Tennessee Moonshine Made in the Smokies
Johnny Baker “never in a million years” thought he would ever be making moonshine legally in downtown Gatlinburg.
Ole Smoky Moonshine, which is smack-dab in middle of town, has been producing 100 proof White Lightning for more than two years now.
“To be able to capture this part of Americana and show people what was the essence of a way of life is just amazing,” says Johnny, the company’s groups coordinator. “In a way our family has come full circle. We were making a living off moonshine then—right or wrong, but that’s what we had to do to get by—and we’re making a living off moonshine now.”
Johnny has a history of moonshine in his family. He talks of a great uncle who ran a still in the attic of his home in Knoxville, until the law spotted smoke coming from his chimney on a day when there shouldn’t have been, came in and busted it up.
Master distiller Justin King comes from a line of moonshiners that stretches four generations, back to when prohibition made illegal moonshine-making big business in the Appalachia hills. “He was homeschooled,” jokes Johnny.
King learned well. Two of Ole Smoky’s products—Apple Pie and Blackberry moonshine—finished first and second in Best of Show in the American Distillers Institute judging in Colorado.
When the Tennessee legislature loosened the laws on distilleries several years ago, owners wasted no time in setting up Ole Smoky Moonshine.
“We were the first legal moonshine distillery in Tennessee,” Johnny boasts.
Starting out with five employees, a few pieces of equipment and a couple products, the company now has more than 100 employees working three shifts in what used to be a large shopping area now called “Moonshine Holler.” Ole Smoky produces nine types of moonshine, ranging from 40 to 100 proof. Three of the products are distributed in 45 states.
“We have taken great pains to stay as true to the form of how this was done as possible,” Johnny says.
That includes using copper still equipment instead of stainless steel, which would be much easier to maintain. It’s copper because “that’s what they used,” says Johnny.
The corn used to make the ’shine is ground at the Old Mill in Pigeon Forge. “When you see that old wheel running extra hot, that’s for us,” Johnny explains.
Walls and displays within the still area, store and moonshine sampling area are put together with wood from various barns and homesteads of surrounding Appalachia. A reconstructed log cabin holds a display of tobacco items that were once a byproduct of the moonshine business. Several old cars of the type used by moonshine runners back in the day are on display. A “See Rock City” sign adorns one wall.
To add to the flavor, live bluegrass and country music is performed throughout the day and into the evening in an open patio area. Samples of the company’s nine brands are offered for tasting, and jars of the moonshine line the walls ready for sale.
Johnny leads group tours through the operation. He says he enjoys the occasional visitor who “has a little moonshine background.”
“They come with stories of their own and check your validity so that what we are doing here isn’t just smoke and mirrors,” Johnny notes. “It’s been a lot of fun to revisit our heritage. Bringing this part of the past to the present has been rewarding and humbling.”
Ole Smoky is one of several legal moonshine operations now up and running with more on the way. East Tennessee Distillery opened last year in Piney Flats in Upper East Tennessee. The White Lightning Trail takes motorists on the back roads and pockets of East Tennessee’s moonshine country.