Moonshine, an American invention, carves a path on the right side of the law

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You don’t have to venture into a remote corner of the mountains to visit Ole Smoky’s moonshine distillery. Tourists in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, can peer through windows and look at the large copper stills, the vats of sweet and boozy bubbling corn mash, and the stream of crystalline moonshine, pouring from a pipe into an overflowing mason jar. 

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It’s a far cry from the days when moonshiners hid their illegal stills in the woods. No one a hundred years ago would’ve dreamed of placing their operations a few yards from the sidewalk on the main drag of one of Tennessee’s biggest tourism towns, where the Salt and Pepper Shaker Museum and a replica of the Space Needle vie for your attention. And no moonshiner would have a gift shop to flaunt the enterprise. 

A shirt is a hell of a way to confess to a crime.

Ole Smoky can be so brazen because about a decade ago, several states, including Tennessee, changed laws to allow for the production of whiskey and other distilled spirits. Granted, there were exceptions for three counties in the state, including the home of the Jack Daniels distillery. But spirit makers in 41 more counties got the chance to start distilling (legally) after 2009. Founded the next year, Ole Smoky was the first legal distillery in the Volunteer State and now makes its moonshine in America with the help of 700 employees. Eleven years after it started, it isn’t even the only spot you can pick up a mason jar of unaged corn whiskey within a mile radius. Moonshine, whose name is often attributed to distillers working in secrecy through the night, has gone mainstream. 

Corn mash at Ole Smoky, bubbling away.

Chris Monroe/CNET

“Moonshine is a celebration of that Appalachian heritage, culture and alcohol that was made in the mountains, for a long time illicitly,” says Ole Smoky co-founder Joe Baker, a Tennessee lawyer and entrepreneur who’s been dubbed the “moonshine millionaire.”http://www.cnet.com/”It’s more than just a beverage; it’s a culture.”

That piece of culture, distilled and packaged in East Tennessee, is reaching well beyond its roots, bringing 25 flavors to all 50 states, and 40 countries. But Ole Smoky stays close to its roots — its moonshine is made from mostly local ingredients using a Baker family recipe that’s more than a hundred years old. Leaning hard into this distinctly American mythos of homegrown moonshine in a state already internationally famous for whiskey is a core strategy for selling it to the wider world. But distillers like Ole Smoky are also faced with the question of how to get consumers beyond the consumption of Southern culture as novelty. 

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One of Ole Smoky’s copper stills. 

Chris Monroe/CNET

“The liquor industry has always been very good at heritage marketing, being able to take a product and say, ‘Let me tell you the rich history of men in kilts, in the mountains 200 years ago, or good old country boys, breaking their backs and working with their gnarled hands to produce this by hand,”http://www.cnet.com/” says Kevin Kosar, author of Moonshine: A Global History. 

In 2020, Ole Smoky’s moonshine sales hit $118 million, according to numbers from IWSR, which collects data on the alcohol beverage market. The distiller snapped up 70% of the moonshine market share in the last year, Nielsen found. Moonshine makers like Ole Smoky are hoping to follow liquors like tequila and bourbon that’ve had bursts in popularity at various points in time. And not just that, but maybe they’ll even steal some ground from other spirits. 

Watch out, vodka and rum. The moonshiners are coming for you. 

Distilling rebellion

Moonshine is corn whiskey, but it’s also a generations-old middle finger to the establishment.

In the 1700s, immigrants from England, Ireland and Scotland brought their whiskey-making techniques to the US. Selling alcohol wasn’t always their primary objective. In more agrarian times, turning unsold crops like corn into booze was a way to salvage some income. Though there were laws covering taverns and public houses, Kosar says individuals making liquor were largely left alone until the US government tried to tax whiskey in the late 18th century. 

Taxes, let alone those on whiskey, were a touchy subject in early America. When in 1791 George Washington’s administration tried it out in an effort to pay off debt from the US Revolution, people revolted in the Whiskey Rebellion.

The conflict lasted until 1794, when President Thomas Jefferson finally repealed the whiskey tax. It wasn’t until the 1860s that the federal government established more-permanent taxation on alcohol, to fund the Civil War. 

Through Prohibition in the 1920s in particular, moonshine earned much of the reputation we associate with it today: edgy and illicitly made. Kosar says the 18th Amendment took what had been essentially a local business and turned into a crime syndicate. Opposition to the law and to taxes shaped the image of moonshine.

“A lot of people just didn’t agree with [taxes],” Kosar says. “So they said, ‘F you’ and they’re going to keep making what they make. And that’s what creates that whole dynamic of fighting the law and authority.” 

