When you hear “moonshine,” what do you think of? Maybe you think of high-proof alcohol that’s comparable to gasoline, or perhaps you picture bootleggers during prohibition selling crystal-clear alcohol in mason jars that can make those who drink it go blind. Names you’ve probably come to know it as include white lightning, hooch, and mountain dew. But at the end of the day, that bottle of whiskey you have on your shelf at home actually began as moonshine. Moonshine, as it turns out today, is much more than meets the eye (and the tongue).
A couple weeks ago found me on a tour of Gatlinburg and Great Smoky Mountains National Park, where moonshine (or, white whiskey) has much of its roots. The 18th and 19th centuries saw moonshine become prevalent among farmers in the Appalachian Mountains, including the area that’s now Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which is a subrange of the Appalachian Mountains. During this period, the sell and transportation of corn was an expensive line of work with little return. However, convert that corn into liquid as moonshine and the value of it all of a sudden multiplis by 10. Talk about a cash crop!
During my tour of Gatlinburg, I set out to properly discover (and not just drink) moonshine. So my tour of Gatlinburg actually started just outside of it, in Sugarlands, which is a valley in the Great Smoky Mountains. Long ago, the area was referred to as Moonshiners’ Paradise, where many moonshiners found it suitable for its remoteness and difficulty to access. I got to experience this firsthand with Smoky Mountain Guides, which took me into some of those remote, difficult areas to access that are still so today. We hiked past caves and remnants of homes where moonshine had been produced more than a century ago.
But as fascinating as all of this was, coming to Gatlinburg and not actually tasting the moonshine would be like visiting Napa and not drinking any wine. Luckily, both for convenience and safety, all of the Gatlinburg moonshine distilleries and tasting rooms are along the main thoroughfare, and I left nothing to chance. And so my tour of Gatlinburg distilleries began.
Ole Smoky. If you’ve ever seen a jar of moonshine at your local bar or store, then chances are likely that it was Ole Smoky, which was Tennessee’s first (legal) moonshine distillery (and, the largest). Ole Smoky, like most of Gatlinburg’s distilleries, is a true experience, from watching the production to free tastings to live music. What’s unique about Ole Smoky’s moonshine is the amount of different flavors, featuring more than 20 different types of moonshine, from your everyday 100-proof moonshine to flavored moonshines from 35 to 100 proof, with flavors like cinnamon, apple pie, peach, sweet tea, watermelon, and eggnog.
Sugarlands. Thanks to many of Gatlinburg’s distilleries, moonshine is going legit, as evidenced by the many awards that Sugarlands has won, such as its six medals at the 2015 San Francisco World Spirits Competition (considered one of the foremost spirits competitions), including a gold medal for Jim Tom’s Unaged Rye in the unaged whiskey category. Here, belly up to any number of several bars, where tastemakers walk you through an entertaining history of each of Sugarlands’ products while you get to down a sample of each. The Back Porch, which is Sugarlands’ outdoor pine pavilion, sees live music from local bands on most weekend nights. On the evening I visited, Mark and Digger from the Discovery Channel show, Moonshiners, even joined me for a drink.
Doc Collier. Doc Collier is the new kid on the block among moonshine distilleries in Gatlinburg. Like Sugarlands and Ole Smoky, it’s part distillery, part tasting room, and part mercantile. Doc Collier is steeped in history and local lore, as it’s named for the man who was making moonshine in the area decades ago. The story goes that he would get some of his ingredients at the mercantile store of A.J. Bush (as in the founder of Bush’s Best baked beans). Here at Doc Collier, you’ll walk up to the bar, where they offer a couple of different free and premium tastings, including several different types of moonshine, vodka, rum, and a couple varieties of brandy.
Davy Crockett’s. Finally, the last stop on my moonshine tour of Gatlinburg, Davy Crockett’s. While all of the other places mentioned here are moonshine producers and tasting rooms, Davy Crockett’s is first and foremost a producer of aged whiskey. This includes a number of flavored whiskies, including pecan, cinnamon, and chocolate. However, they also have a line of moonshine. Like the others listed here, Davy Crockett’s is located on the main drag in Gatlinburg and is part mercantile, part tasting room.