Wish that I was on Ole Rocky Top,
Down in the Tennessee hills...
Ain't no smoggy smoke on Rocky Top.
Ain't no telephone bills...
While the down home, all American tourist town of Gatlinburg was built on a mix of genuine Tennessee history and kitschy faux Hillbilly lore, the folks living in it and running the local businesses are hell’s toss away from any outdated imagery of crooked teeth munching on squirrel hides.
To prove it, just wander down Parkway in downtown Gatlinburg to the Ole Smokey Moonshine Holler. Equal parts distillery, concert hall, museum and market, it’s the official headquarters for a company taking what once was the domain of bootleggers and transforming it into a rapidly growing business.
Historic Moonshine – strong, high proof distilled corn liquor that hasn’t gone through an aging process – used to be a solely illegal drink brewed to defy Prohibition and torment the local authorities (at least those who weren’t brewing it themselves). These days, it’s gaining pop culture appeal and is a rapidly growing and very legal segment of the liquor and spirits market.
I had a chance to venture to Gatlinburg recently for a close-up look at Smoky Mountain Moonshine, the culture of the Tennessee Hills and corn liquor’s role in that community.
Once two strangers climbed on rocky top,
Lookin' for a moonshine still.
Strangers ain't come back from rocky top.
Guess they never will.
The Tennessee folks behind Ole Smoky Mountain Moonshine might have descended from simple hill folk, but they’re no longer farmers and poachers cranking out 180 proof alcohol out of a tinny still. They’re lawyers, civic leaders and business people making a big noise in the booze business by staying true to some very old recipes.
That dedication to staying loyal to old methods sets Ole Smoky apart from its rivals. You’ll find many brands of mass-marketed Moonshine in any liquor store – most brewed up in huge batches by the big distiller conglomerates under satellite names. In most cases, mass-produced Shine is simple corn liquor dashed with sugar.
The minds behind Ole Smoky Mountain Moonshine chose to stay clear of the big batch philosophy and created a larger version of the same stills their ancestors use to create the jars of liquor they passed between each other.
Joe Baker, the company’s co-founder, led a media tour of the distillery and its product to make clear how faithful Ole Smoky stays to very old methods. They might use bigger tanks to cook their corn meal, and they might cook their distillery mix in a cast copper tank instead of pots and pans, but the pure concoction that comes out of the process is the same pure corn alcohol made in the area for centuries.
I stuck my finger in the clear fluid for a taste, and the 160+ proof initial product will knock the back of your head off at first, but finishes with only a mild burn. Ole Smoky knocks down that proof number into various legal concoctions.
The resulting product comes in six varieties: White Lightning, Corn Liquor, Peach, Apple Pie and Blackberry (with additional flavors available only at the distillery’s store). Moonshine Cherries are also for sale, serving up a jar full of Maraschinos in White Lightening. One cherry has the punch of a shot of Moonshine. I downed two together. I shouldn’t have.
During our tour, we sampled a half shot of each of the 14 flavors for sale at the distillery – seven shots of Moonshine in 15 minutes. It suddenly felt very warm in Gatlinburg. But, we did learn that alcohol cannot be flavored. So, all taste varities are mixed after the Moonshine's corn base is finished.
Corn won't grow at all on Rocky Top.
Dirt's too rocky by far.
That's why all the folks on Rocky Top.
Get their corn from a jar...
Baker (a criminal defense attorney when not making spirits) his cofounders and their families want Ole Smoky to be a successful business, but they also want the company to represent their hometown well.
“We’re proud of who we are and where we came from here,” Baker said. “We wanted to share that with the world in a positive way.” “There’s an old caricature of a hillbilly, and we don’t shy away from that. We’re proud of it. But, there’s also a way to share what we’ve become. That’s why this is a no bullshit product. I wanted my great granddad to be able to walk in and be proud.”
If you visit the distillery, you’ll find some sort of appropriate live music playing in its courtyard. It’s all part of recreating the local ambiance of gathering and passing the Moonshine jar.
“The music and the look of our distillery is about featuring the experience of our culture. When we come together, there’s usually a banjo and fiddle close by somewhere.”
With the success of Ole Smoky, bigger distillers have come calling about acquiring the company. Baker and company are holding the line for now and looking to expand.
“As we've grown, opportunities have come down the pipe, but we’re doing what’s best for our family. Not just blood kin, but employees and the community.
Rocky Top, you'll always be
Home sweet home to me.
Good ole Rocky Top, Rocky Top Tennessee.
Rocky Top Tennessee...