Holler at me

Growing up as a kid in East Tennessee, Baker, 46, knew his dad was making moonshine to sell, but didn’t know it was illegal. He remembers helping out, holding up a big hose that would help recirculate the mash as it cooked. 

“He had these stories that he would tell me that he was selling it for an additive for cosmetics,” says Baker. “As a kid, you believe whatever you’re told by your parents.”

Baker’s roots followed him as he became an adult. In college at Georgetown University in the mid-’90s, people asked him for a moonshine hookup as soon as they heard he was from East Tennessee. As a young lawyer, he gave folks jars of homemade apple pie moonshine (think corn whiskey with cinnamon and apple flavoring) as gifts, carrying on a tradition he’d always seen firsthand among his family and friends. 

“It was a product that was being made by people in the community, and they were very proud of it,” he says. “It sure did taste good, but it was fun to be able to share.”

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The Holler is one of Ole Smoky’s four locations.

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Baker, who’d been working as a lawyer, saw the opportunity to really share when Tennessee’s distilling laws changed. Also, he was just looking for something new to do. So he and two other lawyer friends decided to combine something so ingrained in the area with something else as rooted in the Smoky Mountains: tourism. 

They came up with the name Ole Smoky as a nod to the Great Smoky Mountains, and Baker put just about every dollar he had, including mortgaging the building with his law practice, into the distillery. Ole Smoky opened as the money was running out, and Baker that first summer was filled with the growing pains of figuring out how to keep up with demand for a product that takes at least four days to ferment. 

More than a decade later, Ole Smoky has two locations in Gatlinburg, another up the road in Pigeon Forge (also home to the Dollywood theme park) and a fourth in Nashville. CEO Robert Hall says Ole Smoky is pulling in 4 million visitors every year (in pre-pandemic times, at least). That’s more than all the distilleries in Scotland, and more than the distilleries on the bourbon trail in Kentucky.

“We have a marketing engine, which is our distilleries,” Hall says.

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Mason jars of apple pie moonshine at the Holler. 

Chris Monroe/CNET

The main location is called the Holler and sits on Gatlinburg Parkway, near a restaurant called Dick’s Last Resort and The Paula Deen Store. A holler (really, a hollow) is slang for a small valley, and pops up most often in places like Kentucky, Appalachia and other parts of the South. 

Ole Smoky’s Holler is a distillery and retail space of more than 2,000 square feet that employs about a hundred of the company’s 700 workers. The distillery, attached to the back, is relatively small compared with the store, which sells moonshine and moonshine-themed gifts. It wraps around an outside performance area, where bluegrass musicians play from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., with 15-minute breaks every hour. 

Large garagelike doors open the space to the outside. The interior looks like a barn, with rustic beams across the ceiling and an embarrassment of barrels branded with the Ole Smoky logo. Shelves line the walls, bearing moonshine’s preferred storage vessel: the mason jar. 

Though the bands might be going for that high lonesome sound, lonesome is the last word that belongs at the Holler. The foot traffic in mid-July is steady. People wander in, paw at the jars and the T-shirts, and sidle up to the bar to try the infamous liquor. 

Moonshine for ’90s kids

After staring at the rows and rows of mason jars lining the walls of the Holler, it’s time to sample some. 

I’m standing at one of several wooden bar setups where the distillery holds tastings for guests. Ole Smoky has cordoned it off, though, so instead of being shoulder to shoulder with the masses, it’s just Hall and me taking our tiny swigs of the various flavors.

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Visitors try out moonshine.

Chris Monroe/CNET

Our server is Brooke Batchelor, a brand ambassador extraordinaire. She tells me how she spent her 20s as a hospice nurse and desperately needed a change of pace before a friend recruited her to Ole Smoky in 2017. Now she doesn’t just pour moonshine, she smoothly sells you on a lifestyle and the many creative uses for Ole Smoky’s wild assortment of flavors. 

“This one is one of a kind,” she tells me, filling a mini plastic shot glass with liquid the color of Windex. “It’s like a 1997 7-Eleven Slush Puppie that kind of feels like a Warhead going down.”

As a child of the ’90s who would’ve gladly consumed both those sugar bombs at the same time, I feel prepared. The Sour Razzin’ Berry is both sweet without being sickly and tart as a counterbalance. It makes me miss the TGIF television lineup and the days when I wasn’t concerned at all whether a food item would stain my mouth bright blue. It’s not like I had meetings to go to.

