Gatlinburg, Tennessee, is a town best known for its fudge shoppes, pancake houses, ski slopes, wax museums, and hillbilly golf. Oh, and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park just down the road, a true national treasure. But somewhere between the beauty of those Smoky Mountains and the tourist wasteland that is Pigeon Forge (just down the road in the OTHER direction), glimpses of the rural roots of eastern Tennessee can be found. The misty hills of eastern Tennessee have produced such wondrous yet disparate things as Benton’s bacon and Dollywood, Blackberry Farm and Fannie Farkle’s Family Fun Parlor. No matter how you look at it, each of these things somehow point to the genius and ingenuity of the Tennessee mountain spirit. And no product better symbolizes that mountain spirit than the legendary moonshine that sprang forth from these mountains and the foothills of the Smokies. And so it seems rather perfect that smack dab in the middle of Gatlinburg, settled not among the trees but among the wax museums and pancake houses, sits a fully functioning moonshine still. A “legal moonshine” distillery – the Ole Smoky Distillery, home of Ole Smoky Tennessee Moonshine. Now, “legal moonshine” is indeed a bit of an oxymoron, but let’s forgive the name and take a closer look at Ole Smoky.
Ole Smoky Distillery has been around only since July (2010), but they’ve managed to capture the spirit that has imbued this region for centuries. From the “100 year old family recipe” that is the basis for their unaged corn whiskey, to the simple but gorgeous mason jars and 1900-era letterpress labels that hold their products, to the way that they manage to fit in on the Gatlinburg strip while still somehow maintaining an air of unblemished authenticity, Ole Smoky is doing things right. Every jar of their moonshine is every bit as much a product of local culture and spirit as it is a 100 proof spirit.
On a recent trip through the mountains, we stopped in at Ole Smoky and chatted with one of their proprietors, Tony Breeden, and one of the distillers, Jason King. Their distillery and tasting room (and gift shop and liquor store all in one) is indeed smack dab in the middle of Gatlinburg, and everything is out in the open – the whiskey is fermented and distilled right there before your very eyes, with descriptive signs to help explain what’s going on and how they do it. The in-your-face openness is just about as far away as you can get from that other stuff known as moonshine that has been hidden away and whispered about for centuries. But they clearly aim to capture that spirit, as Tony said, “we set out for authenticity, let’s do this as authentic as possible so people around here will be proud of it.”
Their still is a souped up version of a backyard moonshiner’s still, custom built by Kentucky’s Vendome Copper & Brass Works, the revered engine that helps most of bourbon’s great distilleries run. Each batch starts with locally grown and milled corn, which turns into 400 gallons of mash, which then produces about 40 gallons of corn whiskey. All right in front of your very eyes. Jason gave us a brief walk through their process, which is clearly a mixture of local tradition and contemporary know-how. Likewise, that 100 year old family recipe works at this scale thanks in part to the advice of Dave Pickerell, former master distiller at Maker’s Mark, who consulted on scaling up the Ole Smoky recipe to fit their new equipment and batch size.
After viewing the corn whiskey being made, visitors can move on to a free sampling of Ole Smoky’s products – right now, they have a 100-proof “White Lightnin” that is distilled six times to reach a near-vodka character, the 100-proof “Original Unaged Corn Whiskey” which is their true take on moonshine, and jars of beautiful moonshine-soaked maraschino cherries. They also hand out a recipe for “Apple Pie moonshine” with each jar of White Lightnin’, and sampled a batch of that as well at the distillery.
For us, the star of the show was clearly the unaged corn whiskey, crystal clear, full of fresh corn notes, a pleasant slightly-syrupy mouthfeel, some crisp floral notes and hints of butter throughout. (Full tasting notes here) The White Lightnin’ may be good for mixing, but the multiple distillings take away the corn character, the moonshine-iness of it. And those cherries – delicious, beautiful, a great gift or cocktail garnish.
So what’s ahead for Ole Smoky? As of this week, they’ve reach seven states, including Georgia (which is literally hitting the shelves right now). They should be in 15 states within three months, plan on doubling their space in Gatlinburg next year and possibly milling corn on site, and continue to play with new products, both food and spirits, that reflect the local culture. They’ll surely be walking that line between the mountains and the masses, the authentic and the commercial, the “legal” and the “moonshine.”
Please check out our visits to the other great Tennessee distilleries. And we’ll leave you with a few more photos of Ole Smoky, smack dab in the middle of Gatlinbug, Tennessee: