Moonshine has long been woven into the cultural and economic fabric of Tennessee. Folks have been making corn liquor since they settled along the river banks among the towering white pine trees of what is now Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
In 2009, the Tennessee government loosened liquor production laws, allowing moonshiners to move their stills from the backwoods to legitimate tasting rooms. Now, the legal high-proof spirit is big business with the number of distilleries in state growing from three to more than 30.
As legal restrictions have loosened, a boom has taken place around the state. But for the good stuff, the original stuff, head to East Tennessee where these four distilleries can be traced to the Smoky Mountains’ earliest settlers.
Ole Smoky Moonshine
If there is a Disneyland of Tennessee distilleries, Ole Smoky might be it. Known as the Ole Smoky Holler, the 12,000 square-foot distillery, gift shop, live music venue and tasting room claims to be the most-visited distillery in the country.
When it opened in 2010, it was one of four licensed distilleries in the state and the first federally licensed in eastern Tennessee.
Ole Smoky Moonshine contains 80 % corn. The other 20 % comes from a secret 100-year-old recipe. Ole Smoky bartenders claim it’s the most authentic, meaning it tastes like it could remove the copper from a penny.
For a smoother, experience that won’t “put hair on your chest” try the Apple Pie Moonshine, a 40-proof liquor mixed with apple, cinnamon and spices.
Darrell Miller’s family has been making moonshine since a distant family member stepped off the Mayflower in the 1600s. To safeguard the family practice, the recipe and distillation methods were passed down to the youngest son of the youngest child.
Miller was the youngest son of the youngest child. At nine-years-old, he tramped through the woods at night to check on hidden stills and report back to his grandfather. He’s now moved those stills from the backwoods to the legal side of the law.
Bootleggers Distillery sits along a quiet section of I-40 near the Tennessee-North Carolina state line.
A large “Free Samples” sign entices drivers to pull to the side of the road, climb three stairs onto a large wooden porch – past benches made from rusted Chevy and Ford truck tailgates – and into the family-run tasting room and distillery.
Bootleggers is believed to be the smallest batch distillery in the nation, brewing in pots as opposed to tanks. A quick tour around the backroom distillery ends with Miller explaining the liquor-making processes as two copper distillers empty into 25-gallon buckets.
After the tour, Miller’s 21-year-old daughter Taylor, who was the nation’s youngest legal distiller at age 17, hands out samples of traditional flavors like Apple Pie, Sweet Shine and Original alongside newer flavors like Salted Carmel Shine, Mocha Shine or the best selling – Jalapeño Shine.
Doc Collier Moonshine
A handful of high-quality tasting rooms with deep roots to local history are scattered between the t-shirt shops, pancake houses and neon-lit tourist traps of downtown Gatlinburg. Doc Collier Moonshine is one of them.
More than 100 years ago, William “Doc” Collier made moonshine on English Mountain using nothing more than corn, sugar and fresh mountain spring water. Legend has it that Collier’s moonshine was the best on the Tennessee side of the Smoky Mountains.
To circumvent the law, Collier opened a mercantile store where he sold legal products upstairs and illegal corn whiskey downstairs. The family carries on the tradition with a tasting room modeled after an old-fashioned general store on Gatlinburg’s main drag.
Tasting room visitors can sample Doc’s original recipe or 125, “straight off the still” 100 percent high-proof moonshine.
Those who don’t want to set their throat on fire with high-octane liquor should opt for the sweet lighter flavors like Apple Pie, Root Beer Float, Electric Lemonade, Sweet Tea and Cinnamon. Doc Collier also offers moonshine brandy distilled from local wine.
Old Forge Distillery
Founders of Pigeon Forge settled along the banks of Little Pigeon River in what is now Old Mill Square. Settlers used the river for drinking water, to power grist mills and to make liquor.
Today, the Old Forge Distillery does not have to recreate a historic scene for its tasting room. The distillery is located in a 100-year-old building that was once used as a farm supply store.
Distillers use freshly ground grains like rye, wheat and buckwheat from its next-door neighbor The Old Mill. Built in the 1830s, Old Forge is one of the oldest continually operated grist mills in the United States.
In addition to moonshine, head distiller Keener Shanton crafts a small batch of spirits such as Old Forge Rum, a molasses-distilled rum, Old Forge Vodka, an 80-proof vodka and Old Forge Reserve Tennessee Bourbon Whiskey, a white oak barrels aged bourbon.