Moving down the line, we try a sour lime, which Batchelor compares to a “hillbilly margarita.”  Along the way, she talks about all the concoctions you can make with each. Blackberry is great in sweet tea. Hall says they’ve seen lemonade spiked with blackberry moonshine become popular as a cocktail among some of their restaurant clients. Batchelor walks me through how every flavor hits in the apple pie moonshine, from the crisp apples to the cinnamon, and says it’s a good option if you’re a little clogged up. 

And then there’s the white lightning, the “star of the show,” Batchelor says. It’s 100 proof (your average vodka is about 80), in contrast with some of the others, which weigh in at around 30 or 40 proof. I brace myself for a kick that never comes. It’s smooth, with a light corn taste, just a little sweet. There’s no burn. My mouth has never felt more clean.

Moonshine and more

It’s not a random stroke of genius that Ole Smoky has 25 flavors of moonshine. Back home in Louisville, Kentucky, I spoke with David Ozgo, chief economist with the Distilled Spirits Council, a national trade association. He tells me broadly about how it’s a necessary move for any distillery to offer more than straightforward, unaged corn whiskey moonshine. 

“You better be able to move on pretty quickly from just nostalgia and having some sort of corn liquor in a mason jar to have a product people actually want to consume,” Ozgo  says, “if [it’s sold] as a novelty, you buy it and it sits on your shelf and collects dust.”

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Mason jars of sour lime moonshine, one of 25 flavors.

Chris Monroe/CNET

For sure, Ole Smoky has branched out. There’s a line of creme moonshine with flavors including butter pecan banana pudding. They sell moonshine-soaked pickles, okra, cherries and the like, and even nonalcoholic jams and salsa. Another Ole Smoky location focuses more on its whiskey offering, including a salted caramel, which Baker says was inspired by an ice cream he ate one day, and was born in his mother-in-law’s kitchen one night. 

And there’s the merch. So many shirts, hats, stickers, collapsible dog bowls, keychains, mugs, water bottles, shot glasses, hoodies, beanies, candles and just about anything else you can think of to slap a moonshine reference onto. There’s even a crop top that says, “Feelin’ fine, drinkin’ shine.”

Ozgo says that abroad, the rugged American motif has power. It’s helped drive the success of other whiskeys, like bourbon, which comes wrapped in the appealing imagery of Kentucky’s green, rolling hills and of stone rickhouses with charred oak barrels that gently inhale and exhale the liquor until it turns a caramel color and tastes expensive. 

Offering a good story isn’t enough, though. 

Maggie Kimberl, content editor for American Whiskey Magazine and president of the Bourbon Women Association, says moonshine can’t rely too much on folksy nostalgia. “It’ll be novel for a little while, but it will peter out eventually,” she says. “I want to encourage people, especially if they’re looking at building a brand, to approach it mindfully. Always have a backup plan or an exit plan, or just be really mindful of what the market will bear.”

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CEO Robert Hall points out the bubbling mash. 

Chris Monroe/CNET

This is partly where having almost as many flavors as Baskin-Robbins comes into play. When I spoke to Hall over Zoom in July, he described all the ways moonshine could eat the lunch of other liquors. 

“Moonshine is a canvas we can paint all sorts of pictures on,” he says, noting how alterations to the mash and distilling process can produce different results. 

A more neutral version like white lightning could function like vodka; blue flame, which comes from a mash of sugar and corn, might compete with rum. Hall can make an argument for just about every spirit. 

“There is a lot of creativity among the moonshine people,” Kimberl says, telling me about one woman who spent months perfecting MoonPie-flavored moonshine. And though not everyone in the greater whiskey community is sold on this new world of legal, flavored moonshine, there’s a market for it. “They wouldn’t be making it if it wasn’t selling,” she says.

Beyond the holler

As much as moonshine is a part of East Tennessee, its future lies, in part, outside the area. In 2019, Ole Smoky opened its Nashville location, and Hall says the company is looking at where to put fifth and sixth locations, bearing down even more on tourism as part of the business model.

You can take the moonshine out of the mountains, but in Ole Smoky’s case, you can’t really take the mountains out of the moonshine. The corn comes from a farm less than 20 miles away from the distillery. Everything else that goes into the moonshine, and everything the moonshine goes into, like the jars and the labels, is sourced in the US (with the exception of a few flavors like vanilla that come from abroad). 

Baker says he still appreciates the chance to share a piece of the culture he grew up in.

“I’m most proud that we have a product that’s being sold all over the world that has my hometown on it,” Baker says. “It’s a celebration of our heritage and who we are as mountain people.”

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