The Biggest Scandals To Hit Moonshiners

"Moonshiners," the Discovery Channel reality series about Appalachian bootleg booze-makers, has been a big ratings hit for the network (via Showbuzz Daily). Over the course of its history, the prime-time show has presented "shining" and bootlegging as a part of America's heritage, and its eccentric hillbilly outlaws have emerged as lovable antiheroes.

But, as you might expect from a show in which criminal activity makes up an essential part of its premise, a number of scandals have rocked the series since its 2011 debut, including arrests, deaths, major pushback from law enforcement, and serious, persistent doubts about the show's authenticity. In other words, whether you love the show or hate it, just don't believe everything you see on TV.

As with any number of other "reality" TV series, "Moonshiners" has been the subject of questions as well as a few scandals. How has the show responded? (Mostly, it seems, with a big ol' shrug.)

Special Agent Jesse Tate claims the show misled him

Remember Jesse Tate, the Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control Authority (ABC) special agent who represented the law side of the reality show back in season 1 (via Screen Rant)? He didn't return for season 2 — and, according to the ABC, it's because the show's producers lied to Tate and law enforcement about what the show would be like.

"Virginia ABC agreed to participate in an informative piece that documents the history of moonshine and moonshine investigations in Virginia," said Virginia ABC spokeswoman Kathleen Shaw in a statement when the show first premiered, according to The Christian Post. Of course, the actual show wasn't a staid documentary about the history of moonshine — it presents the practice from the perspective of current moonshiners and arguably makes all that illegal activity look fun.

Shaw said the state "would not have participated in the 'documentary' had it known of this portrayal." Notice how the word "documentary" is in quotes.

There have been claims that it's fake

In addition to saying that the docu-series producers misled them, the Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control Authority also claimed that the show wasn't even real — and that all the illegal activity portrayed in "Moonshiners" is a dramatization (via The Christian Post). "If illegal activity was actually taking place, the Virginia ABC Bureau of Law Enforcement would have taken action," Shaw said in the ABC statement. 

Virginia law enforcement even claimed in the statement that the show was a "false depiction of moonshine manufacturing, distribution and/or transportation." In light of this, the state asked Discovery to add a disclaimer to the show, Screen Rant wrote, but this request was, apparently, "overlooked."

Notably, the show is produced by Magilla Entertainment, which has come under fire for producing other reality shows that viewers have claimed are scripted or misleading, such as "Long Island Medium" (pictured above). In one of the company's other series, "Lakefront Bargain Hunt," a woman's home that she supposedly bought on-air was actually purchased by her two years before the show was taped (via Orlando Sentinel).

The saga of Popcorn Sutton

Not all the shiners on the show were actually taped by Magilla, however. In fact, the show's first season featured Marvin "Popcorn" Sutton, a bootleg distiller who died before the show even began. The footage of him on the show comes from an award-winning documentary about the bootlegger, "This is the Last Dam Run of Likker I'll Ever Make," that was filmed in 2002 (via Sucker Punch Pictures, which has posted the film on YouTube).

Sutton's story came to a tragic end. In 2008, investigators raided his home and operations, finding 1,700 gallons of moonshine along with equipment, firearms, and ammunition, Knox News reported. After he was convicted of running the large moonshine business and sentenced to 18 months in prison, Popcorn died by suicide near his Tennessee home, per Smoky Mountain News reported.

"Nobody was going to tell him what to do," his daughter told Knox News. "He did it his way. He always lived a death-before-dishonor kind of life." The 'shiner was 62.

Chico's DUI charge

Popcorn Sutton wasn't the only 'shiner to run into trouble with the law. The mononymous moonshiner Chico, whose real name is Matthew Tungate, was arrested in 2014 — not for bootlegging, but for operating a vehicle under the influence, Troublesome Creek Times reported. Apparently, no one was injured in the Knott County, Kentucky incident.

Law enforcement claimed that Chico was selling memorabilia out of his SUV when he ran his car into the crowd, the newspaper said. Officers then gave him a field sobriety test, leading to his arrest. As a first-time offender, he got off relatively lightly, paying just a fine and costs for his court appearance, the Troublesome Creek Times reported.

Though Chico left the cast of "Moonshiners," he's seemingly doing well — he and partner Sondra, who also appeared on the show, recently became parents, according to Distractify. He also, apparently, went legit, creating a totally legal whisky blend with Olde Towne Distillery.

Tickle's multiple arrests

And then there is Steven Ray Tickle — usually just called "Tickle" on the show. In 2013, Tickle was arrested for public intoxication after police claimed they noticed him drinking alone in his car one afternoon while parked near a convenience store, RTT News said. Police alleged that he was so drunk they needed to carry him into the jail. In 2015, he was arrested during a traffic stop for possessing a sawed-off shotgun, The Chatham Star-Tribune reported, and sentenced to a three-year suspended penitentiary sentence. Then, while on probation for this charge, Tickle garnered five months behind bars for cocaine use while on probation, The Star-Tribune reported.

Despite this trouble, Tickle expressed an interest in running for office as an independent candidate, The Washington Examiner reported in 2013. At the time, he said he wasn't worried that his illegal activities would affect his political fortunes — he even planned to start a "Moonshine Caucus."

"There is no dirt to dig up," he told the Examiner — "everybody already knows about me."

A Moonshiners: Master Distiller contestant was arrested

When "Moonshiners" first hit, it was easy to interpret the show as showing some seriously illegal activity. In 2013, Tim Smith and show favorite Tickle spoke with Fox News about just how they managed to stay out of jail, saying that since they'd moved their operation by the time it aired, the long arm of the law was always one step behind them. "They've got to actually catch you doing something wrong," Tickle explained. "By the time that it hits the TV ..."

That hasn't always been the case, though, and not everyone who's been on the show and their spinoffs has managed to evade arrest. In 2022, Johnny Wayne Griffis, a former contestant on "Moonshiners: Master Distiller," was arrested for possession of both a still and illegal alcohol.

According to the arrest report obtained by the Tri-City Ledger, he was apprehended by Alabama Law Enforcement, who had a search warrant for his property. When they arrived, they found a running still, five gallons of clear moonshine, and another 19 quarts of flavored moonshine. While there are no updates to be found about the status of his case, his Facebook page suggests he has since gone legit with a partnership with Alabama HomeGrown Moonshiners.