Moonshine rules the roost when it comes to craft beverages in East Tennessee’s Smoky Mountains. While you have Asheville, NC—the craft beer capital of Appalachia—less than two hours away, you won’t find much craft beer made on the Volunteer State’s side of the Smokies. What you will find are plenty of small distilleries.
The mountains of East Tennessee have for many generations been known as prime moonshine country. Problem was, it was illegal. The 2008 arrest of legendary East Tennessee moonshiner Marvin “Popcorn” Sutton was sort of symbolic of the end of an era for homemade moonshine.
State legislation adopted in 2009 legalized the operation of distilleries in many Tennessee counties, including Sevier County—home to the mountain tourist towns of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge. Because these towns were already wet, the distilleries could have public tasting rooms and retail bottle sales. It wasn’t long before local entrepreneurs were making a business out of it.
In 2010, Gatlinburg witnessed the start of Tennessee’s legal moonshine movement when Ole Smoky Distillery opened Moonshine Holler. Ole Smoky became an immediate hit. In the five years that followed, six more distilleries opened in that side of the county.
East Tennessee moonshine supports tourism
Nationally, small distilleries are hot. They are rivaling the growth curve of small breweries, though starting from a much smaller base. In this part of Appalachia today, you go to North Carolina for beer—and you go to Tennessee for whiskey.
Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge together have a full-time population of only about 11,000. You may wonder how many moonshine distilleries one small area can support. But as long as the tourists keep pouring in, the moonshine will keep pouring out.
They say the Smoky Mountain region hosts over 10 million tourists a year. And you know they all have to drink something. So why not moonshine?
Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge have quite a different vibe from the more upscale, citified feel of Asheville. Their economy depends more on tourism, and their more-rustic charm excels at attracting folks from about a ten state region.
Streets and distilleries are busy
If you haven’t seen it for yourself, the busy main drags of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge are sort of like if you moved the Myrtle Beach strip to the mountains. A zillion small shops and restaurants, outlet malls, and amusements—just like at the beach. Mountain arts and crafts outlets are mixed in with go-kart tracks, aquariums, and Ripley’s Believe It or Not attractions. Instead of seascapes you have mountain vistas. Instead of waves, you have zip lines. Instead of oceanfront accommodations, you have mountainside cabins and condos.
People bring their vacation money, and they’re determined to spend it. More and more of this spending finds its way to the moonshine distilleries.
On just about any weekend it’s common to have a short wait to get your place at one of the distilleries’ free tasting stands. Tourist season in the Smoky Mountains runs strong about 10 months a year, only slowing a bit in January and February. It’s hard not to get caught up in the fun the distillery tasting rooms create.
If you go, visit all seven places and compare
Here’s our notes on the operations that make up this exciting, multi-million dollar industry in Sevier County.
Ole Smoky Moonshine Distillery • Gatlinburg
This is the original, legal moonshine distillery in the state. Since they opened Moonshine Holler in 2010, they haven’t looked back. At the Holler, you will see a complete operating moonshine distillery as you walk through the facility on a self-guided tour. But the real star is the tasting room.
The Holler is always a festive place where you will meet folks from all around the region. It’s easy to strike up a conversation about moonshine.
Walk up to one of several tasting stations and you’ll be served ample portions of a profusion of potions. Featured at Ole Smoky are flavored moonshines, like Apple Pie, Lemon Drop, Maple, Butterscotch, and many more. Another set of popular products are the fruits preserved in moonshine. You can get both cherries and peaches.
If you like straight, unflavored moonshines, they have plenty of those too. A unique product is Ole Smoky Blue Flame, which comes in at 128 proof. They say the color of the flame is evidence of quality: “If it burns blue, it’s true.”
At the distillery there will likely be seasonal products not available elsewhere. A visit during the Holiday season found a great spiked eggnog-like product they called Ole Smoky Shine Nog. At any given time, expect to find 15 varieties of moonshine to sample and purchase.
Ole Smoky has an excellent store where you can buy moonshine and also an array of specialty food products. The salsas are outstanding.
Ole Smoky Barrelhouse • Gatlinburg
This is the home of real hand-crafted, oak-aged Tennessee Whiskey. Located at 650 Parkway in the heart of downtown Gatlinburg, it’s not unusual to find a string band here keeping the customers entertained.
