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Bill and Rachel Embry are pictured with the Master Distiller judges Tim, Mark and Digger. Photo submitted
Bill and Rachel Embry on the set of Master Distiller. Photo submitted
Bill and Rachel Embry by their merchandise table during their local meet and greet event at Twenty-Two & Crew in Rockford. Photo by Robert Anderson
Bill and Rachel Embry, winners of “Moonshiners: Master Distiller,” pictured with Jennifer Johnson, right, owner of Twenty-Two & Crew. Photo by Robert Anderson
By Christa Jennings
Senior Staff Writer
A local couple from the Weogufka area became the first couple to win “Moonshiners: Master Distiller” on the Discovery Channel.
After keeping the secret for months, Bill and Rachel Embry could finally share their win with family and friends once the “Family Feud” episode aired late last month.
When asked about their experience being on the show, Bill said that it was stressful and hot. He said that it took a little more than a month to film it, with Rachel adding that was for just 45 minutes worth of program.
“But all in all it was a wonderful experience,” Bill added. “We got to meet a lot of people and learn about the production process and what goes on behind the scenes of making a reality TV show. There were probably 50-60 people at any time around us – camera guys, lighting, sound people. It was a heck of an experience.”
Now that the couple has won, they will get a jar with their picture and recipe at Sugarlands Distillery in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. Rachel said that they do not have a date for that yet, but that those involved will let them know.
She added that sometimes it can take a few months or even up to a year. However, once its done she said there will be a run of their liquor with their picture on the bottle at the distillery.
While the couple has many events planned for the future, they have also enjoyed some local events before preparing to travel out of state. The couple has had meet and greets in Clanton and also at Bandits Grill in Sylacauga, where a crowd gathered to watch the show the first night it aired for the grand announcement of the couple’s win.
Describing the Bandit’s event for the viewing party and big reveal, Rachel said, “That was wonderful; they had a wonderful night that night. When they were first introducing us on the show and said ‘from Coosa County, Alabama,’ the restaurant was lit up with everybody cheering because they said ‘from Coosa County,’ so that was wonderful. Then at the end when we won, the restaurant lit up again with everyone cheering and standing on their feet. It was unreal.”
Most recently, the duo held a meet and greet event locally at Twenty-Two & Crew in Rockford last Saturday evening. The event was well attended and proved to be successful as a full house gathered to meet the moonshine couple.
In addition to having the opportunity to meet the increasingly famous Embrys and peruse their merchandise, guests were also able to watch the episode they were in, with the episode being paused periodically for the Embrys to tell them some of the things that happened behind the scenes or explain what they were doing during that scene as they went along.
Going forward, Rachel said that they have several events this year in Tennessee and North Carolina. She explained that they have numerous events for the moonshiners to come and do their meet and greets.
“We’ll be there and will have our own booth,” she said. “We’ll be selling our merchandise – T-shirts, shot glasses, koozies, etc. We’ve got four of those lined up already for this summer.”
Bill added that the couple may get to go to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and possibly New York, as well. He said that they are in the process of working on that and seeing if they may feasibly get to go to those two states, as well.
Bill said that they will be doing some things locally in Coosa County, as well.
Also regarding future plans, Rachel said that it is probably a year or maybe even two years in the works, but said that they are working on getting their own first legal distillery in Sylacauga. However, Bill said that is a long process and that they will have to go through the entire lengthy process, licensing, state requirements, and more before that goal comes to fruition.
“We were approached by someone already wanting to start a distillery in Talladega County,” he explained. “That was an opportunity for us, but we’re definitely going to do something in Coosa County. I don’t know what yet. We’re going to look at possibly putting an aging house or barrel house, age some whiskey here in Coosa County. Our water will come out of Coosa County, and the distillery is going to be named after something in Coosa County.”
The Embrys have a strong focus on Coosa County, enjoying the opportunity to help put Coosa on the map through not only being on, but also winning, the “Moonshiners: Master Distiller” show, and they plan to continue highlighting and involving Coosa County throughout their journey.
“We look forward to doing anything we can in Coosa County,” Bill said. “We’re from Coosa County. I know this is a rural county, and there aren’t many people here. We’re sort of limited by population and all that, but we really want to do as much as we can for Coosa County and the people of Coosa County.”
As such, the Embrys said that any local events that people or organizations would like for them to come to, they’ll “be game to come to them.” They look forward to doing more events within the county as the opportunities arise.
Regarding highlighting Coosa County on the show and the importance to them of keeping Coosa County in the forefront of their minds, Bill explained why that is such an important aspect of this venture for him.
