’Shine On: Ol’ Thunder Road Is More Like an Interstate These Days as East Tennessee Cashes In on Legal Moonshine

’Shine On: Ol’ Thunder Road Is More Like an Interstate These Days as East Tennessee Cashes In on Legal Moonshine

Photo by Shawn Poynter

WHISKEY WIZARD: Master distiller Steve Boesch oversees operations at Davy Crockett’s Tennessee Whiskey in Gatlinburg.

Photo by Shawn Poynter

WHISKEY WIZARD: Master distiller Steve Boesch oversees operations at Davy Crockett’s Tennessee Whiskey in Gatlinburg.

MOUNTAIN STILL: Davy Crockett’s Tennessee Whiskey has just added Tennessee Moonshine to its line of beverages, joining other area distillers in the still-growing market for legal white lightning.

Photo by Shawn Poynter

MOUNTAIN STILL: Davy Crockett’s Tennessee Whiskey has just added Tennessee Moonshine to its line of beverages, joining other area distillers in the still-growing market for legal white lightning.

'Corn From a Jar,' by Daniel Pierce, looks at the history of moonshine in the Smoky Mountains.

"Corn From a Jar," by Daniel Pierce, looks at the history of moonshine in the Smoky Mountains.

A REGIONAL TRADITION: Daniel Pierce, chairman of the history department at the University of North Carolina-Asheville and author of 'Corn From a Jar,' says while many of the new distillers may adhere to old techniques, moonshine’s allure also lies in its romantic, illicit image.

A REGIONAL TRADITION: Daniel Pierce, chairman of the history department at the University of North Carolina-Asheville and author of "Corn From a Jar," says while many of the new distillers may adhere to old techniques, moonshine’s allure also lies in its romantic, illicit image.

MASONRY: Employees bottle moonshine at the market-leading Ole Smoky distillery, which expects to sell 250,000 cases this year.

Photo by Shawn Poynter

MASONRY: Employees bottle moonshine at the market-leading Ole Smoky distillery, which expects to sell 250,000 cases this year.

Master distiller Justin King gives Ole Smoky's product a taste test.

Photo by Shawn Poynter, Shawn Poynter

Master distiller Justin King gives Ole Smoky's product a taste test.

SHINING EXAMPLES: Ole Smokey’s David Velazquez hands out free samples at the Gatlinburg distillery.

Photo by Shawn Poynter

SHINING EXAMPLES: Ole Smokey’s David Velazquez hands out free samples at the Gatlinburg distillery.

THE GODFATHER: Moonshine became a pop culture fixture this century with the 2002 documentary This Is the Last Dam Run of Likker I’ll Ever Make, featuring the charismatic Cocke County moonshiner Marvin “Popcorn” Sutton.

THE GODFATHER: Moonshine became a pop culture fixture this century with the 2002 documentary This Is the Last Dam Run of Likker I’ll Ever Make, featuring the charismatic Cocke County moonshiner Marvin “Popcorn” Sutton.

TOURIST DRAW: Steve and Trudy Gerena (far left to right) and Shane and Jame Campbell partake some of the different flavored moonshines offered at the Ole Smoky distillery in Gatlinburg.

Photo by Shawn Poynter

TOURIST DRAW: Steve and Trudy Gerena (far left to right) and Shane and Jame Campbell partake some of the different flavored moonshines offered at the Ole Smoky distillery in Gatlinburg.

At the heart of the rustically appointed Davy Crockett’s Tennessee Whiskey in Gatlinburg are five 400-gallon wood-slat tubs—four fermenters and a mash cooker—the massive implements employed in producing both its standard whiskey products and the newest addition to its line: Davy Crockett’s Tennessee Moonshine.

To make moonshine, the distiller loads the cooker with corn, and a touch of rye “to smooth it out a little,” then fills it with water and heats it to 200 degrees to release starches and sugars out of the grain. Then he cools the mix back down to 80 degrees, and adds yeast. From load to cooldown, the process takes about four hours.

