’t born with that fear gene,” says Danny Bradley.

He’s frank about his profession.

“It’s illegal, very illegal,” Bradley says

He says to understand the genesis of making liquor, understand a bit of history when farmers struggled to get all their grains to market.

Bradley says, “They couldn’t carry very much at one time. What they could carry they might get $2 for, but if they turned it into whiskey, they could carry all if it, and get about $50. So every farm had a moonshine still.”

The government noticed the ingenuity. Soon, every farmer making whiskey faced a whiskey tax and after that the whiskey rebellion was in full swing. Over generations, it drove them into the woods, hiding out and looking for the source of good whiskey, good well-hidden water.

These days Bradley says once you clear a lengthy and costly permitting process, modern-day moonshiners are able to pull up the roots of making whiskey along hidden streams deep down in the holler. 100 percent proof of that is his downtown location.

Danny’s history took a few turns to get him to moonshining.

“I graduated from the U of A with a Ph.D. In poultry science,” Bradley says.

So, how did ‘Doctor Dan the Chicken Man’ become ‘Doctor Dan the Moonshine Man’? He was having great success traveling the country, helping poultry farmers, but getting pulled away from home, only seemed to pull him closer to it.

“Mary and I were born and raised in Garland County, we have a heart for Arkansas, we love our home state,” says Bradley.

After much decline in Hot Springs–the devastating Majestic fire and now an economic rebound, he and his wife are taking a shot at giving back.

“People are really understanding that we have to create jobs here,” Bradley says.

Not everyone supports the concept of making moonshine to create jobs. Bradley knows that.

“I’ve heard that. They do say that. But, I’ve never been afraid of what I thought was right and I do what I want to, not what I’m told to do,” explains Bradley.

Well before creating the first batch of liquor, he created those jobs, first in construction, transforming a Hot Springs staple, ‘The Old Country Store’ into Crystal Ridge Distillery, with a crystal clear mission- keep creating those jobs while evolving into a full-blown distillery, restaurant, moonshine museum and tourist attraction. There is one thing he does not want to create.

“We didn’t want it to be a corny hayseed type thing. We want it to be a respectable place a family could come, it won’t be corny,” Bradley says.

But plenty of corn and grain will be involved. His place is built for, and around Patrick. Patrick is the name he gave to his industrial size moonshine still. It’s a replica of the one you may have found hidden in the Ouachita Mountains generations ago. Patrick has its own room, no, wing of the building.

What Patrick does is actually quite complicated, when Danny uses his Ph.D. to explain it, you tend to see double without even having a sip of Patrick’s product. When I asked for the dumbed-down version, it could follow along with the cooking process.

“It vaporizes and turns into alcohol, then travels up the head into the doubler, then the condenser cools it back to liquid and runs out,” explains Bradley.

During the planning, financing, permitting and building, Danny just about ran out of time. He woke up one night in pain.

“The widowmaker,” he recalls.

An unsurvivable heart attack, if not treated in time.

Danny bounced back, kept working and kept people working. He and his group, that also includes Mary, his childhood sweetheart-turned-wife, are digging up as much authentic information about how the whole process used to work.

“We have worked really hard with The Garland County Historical Society on the history of moonshining and researched the history of moonshining in our area,” he says.

Holding on to parts of what could be moonshine stills that look as old as the hills, some dating back, he thinks to 1700’s, he says he wants to create a place where you come and look back, not a place to come and forget your troubles.

“It’s not going to be a dark smoky environment with a pool table. It’s going to be a family establishment. You can find those places. They’re here… They’re everywhere. We’re not one, we’re not one of them,” Bradley explains.

As he steps closer to completion, whether it’s a gamble or not, he’s all in.

“Why did God spare me? Why choose me? Why did he wake me up in the middle of the night when I had a heart attack and a good friend of mine didn’t wake up? I don’t have answers, all I can do is realize how blessed and fortunate I am, and go forward from here,” explains Bradley.

A timetable on an opening date is like his product, he says. It’ll be ready when it’s ready, Crystal Ridge Distillery will not open a day sooner, but Patrick just got his working papers, so stay tuned.

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