“That’s what we want to do, we want to bring Coosa County to the world,” he stated. “We want to make sure that whatever we do we represent the people of Coosa County because I’m a lifelong resident. I’ve been here for at least 50 years.”
He explained that the Embry side of his family is from Rockford, with both of his grandparents on his father’s side buried in Rockford. He added that his grandmother on his father’s side was from Weogufka, the Stewart side of his family.
“So you take the Stewarts and the Embrys – the Stewarts from the Weogufka area and the Embrys from the Rockford area – and my history in Coosa County goes back to the 1700s,” he said.
He added that his great-great-grandfather John William Embry is buried in the Liberty Hill Baptist Church Cemetery and that he has some family members on the Embry side buried “down toward Scarbrough Bottoms,” as well.
Although his mother’s side of the family is from Georgia, he said that on his dad’s side, both his grandmother’s and grandfather’s side were born and raised in Coosa County. He emphasized that they want to make sure that whatever they do includes Coosa County.
“This has opened a lot of doors,” he said. “What has happened [recently] is a blessing. We’re honored and we’re humbled, but we also want to make sure that no matter what we do we’re going to include Coosa County in it. Even if we end up distilling something outside of this county, we’re either going to age our whiskeys in this county or our water is going to come from this county; our distillery is going to be named after this county. Coosa County will be brought to the forefront.
“We will include the people of Coosa County in this, and we want everybody to get with us if they want to ask us any questions, want to come see us, or want us to come to any type of event. We’re more than happy to do it. We want to do that. We want to bring the county to the front and put it on the map. There were 13 million people watching that show, just in the United States. So there are a lot of people who just heard about Coosa County who had never even heard of it [before the show].”
Making history by being the first couple to win “Master Distiller” is just another interesting tale to add into the couple’s story and history together.
Rachel was also born and raised in Coosa County, and she said she lived in Weogufka until she was in the sixth grade. In the seventh grade she moved to Sylacauga and went on to graduate from Sylacauga High School.
However, she said everybody in Coosa County knows her because she has been in the county since 1971.
How the couple met and began their relationship is something special and goes beyond high school sweethearts. Rachel said that she and Bill have known each other since she was 5 years old.
“His sister and I were best friends – still are,” she said. “From before his sister and I started first grade together, we were best friends. As soon as Bill and his family moved to Weogufka they introduced us because my parents owned the Weogufka General Store. Bill’s mamma came to the store one day and his sister was young; she was the same age as me and wanted a playmate. She didn’t know anybody. So she and I met and were fast friends and then were best friends all the way through high school and everything.”
“I basically grew up spending the night over a his house and all that,” she added, reminiscing. “But of course back then he was just a brat. He was just a big brother that would tell on us if we did anything and all of that. So it was just kind of funny; years later after we were grown we ended up getting married, but we grew up together.”
The couple has now been married for 21 years, after growing up together and eventually becoming sweethearts.
When asked what inspired them to try out for the show, Rachel said that they have always been fan of the “Moonshiners” show and that they always watch the “Master Distiller” show, as well. When they were doing a casting call they found out how to apply for it, and Rachel said that she originally just sent in for Bill to do it.
However, when Bill was contacted they said they had a slot open to make gin or absinthe, which he had never made before. He told them that, and they then said they had another slot they were doing called the Family Feud and asked if he had anyone in his family that would distill with him.
“He said, ‘Well, my wife helps me,’” Rachel recalled. “They said ‘OK, would she be willing to come on with you?’ I worked it out and said yeah I’ll do it. That’s how it ended up being that he and I ended up on the first Family Feud edition of ‘Master Distiller.’”
Bill had also gotten his foot in the door previously with events in east Tennessee when he helped work a booth and was put on the casting list. Rachel mentioned her husband’s “larger-than-life personality” helping with that.
Bill said, “They called us on a Thursday, and that Tuesday we were in Tennessee.”
Rachel added that it was “very fast” once they got the call and the ball started rolling.
While they were occupied with filming the show, the couple was fortunate to live close enough that they could travel back and forth when there were breaks in filming since they were not required to stay the whole time.
Their competitors from Colorado, New Jersey and California were not as lucky and stayed since they could not fly back and forth.
“But with us, being country folks, we have chickens, dogs and all kinds of critters to come back to, and we have all this land that Bill has to cut grass for, and it was the middle of summer,” Rachel said. “So we did come back, and I would squeeze in some work between those days. We were back and forth. We weren’t required to stay there, but it was pretty stressful because we did have to get back home, me work some, and him do his stuff around the farm, and then us get back up there.”
