I heard my favorite personal Tennessee moonshine story 16 years ago when I was a reporter for The Mountain Press in Sevier County. It was the 50th anniversary of D-Day, and I got assigned to go talk to local veterans who had been there. One told me about his role as official unofficial bootlegger for his unit (but only off the record—he was still a little jumpy about the legalities). As they fought their way across Europe, he and his buddies carried the parts for a small still. Whenever they got a lull, he whipped up some hooch for enlisted men and officers alike.
It is impossible to guess how many stories there are like that bound up in the corn-liquor lore of Southern Appalachia. And the region, obviously, has long had a nudge-and-wink relationship with its moonshine heritage, from songs (“Rocky Top,” “White Lightning”) to movies like Thunder Road and any number of roadside signs enticing tourists with images of Snuffy Smith types hoisting a jug.
Now, Tennessee is wholeheartedly embracing the mountain dew, turning it licit with a law last year permitting distilleries in 44 counties rather than the three where they were previously allowed. One of those is Sevier County, which last week saw the debut of the Ole Smoky Moonshine Distillery, set just back from the parkway in Gatlinburg.
The Ole Smoky folks have made their own concessions to hokum, starting with the name and continuing with the aw-shucks overalls all the distillers wear. On the other hand, overalls are a fine, practical garment, and when it comes to product, the distillery is not at all fooling around. It sells two varieties, White Lightning and Corn Liquor, the difference being a matter of distillation. The White Lightning is distilled six times, versus only twice for the Corn Liquor, with the result that the White Lightning is considerably smoother (and more suited for mixing) but less flavorful. I tried both and preferred the peppery mildness of the White Lightning, though “mild” is a relative term here—they’re both 100 proof.
But if you can buy it right off the shelf ($25 per Mason quart for the White Lightning, $35 for the corn), is it real moonshine? That depends on what you mean by real. The owners of Ole Smoky say they have drawn on the expertise of local families with long bootlegging traditions, and they are using East Tennessee products: co-owner Joe Baker says his father trucks milled corn up from Jefferson County every day. The whiskey is made on site, in the large vats and still that serve as the distillery’s educational centerpiece. “For hundreds of years, people have hidden this,” says Justin King, one of the distillers. “Most people never get to see a still running.”
On the taste and potency front, it’s hard to fault their efforts. For the sake of comparison, to be sure I wasn’t misremembering the qualities of the form, I hunted down some traditional moonshine. A coworker led me to a downtown Knoxville business where an employee nonchalantly pulled out a pint jar of clear liquid. We passed it around for a few sips. It was reputed to have come from Scott County, with a mildly scandalous backstory that I won’t repeat for fear of litigation. It was fine stuff, balancing its heat with a little sweetness, and it went down smoothly. (Although my coworker was reminded why it’s best not to take too big a swig—it will burn you if you give it a chance.)
Coincidentally last week, I also happened to be at a friend’s house where I spotted a Mason jar in the fridge full of what looked to be water. But the lid had “Shine” scrawled on it in black marker, and so it was. With my friend’s blessing, I drank a little. It wasn’t as smooth as the Scott County jar—my friend isn’t sure where his came from, it was via a third party—but was plenty drinkable.
In any case, either of the Ole Smoky varieties could have easily passed for the less-legal samples, because of course corn liquor is deliberately simple: easy to make, easy to drink. And easy to mix or infuse with, too. The Ole Smoky folks plan to start selling a pre-mixed Apple Pie variety by the end of the month—it’s a brew of cider, spices, and White Lightning, and the sample cup they gave me was good. There will also be moonshine cherries, soaked in a special 160-proof concoction.
It seems valuable to me that Tennessee has finally gotten around to acknowledging its mountain-whiskey history. (For more evidence, see also the new White Lightnin’ tourist trail that Jack Neely wrote about last week.) It is one more small blow against a Bible Belt mentality that has, for so long in so many ways, preached one thing and practiced another.
But here’s the thing that nags at me a little. There is something joyful in the surreptitious exchanges of unmarked jars, passing from hand to hand until they nestle under someone’s counter or in someone’s refrigerator, their provenance the subject of whispered half-truths. That sense of mystery and slight transgression, of getting away with something, of secrets shared sparingly, has for generations been part of the pleasure of moonshine. And that’s something you just can’t get in a commercially-packaged, legally sold liquor. No matter what you call it.