The moonshine stills dotting the Smoky Mountains of Eastern Tennessee have traditionally been tucked into the dips and crannies of local hollers, out of the view of travelers and lawmen. But visitors to downtown Gatlinburg, a regional tourist hub with a hillbilly-themed minigolf course and a Guinness World Records museum, can now make a hooch stop right on the main drag at “Ole Smoky Moonshine Holler,” a distillery that makes surprisingly smooth Appalachian shine.
“Moonshine was a part of the culture and it was always around,” says Joe Baker, the East Tennessee lawyer who founded Ole Smoky in 2010 as state legislation began to make it easier for distillers to go through the decidedly un-folksy process of getting permits.
Visitors to Ole Smoky’s hollow head through the works to the tasting room, a repurposed mutt of a structure made from bits and pieces of barns. Because the distillery is designed with the serious sipper in mind, it offers free booze starting at 10 in the morning. Tastings are held throughout the day and the bartender, a smiling, overall-wearing local named Gary, takes care of the assembled, passing out dozens of varieties of shine. Many of the flavors are so drinkable it’s hard not to bolt them down despite the fact that they boast a considerably higher proof than most whiskeys. Of Ole Smoky’s moonshines, only six are available nationwide. Another roughly half dozen flavors, whatever Baker is tinkering with in this alcoholic skunkworks, are only available on site.
Ole Smoky works hard to ensure that its legal status is the only major difference between it and the stills in the hills. The liquor is shielded from the outside only by screens, so that the weather can temper the shine. Exposure – like the rocking chairs set outside and the local pluckers that play noon till 11 every night – is just a matter of tradition (even if friendliness to tourists isn’t).
Since the holler is right downtown, it’s easy to venture out into the rest of Gatlinburg, a bewildering but alluring mash-up of an amusement park, a small town, and – architecturally at least – a ski resort. If you’ve come off a day of moonshine drinking, you’ll be pleased to find that, BBQ aside, local cuisine runs towards pancake houses, which seem strangely ubiquitous until you realize they serve the perfect cure for homegrown hangovers.
More information: Gatlinburg, which serves as the main entrance to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, is a bit over three hours east of Nashville. The drive is scenic enough to be an event in and of itself.