When we first started covering the white whiskey space, it was unclear if the category would really get any traction. While the white whiskey category had a diversity of offerings (mainly due to many small craft distillers releasing unaged versions of their aging spirits), there wasn’t a tremendous amount of excitement surrounding it. This all really changed when Jim Beam released their white whiskey offering, Jacob’s Ghost, the first major national roll out of a “white” whiskey.
Consumers, with an almost insatiable thirst for American whiskey, embraced the Jim Beam offering which not only legitimized the category, but began to generate some real excitement around white whiskey. Moonshine is an interesting subset of the white whiskey category. While moonshine was historically a term used to refer to alcohol that was produced illegally, it’s now morphing to become a descriptor for a class of legal, corn-based whiskey. The transformation of this category is so significant that we believe soon the term “moonshine” will no longer refer to illicit alcohol, but simply as “bootleg”.
Gatlinburg, Tennessee sits at the foot of the Great Smoky Mountains, America’s most visited national park. The Smoky Mountains get over 2.2 million visitors a year, eclipsing even the Grand Canyon. Gatlinburg is the gateway to this popular vacation destination and serves as a major pit stop for park visitors. Gatlinburg (and the nearby Pigeon Falls, home of Dollywood), may be one of the most touristy places we’ve ever visited. Imagine Las Vegas without casinos, invented by Southerners, with no fewer than five Ripley’s Believe it Or Not museums and lots and lots of mini golf, and you’ve got an idea of what Gatlinburg is. Gatlinburg and the surrounding areas are also the historic home of moonshine. Even before Prohibition, before the Smoky Mountains were a national park, many families grew corn in the mountains and then distilled that corn to make an unaged corn spirit often referred to as corn licker or moonshine.
While this moonshine was often consumed unaged, it was also sold infused with seasonal fruits. Moonshiners did anything they could to increase the value of the products they sold. Large X’s would be marked on mason jars to indicate how many times a moonshine was run through the still, with more X’s able to fetch more money. Moonshiners also sometimes put their corn whiskey into barrels or soak it with wood chips to make a lightly aged product called scorch.
Moonshiners lived and died on their reputation for quality, so poorly made moonshine could cause real harm. The legendary “moonshine blindness” was something that was very real and came less from actual moonshine and more from moonshiners using car radiators to condense alcohol vapors, which then would leech lead out from radiators and into the moonshine.
While illegal moonshining (or bootlegging) still goes on in Tennessee, its prevalence has faded. Inexpensive, legal alcohol has made bootlegging a far less profitable endeavor and many bootleggers have traded in their mountainside stills to grow a much more lucrative illegal product, weed. During this transition, Sevier County, which Gatlinburg is a part of, decided to begin issuing legal distilling licenses, which opened the door to Moonshine moving from an illicit product to a fully legal commercial product.
A perfect storm lead to the creation of Ole Smoky Moonshine. Three law school buddies with deep roots in the area got together to apply for one of the first legal distilling licenses in the area. The three, all practicing attorneys, took out a reverse mortgage on one of the law office buildings that they owned and used that money to open a tiny 1200 square foot distillery in a foreclosed building, smack dab in the center of the strip on the major parkway in Gatlinburg.
To make their moonshine, Ole Smoky Moonshine Co-founders Joe Baker, Cory Cottongim, and Tony Breeden turned to a close family friend, Justin King, to help distill Ole Smoky. King brought real world moonshine experience to the table and a family recipe which brought together many of the elements used in making his family’s backwoods Tennessee moonshine. At first almost everything in the distillery was done by hand, with fermenting, distilling, bottling, and retail sales crammed into a space not much bigger than a small souvenir shop.
Although painfully small, the Ole Smoky Moonshine location proved to be an absolute goldmine. With millions of people passing by the distillery, the first year’s sales of Ole Smoky Moonshine out the distillery door were more than enough to fund the business and its ability to expand into 49 states, including a major deal with Walmart. In 2012, Ole Smoky sold a staggering 30,000 cases through its Gatlinburg bottle shop – that’s on par with a major Las Vegas casino.
This explosive success enabled Ole Smoky to expand its Gatlinburg presence and create a hallmark experience for the brand including a take over of several of the neighboring shops. Beyond raw sales, Ole Smoky’s Gatlinburg location also gave the brand a valuable place to test out new products and flavors. In the Gatlinburg bottle shop, Ole Smoky sells twelve different flavors, many of which aren’t available nationally, including hunch punch, lemonade, and grape flavored Moonshine.
While Ole Smoky Original Moonshine is the centerpiece of Ole Smoky’s business, it’s the flavors which seem to be a key area of growth for the brand, with Apple Pie, Blackberry, and Peach available nationally. Ole Smoky Original Moonshine is made primarily from corn whiskey, while their White Lightnin’ and flavored Moonshine are made from a more neutral spirit. Ole Smoky also sells Moonshine Cherries, which are maraschino cherries soaked in their White Lightnin’ product, and go down way too easily.
Ole Smoky has done something that many didn’t think was possible: they’ve taken what used to be an illegal backwoods product and commercialized it, while still being respectful to the culture and origins of the spirit. Sure, there will always be detractors who insist that “moonshine” means “illegal,” but Ole Smoky Moonshine has literally changed the game and has helped fuel a spirit category that is only going up. As the American obsession with whiskey continues to explodes, moonshine provides an interesting alternative to vodka, and when paired with its outlaw Americana past, it’s hard to see how Ole Smoky Moonshine can lose.
Watch our video: Behind The Scenes of Ole Smoky MoonshineOle Smoky - Moonshine Becomes a True Spirit Category by Geoff Kleinman