Adult travelers can visit the famed Gatlinburg Distillery, “The Holler”, as well as the new Barrelhouse just down the street plus the new Barn in nearby Pigeon Forge.
By Hope S. Philbrick
The history of making moonshine in the mountains of Tennessee is ripe with legends and lore because it’s an oral history: The distillation of moonshine in Tennessee was legalized in 2009.
That’s right! Making Tennessee moonshine is officially only an eight-year-old industry.
That does not mean that Tennessee moonshine has only been made that recently. Even the folks at Ole Smoky Tennessee Moonshine, the first legal moonshine distillery in East Tennessee, admit as much: “The company’s roots can be traced to the early settlers of the Smoky Mountains. Their story is the authentic story of moonshine.”
When you visit the Ole Smoky Moonshine Distillery, known as “The Holler”—which happens to be America’s most visited distillery and is where all of the company’s signature flavors of moonshine are produced—you’ll see and smell moonshine being made and can also taste a sampling of the product lineup for $5.
The Holler is a bustling place where you can belly up to the moonshine tasting bar and chat with friendly pourers and fellow travelers, sit in rocking chairs and listen to live musical entertainment, shop for moonshine and branded merchandise, and/or watch distillers at work. There’s moonshine being made on site pretty much all the time, and yet the distillers are always happy to answer visitors’ questions while they work. You can see authentic moonshine stills and the other equipment that’s used to take grain to bottle.
Just a few blocks away at the Barrelhouse you can plop your elbows onto another tasting bar and sip a lineup of whiskey samples plus do some more shopping. At both facilities the tasting samples are small to help ensure that you won’t stumble down the sidewalk as you wander to other Gatlinburg attractions.
A short drive away over at the new The Island in Pigeon Forge—a fun-filled new shopping and entertainment complex with more than 60 retail and specialty shops, plus restaurants, Ferris wheel, and much more—the new Ole Smoky outpost Barn also showcases moonshine with tasting opportunities plus retail.
Ole Smoky is available in retail stores around the world, but when you visit any of the three retail outlets in the Smoky Mountains you can taste seasonal and special edition flavors that may not be available anywhere else.
During my recent visit, I met with Cory Cottongim, president of retail and operations, to learn more about Ole Smoky Tennessee Moonshine.
When did Ole Smoky officially launch?
It started in 2010. It was a pretty good success right off the bat. We’re the first legal moonshine distiller in Tennessee. The law was changed; previously there were only three counties that could manufacture liquor (the home counties of Jack Daniel’s, George Dickel and Prichard’s). In 2008 Tennessee was coming off a recession and legislators saw to allow the distillation of spirits throughout the state would help the economy. We saw the opportunity and thought that Tennessee is known for whiskey and moonshine. Whiskey is made everywhere but moonshine is close to the Smoky Mountains’ history and we have so many visitors coming through, so we saw moonshine as a great opportunity.
But the family legend of making moonshine starts well before 2009.
Yes, mainly Joe’s family—Joe Baker is co-founder of Ole Smoky Tennessee Moonshine. I think different generations of his ancestors made moonshine, particularly in the1800s. Where we’re based geographically, you could make more money with your corn production by making moonshine than was possible selling corn. Making illegal moonshine still is pretty prevalent in this area to a large degree compared to other parts of the U.S. I was up in the mountains three weeks ago and saw remnants of a moonshine still. That history is still alive. But we started legal production of it in 2010.
Our facility was much smaller back then, it’s grown over the years to where it is today. In Gatlinburg The Holler (which is predominantly moonshine) and the Barrelhouse (where they focus on whiskey) are open to the public, as is the Barn outpost at The Island in Pigeon Forge. There’s an additional production facility and warehouse that aren’t open to the public. We’ve grown rapidly, it’s been a very fast seven years. We’re also looking at a fourth retail store; it’s great exposure for the brand and a great souvenir.
There are so many flavors! Is there a most popular seller?
I bet we have 60 flavors out in release at any time. We try to do a lot of innovation every year; we’ll usually introduce a new flavor every four to six weeks. Sometimes they’re good and folks love them, sometimes it’s the middle of the bag, and sometimes not that good. We try things, we experiment, we want to be as authentic as we possibly can. There’s always something new happening here.
We don’t distribute every flavor. Ole Smoky is really two businesses. The retail stores are sort of one business model and the wholesale distribution is another. We distribute products throughout the U.S. plus 40 countries, and those are more limited offerings—the more “tried and true.” In retail it’s easier to test innovations. It’s great for us because people can vote basically with their buying power. We test it for a while and it may have legs for distribution or not. When things do well we start thinking about a release on a wider basis.
Currently right now Mountain Java is one of our top sellers; it’s been that way since its release last March.
We’ve got a lot of good stuff coming up: salty watermelon whiskey, strawberry rhubarb moonshine, strawberry mango margarita moonshine. There’s always something new happening.
So your tasting bar is basically a focus group.
It kind of is! Sometimes I’ll have a flavor and think this is great and it doesn’t take off. Sometimes it’s good for two to three months and fizzles out. Sometimes it’s just great. It depends on what it is. But once they fall a bit we sort of retire it.
What are some seasonal flavors?
We have winter, spring/summer and then fall. Everybody has different opinions on the lineups but my personal favorite is the fall. I love the fall lineup! It’s got pumpkin moonshine, cinnamon. In winter there’s the cream-based Shine Nog, it’s really good. Mountain Java is sort of similar, it’s shockingly good. During the summer you’ll see piña colada come out and margarita is always one of our top sellers this season.
Are all the flavors natural?
We try to make them natural as much as possible, but some have artificial flavors in them. So it’s a little of both. The newer stuff is generally all natural ingredients but not necessarily always. You can always tell on the label. For example, the apple pie moonshine label says “distilled corn with natural flavors,” while the chocolate cherry label says “natural and artificial.”
How many whiskeys are produced?
At least 15 different types of whiskeys and flavored whiskeys. Coming out this summer we’ve got a honey whiskey, a salty watermelon whiskey, a sour apple whiskey in the next three to four months. We also do an apple brandy. But the portfolio is straight whiskey, blended whiskey and a bunch of flavored whiskeys. Our original moonshine is a corn whiskey. Each whiskey is a different mash bill—each can fluctuate in the percentage of corn, wheat, rye and other grains used in that whiskey’s specific recipe.
Is the plain moonshine one of the whiskeys?
No. We add a little other stuff. It’s different. It’s close, but a little different.
Did you age some of the basic moonshine just to see how it would taste?
Yes, on a very small scale. I think it’s good, but it’s a little better the way we do it. Some people like the raw whiskeys, some like the four-grain, some like flavor. I think there are advantages to that. The charred moonshine we have is the closest to the aged shine.
Odds of Encountering Children: In general, higher than you’d expect at a distillery, but kids aren’t legally allowed to sample the moonshine so Ole Smoky certainly targets adults. Ultimately your experience depends on when you go. On weekends and holidays you may find youngsters standing with their parents at a tasting bar but this is much less likely when school is in session. Sometimes The Holler is crowded and you’ll have to wait your turn to sample moonshine, other times you can walk right up to the bar and get served immediately. If you like crowds, visit on holiday weekends. If you don’t, visit on weekdays during the school year. Whenever you visit, grownup fun is a reasonable expectation.
903 Parkway, Unit 128
Gatlinburg, TN 37738
Ole Smoky Barrelhouse
Gatlinburg, TN 37738
Ole Smoky Barn
131 The Island Drive
Pigeon Forge, TN 37863
– Photos: bottles and The Holler courtesy Ole Smoky; remainder © HSP Media LLC
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