Famous Smoky Mountain moonshiner ‘Digger’ Manes wants to revitalize his tiny Tennessee hometown

He may have a successful show on the Discovery Channel, but Manes’ true passions are his small shop and the town of Newport

Photo courtesy of Discovery Channel

I meet Eric Manes inside Fruit Jar Alley, his wife’s clothing boutique in the sleepy Smoky Mountain town of Newport, Tennessee. Better known as “Digger” from the Discovery Channel docu-series Moonshiners, Manes is wearing overalls with the top button on each side undone, and doesn’t look like someone of reality TV fame. But then again, Manes doesn’t exactly line up with my expectation of a real-life, backwoods moonshiner either—someone who has spent his life illegally making the kind of liquor that’s bottled up in unlabeled mason jars. He’s polite and fairly clean cut, with a short, gray beard and glasses, and a thick Southern accent. At 56 years old, he reminds me a bit of my dad.

Manes walks me through his store next door, The Back Alley Grainery, where he, ironically, sells brewing and winemaking supplies. Upstairs is a lounge that he calls his Dude Den. The space is bigger than my apartment and mostly empty except for a bar, a pool table, and a small seating area. The minimal decorations include a taxidermy white bird and a picture of a donkey. Manes props one of those unlabeled jars of brown liquor on the bar and offers me a sip. For himself, he cracks open a can of Mountain Dew. 

I oblige and, to my surprise, it’s actually pretty good. “I don’t make shitty liquor,” Manes says.

Inside the Back Alley Grainery where Digger Manes sells brewing and winemaking supplies
Inside the Back Alley Grainery where Digger Manes sells brewing and winemaking supplies. | Photo courtesy of Digger Manes

Becoming an “outlaw”

Manes has been making moonshine in the Smoky Mountains for more than 40 years. A friend’s father was a still builder, and when Manes was just 14 years old, he approached the man, eager to learn the trade. “He said that when I turned 18 and my father said it was okay, he’d let me hang around with him, but not before then,” says Manes. “Making liquor might have been a bit of a tax violation, but folks around here, they had morals. They were good family men that just needed to make a living, and they wouldn’t let a child hang around that.”

On his 18th birthday, with his father’s permission—“he didn’t think I’d stick with it,” Manes recalls—he returned to the still builder, ready to learn. A licensed embalmer, Manes worked at his father’s funeral parlor by day and moonshined by night.

“It was not the money that really lured me in. I always looked up to these old guys that made liquor around here. They were always kind to folks and they were the pillars of their communities, they were always the first to help,” Manes says. “And they took this slop, if you will, and made a beautiful clear liquid that they could make some money off of. I just found it fascinating, the whole process.”

It wasn’t long before Manes started working with Marvin Sutton, famously known as “Popcorn,” one of the most prolific Appalachian moonshiners in history. The subject of several documentary films, Popcorn died by suicide in 2009 after being convicted of several offenses related to moonshining. 

Manes in his signature overalls
Manes in his signature overalls. | Photo courtesy of Discovery Channel

Almost every piece of information out there about Manes, including his bio on the Discovery Channel website, states that Popcorn was essentially Manes’ mentor. But Manes tells me that’s not exactly true. He describes their relationship like an equal partnership, stating it was actually he who helped Popcorn build his first 500-gallon still. The two friends made moonshine together for more than 20 years, running the stills at all hours of the day until Manes was ready to walk away from moonshining all together. 

“I was getting tired of it. I had a new child born and I didn’t want to go to jail. Popcorn would flaunt it in front of everybody and that was kind of dangerous,” says Manes. “I told him, ‘I’m done, I’ve had enough, I appreciate all the fun, but it’s time to grow up and be a big boy. I want to raise this child and not worry about the TTB showing up and putting us in jail.’” 

A few years later, Popcorn was arrested and sentenced to federal jail time. 

A star is born

Clearly, that wasn’t the end of Manes’ moonshine career. “I got into home brewing beer and wine to try to scratch my itch, but it didn’t quite work,” he admits. The next time around, he joined forces with a less dangerous and extra jolly partner, Mark Ramsey. 

Best friends for more than 30 years, Ramsey is Manes’ beloved cohort on Moonshiners, and the two are often described as an old married couple. “We finish each other’s sentences,” Manes says. “You can’t disguise a good friendship and I guess that’s why we do so well. We do love each other like brothers and we’re not going to do anything to hurt one another.” 

Manes with his best friend and Moonshiners partner, Mark Ramsey
Manes with his best friend and Moonshiners partner, Mark Ramsey. | Photo courtesy of Discovery Channel

It was Ramsey who pushed for the two to join the cast of Moonshiners, but Manes says he wasn’t interested. To be honest, Manes seems completely indifferent to, if not slightly uncomfortable with, his fame. He only agreed when he was assured the show was one season short of cancellation. “I thought the show was done for, so I said, ‘If you want to do it, I’ll do it this last season because it’s about dead,’” he says. “And then it just took off. It was dying on the vine according to the producers. We come on season 4 and then season 5 ratings go through the roof.” 

Season 9 of Moonshiners aired this spring, and it’s difficult not to give the charismatic duo most of the credit for the show’s revival. They’ve even joined the judge’s panel on Discovery Channel’s Master Distiller, a new reality competition show for budding distillers. Manes says they’re stopped on the street constantly by fans asking to take photos. “If it puts a smile on their face chatting with a country bumpkin like me, so be it,” he humbly concedes. 

During our interview, and with incredible timing, Manes pauses to read a text from Ramsey. “We’re good for Season 10,” it reads. 

“I don’t know whether to jump for joy or cry like a baby,” Manes says. 

Hometown hero

Every minute Manes isn’t filming, he’s minding his store, which opened in 2018. Because distilling is still illegal in Tennessee, he sells beer and winemaking supplies and hosts classes on the two crafts. “I don’t see any reason to help someone break the law,” he says. “But I have a lot of buddies that make beer around here, so I figured I’ll just get in the business of supplying them.”

Just like Manes didn’t get into moonshining for the money, he didn’t start his business for it either. Instead, his aim is to be a sort of pillar of his community. To start, he’s hoping to build some momentum in Newport, which has a population of roughly 7,000 and is passed over by tourists for the big, bright lights of Gatlinburg or other Smoky Mountain hot spots. 

The Back Alley Grainery opened in 2018.
The Back Alley Grainery opened in 2018. | Photo courtesy of Digger Manes

Manes and his wife took a big risk to kickstart a downtown revitalization with their businesses, but slowly, others are following. The street looks pretty empty, but he says Newport now has an ice cream parlor, a hair salon, a firearm store, and a food truck that’s looking to open a brick-and-mortar. 

“Being the town undertaker’s son, my parents worked every day and I would come to work with my dad. I was in every nook and cranny of this downtown area and it’s home to me,” he says. “I could walk into every store and name everyone who worked there and I miss that. We’ve become so disconnected from our communities and people don’t take time to be kind and speak to each other and have little conversations like, ‘Did you fish this week?’ I’d love to see it get back to that.”