Bright colors sparkle through glass jars lining the warm wooden shelves around the walls of the Ole Smoky Moonshine Tasting Room. The sunshine yellow of Lemon Drop Shine, the sensuous red of Moonshine Cherries, and the lively tint of Peach Lightnin' contrast with the Old Original—clear as the glass Mason jars that hold the hooch.
Here in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, some moonshine whiskey has emerged from the shadow of thick wooded hills and hollers. No longer the secretive business run by hillbillies hiding from "revenooers," one company produces copious tax revenues for the city and state.
While travelers come to eastern Tennessee for many reasons—Dollywood Amusement Park, mountain music performances and entertainment venues— the original draw of the region was and still is the Great Smoky Mountain National Park, which is the most visited U.S. National Park. It displaced many of the independent hill people who lived deep in the woods. Some of the old cabins remain, but you will not find the remains of their main source of income: the homemade still.
As I watch city slickers belly up to the tasting bar on Gatlinburg's main drag and choose which moonshine flavor they want to sample, I'm thinking about how far moonshine has traveled from corn likker concoctions made on homemade contraptions hidden in the hills to become an officially sanctioned craft distillery. Good grief, moonshine has become, dare I say it, trendy.
Tennessee Moonshine Surprises
Surprise #1: although I sometimes felt like I was talking to a relative of a Mafia boss and was not at all sure I should be hearing about the crime of bootlegging, there is nothing furtive in the way locals talk about the heritage of moonshiners. Nearly everyone I talked to in east Tennessee spoke proudly of their relatives who had made the illegal booze. To them, it was a skill to be admired and the practitioners linked together in a sort of combination secret society and trade guild. A restaurant owner figured he had inherited his interest in the hospitality business, since his great-grandfather, grandfather, and father all produced "shine," an essential product of hill hospitality.
Surprise #2: the making of moonshine takes intelligence and knowledge. Historically, information was shared among insiders who passed on recipes and the art of concoction. They deeply resented the outsiders who gave their trade a bad name by turning out an inferior—and sometimes dangerous—product.
Surprise #3: the moonshiner's distribution system was innovative and spawned one of America's favorite sports. Here in the Ole Smoky Holler tasting room, in between sips of White Lightnin', visitors mill around a 1949 Ford coupe, one of the preferred cars for moonshine runners. Requirements included a strong undercarriage and suspension system to withstand rough mountain roads. Most of all, the car needed a capacious trunk. A souped-up engine helped when the runner needed to outpace a pursuing lawman.
Just as manufacturers of moonshine took pride in crafting their product, runners wanted to be known as the fastest and best. This competition led to stock car races in the hills, which in the 1940s led to races on the sands of Daytona Beach, Florida, which eventually spawned NASCAR.
Surprise #4: although selling homemade hootch is still illegal, people continue to build stills. And revenooers continue to smash them up.
The guide at one attraction told me about his bachelor uncle who lived with his two spinster aunts out in the woods. As they were getting older, the three decided they would be better off living in town so they bought a three-story house and uncle went to work setting up his still in the attic. After a year or so, the government agents showed up and took axes to the still upstairs, just as they had out in the woods. The Government counts it as a victory. Illegal moonshiners count the destruction as the cost of doing business. I didn't ask, but the implication hung in the air. He rebuilt his still.
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