From there, he loads the mix into one of the fermenters, where the yeast eats the sugars, converting them into alcohol over a three- or four-day period. When that’s done, it’s time for the best-recognized portion of the moonshiner’s process, as the fermented mash is pumped into a statuesque 200-gallon copper still.

In the still, the mash heats to nearly 200 degrees once again. The alcohol recondenses in an intermediary “thump keg,” then condenses a final time when the still’s copper “worm” coils into another keg-shaped condenser, which is water-cooled, and which sees the final high-proof alcohol product exit a spigot at the bottom of the keg into a large pan.

After one more run through the still, the alcohol will be ready for sale as moonshine—unlike Davy Crockett’s whiskey, which requires considerable barrel-aging first. Because one of the distinguishing characteristics of moonshine has always been that it goes straight from still to mason jar, aging be damned.

And another? “We use a lot of corn,” says Davy Crockett master distiller Steve Boesch. “A good moonshine will have a corn flavor; you could make it out of anything, but in the early days, that was the most readily available ingredient.”

And a bad moonshine? “Bad moonshine has a heavy burn. And believe it or not, how you distill it has a lot of effect on that. It’s more of an art than a science. If you distill it too fast, you’ll get a heavy burn. If you condense it too fast, you’ll get a heavy burn. And if you ferment it too long, you’ll get a bitter aftertaste.”

It might seem odd discussing the finer points of making moonshine in such a setting, when many folks would say that liquor legally distilled in the light of day—in the middle of downtown Gatlinburg, no less—is not truly moonshine at all.

But the fact is, so-called “legal moonshine” is trending. The reasons are manifold, but the phenomenon seems to have really taken wing around 2009-10, when many states, cash-strapped by a poor national economy, sought new revenue sources by loosening laws on the distillation of spirits.

Tennessee was one of those states. Whereas distilling had formerly been legal in only a few counties (Moore County, the home of Lynchburg’s Jack Daniels facility, was one of the notable exceptions), it became newly legal in dozens of other counties as well.

And for many of the newly empowered distillers, the chance to avail oneself of the region’s infamous history as a source of illicit white whiskey—and all of the attendant romance and mystique that resides within that particular mythology—was too great to pass up.

One of the largest operations to come out of the new moonshine phenomenon was Gatlinburg’s Ole Smoky, founded in 2010 by local Joe Baker. According to a recent Time magazine report, around 250,000 cases of “legal” moonshine were sold in 2012 (up from 80,000 in ’11 and 50,000 in ’10) and 100,000 of those came from Ole Smoky alone.

What’s more, Baker says he expects Ole Smoky, with its 12 varieties, including a moonshine-soaked cherry, to sell 250,000 cases by itself in 2013.

But for all the new fervor surrounding licit, commercial moonshine, for all the exotic flavors and varieties cropping up at liquor stores and bars, there are a couple of nagging fundamental questions that keeping reasserting themselves, like rude barflies that just won’t go away: Can a product variously steeped in traditions of outlaw defiance, danger, backwoods ingenuity, and rugged individualism truly be mass-produced, bottled, taxed in a proper government-inspected distillery? And can the mystique that surrounds it, and in some part fires the public’s appetite for it, keep sales afloat when the once-furtively passed mason jar becomes standard issue on shelves at liquor stores?

***

"My take is that if it’s moonshine, it’s not legal,” says Daniel Pierce, chairman of the history department at the University of North Carolina-Asheville. The son of a Baptist preacher, Pierce came by his interest in the subject honestly.

His previous research into the roots of NASCAR and life in the Smokies inevitably funneled into the writing of his latest book, Corn from a Jar: Moonshining in the Great Smoky Mountains, published this year by the Great Smoky Mountains Association.

He tells that whiskey-making began in North America with the first English settlers, in the 1600s, who adapted English distilling methods to corn, the common grain of the Native Americans. It really took root, though, in the 18th century, when the Scots-Irish, with their renowned distilling traditions, began arriving in large numbers, many of them settling in the uncharted frontier of the southern Appalachians.

