Conecuh Ridge Whiskey
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Conecuh Ridge Whiskey, officially marketed as Clyde May's Conecuh Ridge Alabama Style Whiskey, is a brand of whiskey produced by the Dallas, Texas-based Spirits Acquisition Corp. It is marketed as a recreation of a high-quality aged moonshine whiskey which was produced illegally in Alabama during the mid to late 20th century. The brand was created by the moonshiner's son Kenny May.
In 2004 it was designated the official "State Spirit" of Alabama by legislative resolution. Later the same year the brand's founder Kenny May was charged with several violations of Alabama liquor laws, to which he pled guilty. After a 15-month period during which the whiskey was unavailable for purchase, the brand ownership was restructured and production resumed.
The History of Conecuh Ridge Whiskey begins with Clyde May, a legendary Alabama moonshiner and bootlegger. From the 1950s to the 1980s Clyde managed to produce around 300 gallons a week in a still of his own design in the woods near Almeria, Alabama in Bullock County, southeast of Montgomery. His product was known for its high quality relative to typical moonshine. According to his son, Kenny, the reason was his painstaking insistence on using the best equipment he could fabricate and taking extra steps during production to maintain the purity and quality of the product. While much of it was sold, unaged, as corn liquor, a certain amount would be casked in charred barrels with a couple of dried apples for flavor. This would be aged for about one year. Clyde claimed that the hot Alabama summers accelerated the effect of aging, requiring only one year instead of the minimum of two given to Kentucky Bourbons. This would be bottled and given to friends and valued customers as "Christmas Whiskey". Always operating outside the state liquor laws, Clyde May served an 18-month sentence at Maxwell Air Force Base in 1973. He gave up his cell to the man who convicted him, Attorney General John N. Mitchell, who was convicted in 1974 on charges from the Watergate scandal.
When Clyde May died in 1990 his son Kenny began looking for a way to honor his father's memory by producing legal whiskey from his recipe. Careful planning led to a production run of 4000 bottles of Conecuh Ridge in 2002. Though Conecuh Brands' offices were in Union Springs, the actual producer for its first batches was Kentucky Bourbon Distillers, Ltd. of Bardstown, Kentucky, overseen by master distiller Even Kulsveen. Under contract from Conecuh Brands they had a mash produced using Conecuh Ridge spring water trucked in from Alabama, had the product distilled, aged in oak barrels, and bottled, and returned it to Alabama for distribution.
In April 2004, both houses of the Alabama Legislature voted to override the veto of Governor Bob Riley and adopted a resolution, now known as Act of Alabama 2004-97 naming "Conecuh Ridge Alabama Fine Whiskey" the "official state spirit". For a few months it was sold in Alabama's 147 ABC State Liquor Stores and privately owned package stores in Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee and Florida. During 2004, citing distribution difficulties and limited demand for the boutique-priced liquor, the state Alcoholic Beverage Control Board stopped stocking Conecuh Ridge in its stores, but would still take special orders for customers who requested it.
In December 2004, state liquor agents charged Kenny May with misdemeanor violations in two counties. He pleaded guilty to charges of selling liquor without a license, possessing excessive quantities of liquor in a dry county, and selling alcohol to a minor. The Control Board immediately moved to revoke Conecuh Ridge's distribution licence, meaning that once stores sold out of their existing stock, the state's official spirit could no longer be sold in Alabama. May's stock was held in trust pending the outcome of his trial. Attorney Alva Lambert assumed interim leadership of the company, followed by spirits industry veteran Wes Henderson, who led the company through turbulent times. Under Henderson's leadership, distribution was expanded to additional domestic and international markets.
After May entered his guilty plea, the Alabama House of Representatives moved to repeal the declaration of Conecuh Ridge as Alabama's "Official State Spirit". However, the reversal legislation never passed the Alabama Senate.
Abker Douglas & Associates, based in LaGrange, Ga., acquired a majority interest in the whiskey maker in November 2005. The acquisition paved the way for Conecuh Ridge to return to Alabama shelves in May 2006. According to the firm's president, Tom Abker, Kenny May is no longer associated with the company and owns no stock in it.
As of March 2009, Conecuh Ridge was purchased by Dallas, Texas-based Spirits Acquisition Corp., whose chairman is Ron Broadway. The company was recapitalized by an investment group led by Mr. Broadway and is currently expanding the brand into selected markets throughout the U.S.
Conecuh Ridge is described as an "Alabama Style Tippling Whiskey", a rather imprecise designation which basically means that it is patterned after the spirits that would have been available at informal "tippling houses". Spring water from Alabama is added to a corn, rye, and barley mash, such as is often used to make Bourbon whiskey. It is then aged for five to six years in heavy-toast charred white oak barrels.
- In the 2014 book Southern Living Bourbon & Bacon: The Ultimate Guide to the South's Favorite Foods, food critic Morgan Murphy said "Conecuh uses the formula of an old Alabama moonshiner, Clyde May, and the tradition shines through."
- At the 2013 Los Angeles International Spirits Competition, the whiskey was rated at 96 points and named Best of Division (Small Batch Bourbon 10 years or less $30).
- Wine Enthusiast Magazine named Clyde May's Conecuh Ridge Whiskey among its Top 50 Spirits of 2012, and its reviewer Kara Newman said it was "A spry chameleon of a whiskey. At first, this dark amber spirit reads as light and sweet, from its distinct ripe apple and hazelnut notes to the light-bodied feel. But just when you think it's going to be a lightweight, there's surprising oomph on the finish, dry leather and clove notes that balance it out. This sippable whiskey would be great for whiskey sours and other cocktails. 93 points."
- Spirits Review by Chris Carlsson gave it a rating of 8 out of 10 (overall and for price/value) and said it was "A interesting whiskey if a bit on the light side. A good starter whiskey for people who are starting to explore brown spirits. But not something that would challenge the serious bourbon drinker."
- "State Spirit of Alabama". Alabama Emblems, Symbols and Honors. Alabama Department of Archives & History. 2005-08-25. Retrieved 2007-03-18.
- "American Whiskey - Conecuh Ridge Whiskey", Spirits Review by Chris Carlsson web site.
- Murphy, Morgan; Editors of Southern Living magazine (2014). Southern Living Bourbon & Bacon: The Ultimate Guide to the South's Favorite Foods. Oxmoor House. ISBN 978-0848743161.
- "2013 Spirits Awards", Los Angeles International Spirits Competition web site.
- Newman, Kara, "Clyde May's Conecuh Ridge Whiskey: Expert Reviews", July 1, 2012.
- Emerson, Bo. "Ala. 'state spirit' is son's tribute to fine moonshiner." Arizona Republic. May 25, 2004.
- Harris, Clay. "Triple take: Alabama's first state spirit." The Auburn Plainsman. March 25, 2004.
- Kuntzman, Gersh. "Crushed Sprits: Why has Alabama banned sales of its official state whiskey? Our columnist investigates." Newsweek. February 28, 2005
- Hall, Wade. Waters of Life from Conecuh Ridge: The Clyde May Story. Montgomery, Alabama: New South Books. 2003. ISBN 1-58838-135-8
- Irvin, David. "'Official state spirit' returning to stores." Montgomery Advertiser. May 10, 2006
- "Alabama's official state whiskey will return to shelves this week, new owner says."  Birmingham Business Journal. May 23, 2006