By Tony May
Bullock County, Alabama is known for one of two things, being the Bird Dog Field Trial capital of the world and Moonshine. It is a place that has never been run by industry or politics, just simply agriculture and farming. 626 square miles inhabited by only 10,000 people it is a welcoming place with big hearted people. A generation ago families grew large and had very little but you would never know. People worked hard and did what it took to provide for their family.
My father, Kenny May, had to forgo playing football his senior year in high school to drive the bus to pick up and take home younger students. He worked in the cafeteria at school to pay for his lunch. No handouts, no complaints, just doing what it took and doing it right.
Moonshine was a way to put food on the table. It was a way of life but to my grandfather, Clyde May, it was an art. This art was passed down to Kenny and his brothers, not always by choice. The process, when done right, was a multi-step process that required time and labor.
Clyde, or Gran Gran, was more a distributor than a “bootlegger” and as a man of integrity he was not only meticulous in the distillation but held high standards for his family and consumers. It was known that if you would partake in the spirits but didn’t take care of your family or allowed the mixture of mash and water to hinder your responsibilities then Clyde May would see you cutoff. He was also adamant that “whiskey ain’t for drinking, it’s for selling”. To my knowledge, there isn’t a May that is an alcoholic.
If you don’t see that Clyde wasn’t trying to beat the system or get rich then you’ve missed my point for his character. He simply wanted to take care of his family. However, no matter how good the whiskey, laws were in place to ensure taxes were collected and stills were destroyed. Gran Gran spent 9 months in a Federal Prison in Montgomery, AL. If you’re not familiar it is known as Maxwell. The day after his release, the stills were resurrected. The May family still had to eat.
Let’s fast forward to 2000. Dad (Kenny) had become well known in the agriculture circles, primarily the grass seed business. It, however, was due to the methodical ways he was taught to “shine” that brought his success. From the way he treated people to how everything had to be spotless, Gran Gran’s system proved successful in other facets of life. You see, it wasn’t just the dealings with people and the lost art of a handshake that propelled Dad into success. While working in the woods he would find and fetch the purest water. “You can’t make whiskey without water and you can’t make good whiskey without good water” was how I was taught. Once dad would bring this water every spot of the still had to be clean. Improper handling of materials would taint the purity of the batch. Unfortunately outside parties gave moonshine a bad name by trying to shortcut the art and making people sick or die. Gran Gran never sold a batch of bad whiskey because if it was bad then it was discarded. Dad was the same way. I can remember sweeping the warehouse floors daily and being held to perfection. I believe it was the only grass seed warehouse without a rodent in sight.
I’m proud of my dad and the work ethic he showed me. It has proved successful in my life and career. Like me, dad was proud of Gran Gran. Thus started Dad’s pursuit of honoring him by making a label with the best whiskey around...and legal this time. Bullock County was about to be known for one more thing.
Dad kept a pretty balanced approach to the endeavor that would form into “Conecuh Ridge”. But after a while he realized that you can’t serve two masters so he rolled up his sleeves and focused all his time and attention on Conecuh Ridge. The story was almost as good as the whiskey (but not quite). Those who tasted, believed. Those who believed, invested. Dad went to the ABC (Alabama Alcoholic Beverage Control Board) and had them on board to ensure that everything was done right. This was going to be Clyde May’s legacy but also something the State of Alabama could be proud of as well.
On December 20, 2000 my father was on the front page, top fold of the Wall Street Journal! A hometown boy from Bullock County, AL had been featured in a nationally renowned newspaper. This was the break dad was looking for. For the next couple of years many decisions had to be made from bottle type to label design to price points. A setback happened when a marketing group was hired but instead of using the products head of steam, they sat on the product. Dad had always been a man of his word and when this firm reneged on their part dad wouldn’t pay. Little did we know that it was a small part of a bigger problem. Dad had to settle to pay for a service not rendered but we had to move on from this setback.
January 2003 brought another high point for Dad’s whiskey when a piece was done on NBC Nightly News featuring dad. Investors were eager to get a piece of this product that dad had started from the ground. April 2004 brought yet another high point as the Alabama Legislature passed a resolution to name Conecuh Ridge the “Official Spirit of Alabama”. May 19, 2004 had a bitter but then quickly sweet ending. Unbeknownst to us Governor Bob Riley vetoed the resolution but was met by an overwhelming 54-7 vote to override the Governor’s veto making way for Conecuh Ridge to become the Official State Spirit. This seemingly momentous occasion would be the downfall of one Kenny May.
The naming of the Official State Spirit not only made headlines but landed us a spot on Saturday Night Live and almost stardom. The first batch quickly became a necessary item to own for everyone whether you were an avid drinker or not. It was a meticulous process but with ABC approval, dad would buy the first batch from an approved package store and then resell to those who wanted a first batch. I remember a company in Chicago buying cases to give as Christmas gifts.
Things were looking unstoppable. A personal gratitude was that dad spearheaded a fundraiser for my daughter, Hadley Grace May, who was diagnosed with a rare cancer, Rhabdomyosarcoma, at the age of 9 months. My insurance capped at a large retailer and this particular fundraiser brought in $17,000. I tell this story to show how particular dad was in doing things right. He hadn’t had the opportunity to ensure using Conecuh Ridge in the fundraiser was legal so he didn’t use it...not even for his granddaughter’s fundraiser.
Dad continued the growth of Conecuh Ridge. It wasn’t until December of 2004 that the seemingly harmless setbacks started piecing together towards dad’s business demise. The marketing company that did nothing for our label, produced a “Alabama Whiskey” called Redneck Riviera shortly after dad settled their bill. It is unconfirmed but believed that the head of the ABC, former Montgomery Mayor Emory Folmar, was a secret partner behind this label. Mr. Folmar, known as “the Mayor”, had political influence that is believed to rear its head to entice Bob Riley to unconventionally veto a bill that made no sense to veto. These things together made sense on December 2004 when dad was delivering a case of the first batch to a lady in Dothan who had bought and paid for the whiskey as a “gift to her husband”. Moments before the agreed upon meeting time the lady called dad frantically to tell him she couldn’t make it but “had” to have this case as an anniversary gift that day. She had sent her daughter to pick it up. Dad, a man who tries to accommodate everyone, agreed and met the ladies daughter. As soon as he put the case in her car ABC agents jumped out and charged dad with selling to a minor and selling without a license.
Dad not only went to jail but was stripped searched as a humiliation tactic. The warehouse where he stored the whiskey he bought from the package store was raided and confiscated even though posters hung in the ABC office that told of the selling of the first batch from dad. Dad’s lawyer advised to plead guilty so he could get this over with but The Mayor used this opportunity to ban dad from Conecuh Ridge.
The label has since been sold a few times and pales in comparison to the glory days that had been orchestrated from the ground up by a simple man. Tradition runs deep in the May family. It appears that it does in the government as well.
However this time there was pure greed, vengefulness and malice that tore down what Kenny May worked so hard to build up for not only his family but his hometown and state.
Stay tuned...dad believes wholeheartedly that this is a proven product that has success written all over it. This time will be different.