Formerly operated as Davy Crockett Distillery, it was acquired by the Ole Smoky Distillery. They will continue to make the more popular oak-aged whiskey products.
Ole Smoky Distillery • Pigeon Forge
Opening in October 2014, the Pigeon Forge location is called the Ole Smoky Barn. It makes its home in The Island, a large entertainment and shopping complex. While smaller than the original Gatlinburg store, it still offers the complete moonshine experience from touring the distillery to tasting the products.
Old Forge Distillery • Pigeon Forge
Opening in September 2014, Old Forge Distillery is a part of the Old Mill Square, which includes restaurants, a grain mill, a pottery, a blacksmith forge, and gift shops of various types.
They focus mostly on flavored moonshines, but also market some regular whiskey. All water used in their products comes from a mountain spring. While they have many of the same flavors as others do, Old Forge is also developing an innovative series called Tennessee Roots. For this series, head distiller Keener Shanton uses the distillation column to extract the flavor and color from roots, herbs, and spices, and instead of commercial flavorings.
Old Forge Distillery products are nicely displayed and the store is nicely decorated. Their tasting bar is well-organized and efficient. It shows the owners have a knack for marketing.
Old Forge has some of the best swag of any distillery in the area. A huge variety of insignia clothing, glassware, and even logo pottery from the Pigeon River Pottery across the street. The one-of-a-kind moonshine jugs are really cool.
When the store manager was asked what they plan to do if the moonshine bubble ever bursts, she answered that they’d likely add other flavored spirit products like vodka and gin. That could be a smart move since the entire category of flavored spirits continues to be very strong nationally. Unique flavors can be a big boost to sales and help a distillery establish a name for itself well beyond its home market.
Sugarlands Distilling • Gatlinburg
Opening in March 2014, Sugarlands Distilling Company produces craft quality moonshine and whiskey. Many of its products are branded as recipes from a quintet of TV-famous Appalachian moonshiners. You can sample away at their good looking tasting room in the heart of downtown Gatlinburg.
They are the legal marketer of ‘shines by Mark Rodgers, Jim Tom Hedrick, Steven Ray Tickle, and the most recent addition, Mark and Digger. That’s pretty cool marketing, don’t you think. You may recall that Mark and Digger were the protegés of Tennessee moonshining legend “Popcorn” Sutton. Who wouldn’t want to sample their hooch.
The distillery is just beginning to market some aged whiskies. Soon they’ll have a rye and some small batch specialties that should be interesting.
In flavored moonshines, they have many of the popular flavors and one that really jumps out as different: Peanut Butter and Jelly.
The distillery equipment sits just to the side of the tasting room and store. They make more than a dozen different products there.
Doc Collier Distillery • Gatlinburg
Doc Collier Moonshine Distillery opened in September 2014, but its heritage goes back 120 years when the real William “Doc” Collier was moonshining up in the Smokies.
While the distillery offers much of the typical moonshine fare, including apple pie, peach, blackberry, and cinnamon, it does not stop there. You will also find specialties such as their moonshine-style Blueberry Brandy and a sugar-cane rum. All their spirits are made with fresh English Mountain Spring Water.
They have a great mercantile gift shop where you can buy glassware, t-shirts, and other items that will help you remember your Gatlinburg moonshine experience.
It’s big business: A typical tourist’s comment from the distillery’s website that really is typical of the experience people have at these little distilleries:
“First trip to Gatlinburg and I absolutely had the best time ever! I visited all four distilleries and tried every product sample available….”
Jakes Creek Distillery • Wears Valley
Situated about 10 miles outside Pigeon Forge, this distillery is the newest and most remote of the seven moonshine distilleries in the county. Located in a quiet mountain vale surrounded by high green peaks, it makes a nice escape from the hustle and bustle of the primary tourist zone.
Opening in late 2015, Jakes Creek specializes in a very traditional take on Appalachian whiskey. Their moonshine is made in small batches using a 10th generation family recipe. They stress their commitment to “respecting the tradition of our Appalachian roots from the first drop to the last.”
Their first moonshine product is a nice 100 proof corn whiskey. They also have a wheat whiskey. Soon following are flavored versions like orange. In their store they sell their own, very popular Bloody Mary mix, which will soon be available for purchase online.
The opening of this distillery shows that the upward trend for small distilleries continues in East Tennessee. There is still room for smart entrepreneurs to make a market out of their family’s passion for moonshine.