Slightly more flexible laws now permit the production of just enough moonshine for personal use. But those who flout health regulations and tax collectors still sell their liquid fire made in hidden stills. Joe Baker, an attorney who started the Ole Smoky Tennessee Moonshine business in 2010, plays on nostalgia as well as the very modern craze for artisan products. Ole Smoky Moonshine Holler, on the main commercial street of Gatlinburg presents a Dogpatch setting for getting acquainted with the liquor that is made using his family's 200-year-old recipe.
The thrum and twang of mountain music greets visitors as a rag-tag traditional band performs on a low platform in the entrance to the mini-mall. The whole area is decorated with lopsided facings of wooden boards that look like they have aged out beside a creek somewhere. Li'l Abner and Daisy Mae cannot be far away. Who can resist a bit of settin' and rockin' in one of the rocking chairs lined up in front of the stage? The rhythm and the sounds of eastern Tennessee culture lull some visitors back in time, while others check out the distillery on one side of the hall and the tasting room on the other.
Tourists peer through plate glass windows at the stainless steel, copper and wood vats and maze of pipes and spigots where corn mash gurgles its way to alcohol, then is reduced through distillation to a pure product. Along the bottom edge of the windows, historic photos and legends spell out the history of moonshine, including the culture of the runners.
Hefty guys in bib overalls with one strap flapping pour tastes of shine in the tasting room. The flavored moonshine smells like a just-opened jar of Grandma's jams or jellies, but it leaves a fruity taste on top of gentle burn as it slides down the throat. The popular Apple pie smells like cinnamon and cooked apples and the purveyors describe it as a "dessert liquor." Like the peach or blueberry or blackberry, apple pie has less kick with a much lower proof than great-grandpa's two-century-old recipe of the Old Original Moonshine, a sipping whiskey, which still has a taste of corn and some secret ingredients.
Although White Lightnin' puts no taste barriers between your throat and the 100 proof alcohol, it goes down surprisingly smooth. The distiller explains that it has been distilled six times, (two would be the norm) leaving it with none of the original corn taste. Like a good vodka, it makes a great mixer.
This moonshine may be legal, but I can't help feeling a bit furtive about carrying out a brown-paper wrapped Mason jar boldly labeled White Lightnin'. Maybe I'll feel better about it if I just set a spell and listen to that foot-tapping music and reflect on how a Mason jar can capture the entire culture of one little corner of the United States.
Vera Marie Badertscher is a freelance writer and the publisher of A Traveler's Library where she and six other writers discuss books, movies and other inspirations for travel. A long time resident of the Southwestern United States, she co-authored, with Charnell Havens, Quincy Tahoma: The Life and Legacy of Navajo Artist which won the distinction of a Best Book of the Southwest in 2010.
All photos by the author except the public domain moonshiners shot on page 1.
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