Even as civilization encroached, whiskey-making became more important, as a means of trade and as a way to pay property taxes. But the federal government fired the first shot in what would become the whiskey wars in 1862, when it passed a 20-cents-a-gallon excise tax. That had risen to $2 by the end of the Civil War.

And thus what had once been a perfectly legal cottage industry became an illicit criminal activity—if an infrequently policed one. But the excise tax had the unintended consequence of encouraging many illegal distillers, as the rising cost of legal whiskey made the black-market product all the more appealing to poor rural consumers.

The approach of the 20th century also saw the growth of temperance movements, which likewise had the effect of increasing the demand for illicit whiskey even as they made life difficult for legal distilleries.

But according to Pierce, nothing drove the business of illegal liquor into redline territory like the advent of Prohibition in 1919. Forty-gallon stills were suddenly replaced with 500-gallon monstrosities, and “what had once been a craft now became an industrial process.”

“There was always a big demand,” Pierce says. “People certainly didn’t stop drinking with Prohibition. And if people wanted to stay on their farm and keep their property, they needed a source of income. Making whiskey is one of the major ways they had to do that.”

But the 20th-century moonshine era was less beneficial to the quality of the whiskey product that came out of mountain stills and barns, Pierce adds. “When you get into the 1900s, it gets to be a different product,” he says. “There’s some corn in the liquor, but mainly you had distilled sugar. And sometimes you had adulteration going on, people trying to make it more potent than it is, not putting a lot of thought into the product. That’s where you got names like Busthead and Splo and Skullpop. It was something to get you drunk in a hurry.”

But, he suggests, “It’s come full circle. There were always people who made it just for drinking ‘keeper whiskey.’ People are claiming now to adhere to the old ways, making corn liquor, using slower processes. But I’m not sure that a lot of the market doesn’t have to do with that taint of illegality, the romance of the moonshiner.”

***

No one can question Joe Baker’s moonshine bona fides. The Sevier County native says his roots go back 200 years in the region; he indicates there have been more than a couple of moonshiners hanging from the branches of the family tree, including a great-uncle who was caught in Vestal with a garage full of product.

Baker himself ’fesses up to taking part in an illicit cook back when he was a teenager.

And when he went off to school at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., some years back, his cultural heritage seemed to come with him. “The first question I would always get from people was either about Tennessee football, or ‘Can you get me some moonshine?,’” Baker chuckles. “Being away from home, somehow the nostalgia of it resonated.”

He did two moonshine-related projects at Georgetown—one in chemistry class, one in a speech course. After earning a law degree back in Knoxville, he began his law practice; after a few years, though, he caught the whiskey bug again, when then-Gov. Phil Bredesen signed the landmark legislation permitting the manufacture of distilled spirits in any county where packaged liquor and liquor by the drink had been locally approved in June 2009.

“As soon as the law took effect, I was quick to put a business together in Gatlinburg,” he says. Ole Smoky became the state’s first above-board moonshine distillery in June 2010.

The ’shinery at 903 Parkway in Gatlinburg began with a 200-gallon still, but now the facility boasts a 1,000-gallon distillation capacity, Baker says, with separate 250- and 750-gallon copper pot stills, as well as multiple fermenters. Of the 12 varieties produced there, the staples are unflavored corn whiskey; the moonshine-soaked cherries; and apple pie, peach, and blackberry flavors.

Baker says the recipe used to make Ole Smoky’s moonshine came from “lots of experimentation, and talking to folks around the area. We worked through probably 20 variations before we settled on the current products.

“We wanted it to be about the area, not a single person or family. So we took a number of recipes from local families and came up with a unified recipe we felt was representative of how these products were truly made in this area.”

It’s worth noting, too, that Baker and Ole Smoky lent their expertise to the folks at nearby Davy Crockett’s to help kick-start their moonshine operation; Baker’s brother-in-law, Chuck Edwards, is a Davy Crockett partner. “We’ve had a lot of help from them in getting our moonshine recipe together,” Edwards says. “They’ve kind of perfected the process.”