Bill added, “The only other person that knew we were doing this was our neighbor, and bless her heart, she kept a secret and she fed our livestock and all that while we were gone. So we’re thankful for her. She took care of all our critters while we were gone, but then we were back and forth between filming.”
When asked how hard it was to keep their being on the show a secret, Rachel said that was the hardest part, keeping it a secret the whole time. However, she said they had to sign a contract that they could not tell anyone about it, and as such they had to keep that “a tight-lipped secret.”
“It’s like when they filmed down here in Coosa County – a lot of people don’t know it, but they had a film crew down here,” Bill said. “We were told not to tell anybody they were coming because they didn’t want the publicity. They filmed a lot more than what they showed on the show. We did some filming in Rockford, the old jailhouse, Flagg Mountain – did a good bit of filming down here.”
“We weren’t allowed to say anything,” he said. “My mother didn’t even know. We didn’t want the word to get out.”
He added that there were some rumors, but that nobody really knew until the episode aired. He said that night they had more than 100 people at Bandits Grill in Sylacauga and couldn’t tell them anything until the announcement was made on the show.
“That was truly the hardest part, not telling people,” he said. “We had people saying we must really like Tennessee because we were back and forth for basically a 3-month period. We were up there in June, July and all of August, then up there the first week of September. Then they were down here filming in October.”
Regarding his experience and history with moonshining, Bill said that when he was young he got the chance to help and watch an old Coosa County resident who had been doing it back when it was more prevalent. He said he retained a good deal of knowledge from when he was young and that it is “not really hard to do.”
He said that there had been a “pretty long period” that he had gone and not had anything to do with it, but he knew how the process worked and how to make a mash, as well as how to run a single-pot type still or thumper-style still.
When asked about the moonshine recipe they used on the show, Rachel said that they had actually found her great-grandfather’s recipe years ago.
“We just took a modern twist on my great-grandfather’s recipe using a little bit more modern ingredients,” she said. We just put a modern twist on an old-time recipe.”
Bill added, “On the show you only had one hour to mash in, so we didn’t have enough time to use traditional methods. We used malted grain – wheat, corn and barley that was already malted. So that was more of a modern twist.”
Rachel said that they did what was called a mountain brandy.
“Back in the old days, a lot of times these old timers wouldn’t have enough fruit to do a brandy, but they may not have enough grain to do a traditional whiskey,” she explained. “So what they would do is fruit and grain, and so they dubbed it as a mountain brandy. Some folks even called it the poor man’s brandy. It’s where they took what basically they had, because back then you didn’t have a lot of stuff, and they would mix it together. Therefore you had almost a hybrid whiskey, which would have been a brandy/whiskey together. That’s what we made – it was traditionally called a mountain brandy, but sometimes people refer to it as a poor man’s brandy. We add apples and raisins to ours to make it that brandy.”
The couple said that the two other teams competing on the show with them are now considered lifelong friends. Rachel said that there is camaraderie among the moonshiners, with all of them having become “very good friends.”
They had the opportunity to meet competitors in other programs, as well, while filming their episode. The couple said they are all great people and that the teams competing with them were “outstanding distillers, all of them.”
“Just to be there was a great honor,” Rachel said. “I think Bill mentioned this on the show; it’s the World Series or Super Bowl of moonshiners, and for us to win it is an honor. Just to be there was an honor, but to win it is just amazing.”
Bill said that there are several thousands of people who try out for the show every season and that just to get on the show is a win in itself, even if you lose the first round.
When asked how it felt when they were announced as the winners Rachel said, “We were elated. If you’ll notice at the end of the show, Bill tears up. Even the judges, Mark and Digger, they were making fun and said, ‘Alright, y’all get out of here before we all tear up.’ So it was very emotional, and we’re very proud of it.”
Although it was hot, humid and stressful, the couple thoroughly enjoyed their experience and look forward to future opportunities that being on and winning the show will mean for them.
“It was a good experience all in all, and if we could do it again we’d do it,” Bill said. “I would love to be able to get on the show more regularly. We just want to make the people of Coosa County proud. We’ve been here our whole lives. We just want to bring Coosa County to the world and want everybody to pull for us.”
The Embrys have a public Facebook page listed as “Moonshiners Wild Bill & Rachel,” and they encourage those interested to follow them on Facebook or join their Facebook group to keep updated with them and see what is in the works. They also plan to start utilizing YouTube and Instagram, with the couple stating that they want to be more open to the public, adding that people can watch what they have going on and interact with them more.