Tasting whiskey at Old Forge Distillery in Pigeon Forge, TN
Photo Credit: Sean Fisher

The History Behind the Tennessee Whiskey in Your Glass

Learn the history of Tennessee’s spirits.

“That’s why all the folks on Rocky Top get their corn from a jar.”

Whiskey is experiencing quite the renaissance in today’s culture. Bars and speakeasies across the nation strive to create their own eclectic selections and it seems there’s always some new distillery in town trying to make its mark. Here in Tennessee, we’re spoiled in this regard. With the newly-drawn Tennessee Whiskey Trail there’s now a collection of 26 distilleries combined into one epic road trip linking East, Middle and West Tennessee.

I recently hit the road to sample a portion of the Trail’s eastern route with a couple musician friends along for the ride. We returned with memories of mountain adventures, incredible food, Southern hospitality and, of course, the good stuff.

If ever you find yourself bound for the Great Smoky Mountains, you should know you’re headed deep into the historical roots of American Whiskey culture. More than 200 years ago, early settlers got their start in the valleys and surrounding foothills of Appalachia. Corn grew extremely well and acted as a staple for the families and communities trying to make ends meet. Most villages had a mill to grind the corn making the crop even more versatile. It’s widely believed the Scotch and Irish immigrants were the first to experiment with corn distilling operations.

One of the first stops on your road trip should be Cades Cove, where an 11-mile drive loops a beautiful meadow tucked away between the Smoky Mountains in the national park. Scattered along the way are picturesque cabins, the quaint remains of an early community with legendary connections to the moonshine trade. In the 1800s, though remote, Cades Cove provided the resources needed for settlers to make a good life. Individual homesteads eventually led to a small but thriving agricultural community. It’s here you can enjoy a misty morning and take some pictures

As in Cades Cove, moonshining grew a strong foundation throughout the region. It provided an additional income for families and allowed individuals to begin other business ventures, thus stimulating economies. As time pressed forward into the 1900s however, national disapproval towards alcohol culminated in the prohibition. These early distillers were then faced with a choice - shut down their operations or become outlaws. Of those who continued moonshining, some were quietly praised by their communities while others drew the ire of the authorities. You will hear dramatic stories of late night raids, barn burnings and vengeful pranks during front porch history lessons and around midnight fires.

Whiskey Trail Log: The term “moonshine” originated when the outlawed locals took to distilling their spirits by the light of the moon to avoid detection.

If you have travelled in East Tennessee, you most likely have heard of Gatlinburg, where tourists and enthusiasts have long been drawn to the lively mountain city. However, if you’re looking to lodge and experience a more peaceful side to the smokies, Townsend is your destination. Like Gatlinburg, it’s perched directly next to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, providing a quiet respite. Begin your Townsend experience at the Little Arrow Resort, a compound of amazing tiny homes literally 300 yards from the park entrance. I must admit, my inner millennial was incredibly happy with our home away from home. With the park so close, Cade’s Cove 20 minutes up the road, and Gatlinburg 45 minutes away, you are truly set for a great experience.

Far and away, one of our favorite highlights of the trip was a truly fantastic night at the Dancing Bear Appalachian Bistro located just down the highway from the Little Arrow Resort. It’s one of the best ways to conclude a day of adventuring in the park with the kingly dinner that awaits you there. The Dancing Bear takes rich southern ingredients and creates artful masterpieces. With an exceptional wine selection, and service that is both warm and refined, The Dancing Bear is without a doubt one of the finest culinary experiences you can enjoy this close to the Tennessee mountain wilderness.

As hard as it was to leave the tranquility of Townsend, there was still much to see on our whiskey trail journey. All told, we were able to visit three unique top-notch distilleries that each have successfully embraced the area’s heritage of moonshine, revitalized the trade and guaranteeing its continued success. It truly is a wonder to go behind-the-scenes with the makers of today’s best whiskey and moonshine. These masters have broken down the craft to an exact science that elevates the distilling process to an art.

A great example of this is Old Forge Distillery nestled in the lively tourist town of Pigeon Forge. This particular distillery was established in an old farm supply store directly next to the old mill which supplied the corn maize needed for its whiskey mash. Upon your visit you’ll meet Keener Shanton who began distilling his own spirits before being recruited to run Old Forge. While there, you should certainly give the vast multitude of moonshine flavors a taste. Though their signature bourbon has won multiple awards, it’s also amazing to see the wide spectrum of truly intriguing flavors Keener has been able to create.

Whiskey Trail Log: Pigeon Forge received its name from an old iron forge established in the town in 1790. A post office later operated out of the Old Mill next door where carrier pigeons were used to send messages.

Not far from the lively main drag that is Pigeon Forge, you’ll find the Tennessee Legend Distillery right off Newport Highway in Sevierville. They have made quite a name for themselves and have been featured in several prominent restaurants such as Nashville’s popular Biscuit Love. During our visit, Tennessee Legend’s head distiller, Justin Holeman, proved himself to be a true chemist. It is truly impressive just how complicated and intricate the process of distilling can be.  Justin spends most of his days testing new flavors and crafting new combinations to perfection and he invited us to sample a few for ourselves. Of special note was the Canebrake Whiskey, a true standout that is named after a Rattlesnake species indigenous to the area. For all you coffee lovers, Justin recommends you add a splash of Dirty Cream moonshine liqueur to your cup for an extra kick.

To find one of the best pieces of evidence that the moonshine industry is truly alive and well in today’s day and age, look to Sugarlands Distilling Company in Gatlinburg, our final distillery destination. We arrived just in time to celebrate their 4th birthday and the festivities were already underway. On the back-porch entertainment stage, folk artist Woody Pines played some gypsy-jazz-inspired-tunes. Guests of note included the colorful cast members of the reality TV show “Moonshiners”. The vibe was amazing. The rustic walls are simply covered with a seemingly endless variety of moonshine and whiskey flavors. If you sign yourself up for one of the tasting circles, you’re guaranteed to make at least one (or 20!) new friends as you give the inventory a try. And be sure you don’t miss their specialty cocktail bar where the charismatic staff demonstrates just how creative you can get with moonshine-featuring recipes.

Sugarlands’ operation is massive compared to some of the smaller names in the industry. If you take the distillery tour you’ll meet Connie, who delivers an incredibly well-informed tour and lets you see and smell the different states of moonshine in the distilling process. You’ll learn of the different phases a batch will go through as it approaches legal alcohol content. In one of the early stages you learn of the substantial risk of blindness should it be consumed too early - listen to the professionals, folks!

As whiskey and moonshine continue their combined rise back into the glasses of America, it’s incredible to realize much of their history was written within Tennessee’s borders. There’s also no sign Tennessee will be lessening its influence on the matter. Though these three distilleries were but a short sampling of the 26 locations that make up the full TN Whiskey Trail, we learned so much and made truly unforgettable memories along the way. We already know we will be planning a return before too long.

If you embark on the trail, make sure to get your official TN Whiskey Trail passports (available at all participating distilleries) and each visit time you visit an official Trail location, you can get your passport stamped at the individual distilleries to document the progress of your journey.

See you on the trail!





Sean is a photographer born, raised and based in Nashville, TN. Having always had a love for the great outdoors, his work portrays his unique perspective of adventure and storytelling. No road trip is too far if a mountain top, waterfall or cave lies at the journey's end.  His deep affection for his native state has led him to craft a growing career showcasing the best Tennessee has to offer in culture, history and natural beauty.   Follow along with his ventures on Instagram: @mr.bootstraps.

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