Ole Smoky’s growth has been nothing short of remarkable. In addition to the aforementioned outrageous sales figures, the brand is now available in 49 states and Canada; select Walmarts and Sam’s Clubs; and it is the official moonshine of a handful of NASCAR tracks. “We’ve certainly grown beyond my expectations,” Baker says.

As to those who question the authenticity of moonshine manufactured in a public setting on an industrial scale, Baker offers a potent counter. “We make it exactly the same way it would have been made years ago, except we have to comply with regulations,” he says. “The product is the same, the ingredients in the jar are the same, whether you pay taxes on it or not.

“Some of these folks out West are smoking marijuana legally now. I believe you still call it ‘marijuana.’”

***

If any single individual deserves some substantial measure of credit for the public’s current appetite for moonshine—licit or otherwise—it is surely Marvin “Popcorn” Sutton. Born in Maggie Valley, N.C., he moved to Cocke County, Tenn., and claimed to have come from a long line of moonshiners, and he built a cultish notoriety based on the independently produced 2002 film This Is the Last Dam Run of Likker I’ll Ever Make.

His growing popularity as a modern-day moonshine exemplar led to his inclusion in several documentary films, in cable TV shows, and other media in the ensuing years. It also led to increased scrutiny from federal authorities, who raided his Parrottsville property in February of 2008 and confiscated three large stills, hundreds of gallons of mash, 850 gallons of finished moonshine, and several firearms, according to newspaper reports.

Sutton, having been previously convicted, was sentenced to 18 months in a federal prison. Vowing never to go to prison, on March 16, 2009, Sutton saw his wife Pam off to run errands, then locked himself in his prized green Ford Fairlane, turned on the ignition and died of carbon-monoxide poisoning.

But Sutton made big plans before he died, including efforts to, in essence, “go legit,” by passing on his whiskey-making traditions to Jamey Grosser, a former professional motocross racer turned entrepreneur, who says he sought “something real” in the spirits industry after years of sponsorship through big liquor.

He found it in Sutton, an overall-clad, bearded hillbilly prototype with a high, musical voice and the spry, jerky carriage of a marionette. After knocking on doors throughout East Tennessee, Grosser says he was told to seek Sutton out; he finally tracked him down through a probation officer.

“I pulled up in my Kia rental car in a holler on a dirt road,” Grosser recalls. “He had a sign up—a professional sign, not hand-written—that said ‘No trespassing. Keep your goddamn ass out. Nothing on this hill is worth dying for.’

“I went up to the house and knocked. He was the most authentic American I’d ever seen in my life. The first words out of his mouth were, ‘Son, do you eat p---? Well, then come right on in.’ It was serendipity.”

Thus began the education of Grosser, who became not only an acolyte of Sutton, but a spokesman of sorts for the tradition of white whiskey-making in America. “It’s the only truly American spirit,” he says. “Eighty percent of all farms prior to Prohibition had a whiskey still.… The government killed white whiskey in America.”

He also has very particular ideas about the moonshine phenomenon. “There is no such thing as moonshine in a liquor store,” he says. “There is no legal definition of moonshine, because it’s just untaxed whiskey. So a lot of people are jumping into the business and just selling flavored vodka. That’s what most of it is, these mason jars of low-proof flavored liquor in the stores.

“We make it the old way, the right way. You have to distill it yourself, with a mash of grain. A few boutique distilleries out there are doing it the same way, but to make it on any scale, it takes a lot of time, capital. Most of them are just buying cheap bulk vodka and throwing it in a jar, trying capitalize on the heritage.”

On a poignant note, the hangtag on the Sutton brand features a picture snapped of Grosser and the old moonshiner mere minutes before his death. “It was right before he was supposed to go into prison, and he called me up and said, ‘Hey, get out to the house, so you won’t f--k this up when I’m gone,’” Grosser says. “Which I took to mean, when I’m in prison. So I went over there, we spent some time together, and 30 minutes after I left he killed himself.”

