Every city in Arkansas has a unique story to tell, but it’s hard to beat the legends of notorious mobsters and alcohol smuggling that swirl over the city of Hot Springs.
Hot Springs was considered the unofficial moonshining capital of the country in the early 20th century’s Prohibition Era. The city’s heavy hand in moonshining, gambling and a host of other activities led to notorious crime leaders calling the city their home away from home if not their base of operations.
One spot in particular that played an important role in the city’s landscape is Crystal Ridge Distillery, or more accurately, the business that now inhabits the building formerly owned by F.C. Stearns as a warehouse for his hardware, feed and furniture stores. The building, constructed between 1910 and 1920, was on the outskirts of town at the time of its construction. And, most importantly, it was the closest building to the railroad tracks.
Danny Bradley, who co-owns Crystal Ridge Distillery with his wife, Mary, explained that sometimes, fate lets things fall in the hands of the people who are best equipped for the challenge. In 2004, he was working as a school teacher in the Hot Springs area when he started to realize a pattern in his students.
“Of the high school kids that were graduating, the best and brightest were going to college and never returning because they were going to bigger cities with better jobs,” Bradley said. “I started developing a desire to change the community and make it better by creating more jobs here. I got the opportunity to go back to school and get a Ph.D., and I worked with an animal health company, one of the top five in the world.”
This company’s products were made with natural solutions such as essential oils, and lots of the products were derivatives of yeast, Bradley said. He began learning about yeast and fermentation in North America as he traveled, touring distilleries as he went.
But Bradley still wanted to create jobs in Hot Springs. That was when he realized that the solution was right in front of him — Hot Springs was a great place for a distillery.
“We started looking for a building and discovered our current location,” Bradley said. The 17,000-square-foot location was perfect for the production of one of the city’s oldest exports in a way that paid homage to the history of Hot Springs.
“Hot Springs has a history ripe with gangsters, prostitution, smuggling and gambling. But all of the illegal activities can trace their ties back to moonshining, especially during the prohibition days when alcohol was bought here and sourced nationally,” Bradley said.
A vast majority of the city’s law enforcement officers knew about the illegal activities in Hot Springs but turned a blind eye to them as long as the activities weren’t violent, as crime made up nearly all of the city’s income.
David Hall touched on these infamous activities in his book The Vapors:
“Hot Springs had enjoyed wide-open casino gambling in one form or another since 1870, despite the fact that gambling was then and had always been illegal in Arkansas, as it was in every state in America except Nevada… But in Hot Springs, gambling clubs like the Vapors were open to the public and on full display, the criminal activity inside of them advertised on bright marquees and in newspaper and radio advertisements across the county,” he wrote.
Criminals like Sam Giancana, Vito Genovese and Alvin “Creepy” Karpis all made themselves at home in their unofficial hideout — the city of Hot Springs. Al Capone even frequented Hot Springs to soothe his syphilis with the city’s healing waters. But during one trip, Capone made an observation.
“Gangsters like Al Capone came here frequently; it was one of his favorite destinations,” Bradley said. “One of the reasons he was coming here was because Hot Springs was very well known for producing some of the best moonshine in the country. That was the industry that a lot of locals were in.”
Just north of town, in the early 1920s, Capone purchased Belvedere Dairy which became his new moonshine distillery. Capone would disguise the moonshine as spring water in glass bottles before packing them in the water coolers. Capone’s men across the country could tell when they’d received a shipment of moonshine, because the labels on the disguised bottles were upside down.
But Capone needed a way to transport his bottles to Chicago, Atlanta, New York, St. Louis and his other hubs around the country. He decided that the railroad at the edge of town was the most convenient way. And the building closest to the railroad at that time was F.C. Stearns’s warehouse — the building Crystal Ridge Distillery occupies today.
“F.C. Stearns was a big businessman in Hot Springs, and his businesses were primarily hardware stores, feed stores and furniture stores. Our building was the warehouse for that,” Bradley explained. “Out on the east side of the building were the old original railroad tracks. Everything would be unloaded into our building. The ingredients for alcohol are grain and water, so Hot Springs was a prime location for water, but not grain. A lot of the grain that was going into making moonshine came in on the railroad cars and passed through our building. Grain was coming into here, and this was the most logical site for people, especially Al Capone, to load moonshine onto the railroad.”
