Meet Earl "PawPaw" Sizemore: A True Whiskey Legend
by Colonel Steve Akley
When you use a term like, “whiskey legend,” it has to be reserved for someone pretty special. This goes way beyond well-known, “bourbon famous,” hall-of-famer, etc. It has to be the ultimate recognition of one’s contributions to whiskey and they must have been playing his or her trade for a very long time to achieve “legend status.”
In the world of bourbon, I think there are only three true living legends: Jimmy Russell, Freddie Johnson and Bill Samuels, Jr. There is a whole list of others who have enjoyed amazing careers, been solid contributors to bourbon and have been at it a long time, but still need just a little more time, or perhaps a little more recognition, to get their legend cards punched. Names that immediately come to mind include: Fred Noe, Ed Foote, Eddie Russell, Baker Beam, Jim Rutledge, Julian Van Winkle III, Kathleen DiBenedetto, Al Young and Mike Veach. There are plenty of others, and your list could be very different than mine; and that’s okay. Let’s grab a bourbon and talk about it. There is no way to quantify this stuff, so it’s fun to talk about and what is more fun to do than to debate an unquantifiable topic while drinking bourbon?
If we broaden our topic to whisk(e)y as we talk about legends, we get into a realm I’m not as familiar with. I am not as in-tune with other styles of whiskey, so I don’t necessarily know the legends of Scotch, Irish Whiskey, Canadian Whisky or Japanese Whisky. I do one person, though, who absolutely deserves being in the “Legend Club;” and that is Earl “PawPaw” Sizemore of Neeley Family Distillery.
Before most of us were born, 75-year old PawPaw (pronounced Pap-Paw) was in the woods of Eastern Kentucky making moonshine. When he wasn’t making it, he was drinking it, including that of his competitors. Long before Roy Neeley and Michele Sizemore (Neeley Family Distillery owner Royce Nelly’s parents) got married, Earl Sizemore was a customer of Leonard Neeley, a well-known moonshiner in Owsley County, Kentucky. Earl would drive two counties over just to buy a pint. No matter how many times he did it, Leonard, who sat up shop outside of the local VFW Hall, would handle it the exact same way. When Earl would ask to buy a bottle, Leonard would say, “Now Earl, you know I don’t make any illegal whiskey.” Earl would have to then engage in conversation until Leonard had felt he vetted him enough that he wasn’t working with the Feds and then he would say, “I don’t know Earl, there may have been a bottle over yonder in that hollowed out stump. Per your money under the rock in it, take your bottle and get on your way.”
The just don’t make people like Earl Sizemore anymore. I realize there are still people making moonshine and there are plenty of people out in the woods with a still, but the era Earl was doing it is gone. Established territories, local law enforcement that was willing to look the other way for the greater good of the local economy and disputes being handled, “in-house”… that stuff just doesn’t exist like it once did.
It’s still here with PawPaw, though. Here’s a guy, that came out of the wood and is now making whiskey legitimately for the first time with his grandson Royce, and 11th-generation distiller. It’s amazing… in fact, I truly believe it to be legendary stuff!
The idea of Leonard Neeley getting enough conversation out of PawPaw to vet him out always seemed kind of funny to me when I would visit Neeley Family Distillery because while I might get a “hello,” in passing, he was always too busy for conversation. I would see him working the stills, cooking mash, just a Tasmanian devil of energy bouncing around the distillery. I can’t say he was ever very surly, but, I also not sure he took a liking to me either. I felt I was always just kinda in his way.
Last weekend, I got to spend a day with PawPaw as we were onsite at Neely Family Distillery to shoot an episode of a TV show we have in the works featuring Evan Haskill. The premise of the show is that he spends some time meeting with various people on his journey into the bourbon industry. His job for the day was to work at Neeley Family Distillery with PawPaw as his mentor.
The interaction on this trip was totally different than all of my other trips to Neeley. This time, he wasn’t off on his own busy working he was there with us, patient as we set-up for shots and then back to business. Showing someone how to make whiskey is his calling. He took Evan under his wing and we got to spend all of our time hanging out with him. Bo Cumberland, our cameraman, had a hard time keeping up with PawPaw as did Evan as he tried to follow his commands and direction.
It was non-stop laughs for the crew as we got to see Evan, a giant of a man, struggling to accomplish the tasks PawPaw was doing (I don’t know the stats, but I would say PawPaw is about 5’6” and 135 pounds). PawPaw could outsling Evan on bags of grain, he got the still unclogged when Evan struggled and while Evan was reduced to a sweating, worn out mess at the end of the day, PawPaw looked like he was ready to go another 8-hours.
We honestly had no idea how this would go when we set out do do this. PawPaw himself wanted to know, “What happens if he quits,” as we were preparing to begin shooting. By the end of the day, Evan had given it his all and even though he was dog tired, he was about to have his best moment of the day, The exhausted Evan said, “PawPaw, I’m going to go get a water, do you want one?”
PawPaw told him he doesn’t drink water, and if he’s not drinking whiskey he drinks Mountain Dew. He then asked Evan if he wanted one of his Mountain Dews. Evan took him up on the offer and claims it’s the best soda he ever drank… not because it’s the best soda, but because he showed he had the respect of PawPaw.
There is no doubt that working side-by-side with PawPaw is an amazing once-in-a-lifetime experience. He brings a history you simply can’t find anywhere else. The cool thing is the Neeley Family Distillery is offering Patreon supporters of the ABV Network an opportunity to do exactly what Evan did. Work side-by-side under the tutelage of PawPaw Sizemore for a day at Neeley Family Distillery. Cooking a mash, running the still and even making a cut from heads to hearts on a whiskey run. Yes, you will also be able to drink some whiskey, and even take a bottle home with you. Patrons at the $5/month level are higher are eligible for this drawing. Sign-up at: patreon.com/theabvnetwork to help support our efforts in the bourbon industry representing the fans of bourbon in our various entertainment mediums.
Who knows, you just might get a chance to hang out with PawPaw for a day! Be careful, though. When we got to talking about the TV show Moonshiners where one group stole the still of another group, we asked PawPaw, “what would have happened if someone would have stole his still back in the day when he was ‘shining?”
“The wouldn’t have,” responded PawPaw confidently.
That’s all he needed to say. We knew exactly what he meant. The guy is a legend!