In keeping with the old man’s wishes, though, when Grosser finally rolled out the product in 2011, it was under the name Popcorn Sutton’s Tennessee White Whiskey. “Popcorn would have punched me in the face if I had called it moonshine,” he says. “Because we pay taxes on it.”

***

The end of Prohibition in 1933 didn’t end moonshining and bootlegging, though it did signal the end of the most profitable era of illegal whiskey production. Pierce writes that illicit white whiskey remained a cheap, readily marketable commodity, at least in the South.

He terms it the “Thunder Road” era, when daring young moonshine bootleggers made hair-raising runs into the city in souped-up Detroit steel loaded with liquor, perfecting outrageous feats of derring-do like the 180-degree “bootlegger’s turn” and eventually giving rise to the sport of Southern stock-car racing.

But the writing was on the wall. The forces of modern civilization inexorably shrank both market and opportunity for the makers of illegal whiskey. And as the 1950s gave way to the ’60s, new industry, better transportation, and cheaper legal whiskey made rural residents reconsider their options, and choose less hazardous means of making an extra dollar.

Pierce reports that, by the mid-1970s, the Federal Bureau of Alcohol and Firearms had cut its staffing to three agents in Knoxville to cover all of East Tennessee—whereas it had once employed eight agents to police Cocke County alone. And while the bureau was yet busy destroying more than 6,000 stills in the Southeast in 1967, that number had dropped to a mere 500 a decade later.

But though it has greatly receded, the craft of moonshine production has not disappeared, as anyone who has furtively purchased a mason jar of throat-razing white lightning from a friend of a friend in an outlying county can attest. Pierce quotes a former federal agent who notes that, “You’ve got to feel around to find it anymore.… You just have to know where to look.”

***

M.C.’s Wine & Liquor boasts of having the largest moonshine selection in the state, and there seems little reason to doubt it’s true. The Strawberry Plains Pike liquor store keeps its moonshine whiskey in a log cabin-style addition toward the back of the building, and the wooden shelves are stocked with more than 50 varieties from at least 15 different makers.

“On a Saturday, we get so many travelers off the interstate who see our sign, we can sell nothing but moonshine from the time we open until 3 or 4 p.m.,” says moonshine manager Michelle Breeden.

“The craze really started last year,” she continues. “We had Popcorn Sutton and a couple of others. Then the Moonshiners reality show came on, and it’s really taken off.”

Perusing M.C.’s selection offers considerable insight into the phenomenon, as Breeden says she tries to balance her stock between popular brands and unique offerings people may not find in other liquor stores.

Besides a more-or-less complete stock of Ole Smoky products, for instance, she also points to the Asheville-based Troy and Sons, which employs a female master distiller, uses heirloom white corn for its grain, and ages its whiskey—the only so-called moonshine to do so.

She also holds up the Full Throttle brand vanilla flavor; the Tennessee Mellomoon coconut ’shine; and, with no small pride, an M.C.’s-only limited release of a new Midnight Moon product. Midnight Moon is the North Carolina-based distillery of renowned bootlegger and NASCAR legend Junior Johnson.

What makes those products in the little log cabin “moonshine,” as opposed to just so many bottles and mason jars of commercially manufactured white whiskey? “Part of it is the process,” she says. “Because the process should still be the same, even if it’s in a big distillery. The process is what does it.

“I think once you get a lot more out there, when it gets everywhere, it won’t be as much of a novelty. Then it will be more refined. Then you’ll see more niches, like craft brewers of beer.”

At Davy Crockett’s, though, Chuck Edwards suggests that some of the novelty will always remain. “In some people’s minds, it’s like some sort of elixir, and I think that’s still going on,” he says. “There’s still a part of it that’s secret and fun and interesting. There’s a heritage that goes way back. I don’t think it will ever be ‘just moonshine.’”

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