When the Bradleys were renovating the building, they found dozens of glass bottles packed underneath the floorboards, silently pointing to the same conclusion.
As with all markets, the pandemic has impacted Bradley’s business plans along the way. But this discovery gave him an opportunity to focus on his main goal of helping the community.
“We went through the build out, and our grand opening was March 14 of 2020. We shut down five days later because of the pandemic. We were five days old as a business, and we’re already facing the uncertainty of what the pandemic was going to do,” Bradley said.
Fortunately, opportunity knocked once more.
“Mary had read an article about how distilleries had started making hand sanitizer. My wife still works managing human clinical trials for medicinal and pharmaceutical companies. She is very versed in government regulatory processes and began to research the process of making hand sanitizer in terms of legality,” Bradley explained. “By April 1, we had sold our first bottle of hand sanitizer. Our business plan was blown out of the water, because we wanted to be a tourist attraction as a distillery and wanted to have a family tourist attraction that was intermingled with a distillery. Our only option available then was the hand sanitizer…making the sanitizer was a lot more important than just self preservation, because we were preserving our community. That is what I originally wanted to do. We were making a difference in helping people stay healthy.”
Bradley’s community-oriented mindset ended up leading to greater success than he’d originally anticipated.
“We were selling hand sanitizer out of our back door because the business area was closed off. We had a stand set up and were selling out of that, and more and more people would buy a bottle of ‘moonshine’ with their hand sanitizer. And we stayed doing that until mid-June. The initial rush to have the sanitizer was dwindling, so we pivoted and started to reach out to public schools. We were supporting 80 school districts and eight universities with sanitizer so that they could stay open by the end of 2020. The value of that was way more than the dollar.”
The timing was great, too, Bradley said — he was able to resume the distillery business just as the tourist season picked up.
“At the same time that we opened our business back up and allowed people to come in, the tourism in Hot Springs started picking up. We started having travelers come in. Last year as we transitioned back to our original business model, we did surprisingly well. Of course, every industry and every business suffered last year, and we were no different. But we were able to transition and help our community, the state of Arkansas and the public school system. We persevered as a business and made it.”
Pivoting back to the original business model as a distillery and tourist destination has helped lay a foundation for the future.
“We have worked with representatives here in the state to get the law changed so that Arkansas craft distilleries can self distribute. We can put our product on the shelf at retailers across the state that aren’t in dry counties. We can start selling our product and supply the demand outside of our business,” Bradley said.
Today, Crystal Ridge Distillery produces 16 different flavors of “moonshine” and two unflavored versions as well as other liquors. Bradley is also experimenting with a canned cocktail line and vodka sodas, so that customers can enjoy them while fishing on the lake as a more environmentally-friendly substitute to glass. The flavors he’s tweaking right now are blueberry, raspberry and orange creme. He said more flavors are in development for this fall.
Bradley has also invested heavily in the tourism aspect of his building.
“In our research of moonshine across the U.S., we found that in the 18th and 19th centuries, a whiskey still was considered to be farm equipment because it was too labor-intensive to load all the grain that you make over the course of the year into a wagon to ship out. Almost all farmhouses back in those days had a whiskey still,” Bradley explained. “We designed our interior to look like an old farmhouse. We have faux barns in here as well as old decorations on the wall. Our interior design is what you would have seen at these locations where stills were making moonshine years ago. Our moonshine still is a replica of a west Garland County still from 1850 that spent six generations in business. We employ a lot of old school techniques but with modern technology. Our still has modern technology in it. I can check the temperature of the still from my phone at home, but it looks like it did in 1850.”
Bradley not only is also working towards his goal of bringing more tourists to town but also trying to motivate young people to stay.
“Ninety percent of the time, our average customers are out-of-towners. We’re reaching the tourists that are coming here, and they’re enjoying the product. It comes with its challenges, like supply chain and product shipment, but the future is extremely bright.”
Crystal Ridge Distillery hosts events year-round and remains a family friendly environment, because Bradley believes that the history of the city and his building should be enjoyed by people of all ages.
“I have always wanted to make a difference in this city to impact the community for good,” Bradley said. “I just had to go back to our roots.”
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