From rustic corn-whiskey to copper stills to the fresh mountain springs where it all begins, the Smoky Mountains are steeped in the history of moonshine. Take a hike in the Smokies, and you’re bound to stumble across hidden caves with the abandoned remains of stills left over from the days when moonshining was at the height of its popularity.
When the law changed and moonshine was brought out into the sunlight, distilleries went from a prohibited and secret enterprise to a legal – and very profitable – industry. Keep reading to learn more about the fascinating history of Smoky Mountain moonshine!
Tradition and Culture
“Uisce Beatha.” That’s Gaelic for whiskey, which translates in English to “Water of Life.” In Scotland and Ireland, whiskey making was a time-honored tradition. So, when the Scots-Irish immigrated to America and landed in the Smokies, they didn’t just bring their musical influence. They also brought their culture and their distillery know-how with them.
Using local corn crops, they turned these golden grains into the cherished nectar of their home country. This practice continued for decades all across the mountains without any trouble. But when the federal government decided to place a $2 per gallon excise tax on the drink, their tradition was upended. That extra cost was too expensive for the Appalachian mountain folks to pay. So, if they wanted to keep enjoying their treasured whiskey, they had to come up with a new plan.
Moonshine is often thought of as a cheap knockoff of whiskey, but really the only difference between the two is legality. Moonshine is simply whiskey that is made illegally. When the mountain folk’s whiskey got taxed, they took to making it in secret at night – or by moonlight, which is where the term moonshine comes from.
This quickly became more than just a desire to drink untaxed whiskey. It was an extremely successful enterprise for a lot of farmers. They were able to create a brand new stream of income by turning their extra corn into moonshine, which helped them pay their bills and feed their families.
There’s an aura of mystique and awe around moonshine and, specifically, around the people who made it. One well-known character was Lewis Redmond, a North Carolina native, who was elevated to mythical status in 1876 when he shot and killed a deputy who was trying to arrest him. For the next five years, he took on a Robin Hood-like persona as he evaded lawmen and shared his profits with local residents. The law eventually caught up with him in 1881, and he was arrested. But he later ended up being pardoned and found work in a government run distillery in South Carolina.
Prohibition only served to grow the popularity of moonshining with the illegal alcohol trade spreading across the country. While it was never officially documented, a buzz of rumors swirled around that the notorious gangster Al Capone hid his moonshine in the Smoky Mountains before secretly slipping it into Chicago.
But the most famous contemporary moonshiner – around Maggie Valley and beyond – is Marvin “Popcorn” Sutton. He gained popularity when he appeared in Neal Hutcheson’s Emmy winning documentary “The Last One,” where he claimed to produce the last run of liquor he would ever make. Not only was he a great moonshiner, but he was an excellent marketer. Using the fame of that documentary, he drove his Model A Ford truck around town. And when that truck pulled up, everyone would rush up desperate to buy a jug from his last run of moonshine. Popcorn always seemed to have a jar or two laying around.
Where To Drink Moonshine in the Smoky Mountains Today
Moonshiners in the past cared more about making money over the quality of alcohol they produced, but if you talk to local moonshiners today, it’s all about the product. And you can find a wide variety of high-quality whiskey styles and flavors all across the mountains. Here’s where you can get a taste of the Smokies and fill your cup with good stuff:
With a nod to Haywood County’s median elevation of 3,600 feet (the highest of any county in the eastern US), Elevated is run by third generation whiskey makers, Dave and Sue Angel. For decades, moonshiners have taken advantage of the high-altitude pristine mountain springs to produce some of the purest moonshine in the Smoky Mountains. And now you can tour the corn-to-whiskey process at Elevated to learn how it’s made. Their custom pot and towering 23-foot column still take the process to the next level. In addition to tour
s and tastings of whiskey and moonshine, take the stage for karaoke on Thursday evenings or enjoy live music on Friday and Saturday nights.
3732 Soco Rd, Maggie Valley, NC 28751 | 828-944-0766
Tennessee’s first legal (and largest) moonshine distillery is Ole Smoky. With two locations in Gatlinburg and one in Pigeon Forge, they have made a lasting mark as a leader in moonshine and whiskey production. Featuring over 20 different types of moonshine, there’s something for everyone at Ole Smoky. Sample flavors like Apple Pie, Sweet Tea, Cinnamon, and Eggnog. Or try their 16 whiskey varieties from 35 to 100 proof that will keep you warm during the cold winter months. Go with a classic straight bourbon whiskey or have some fun with a mango habanero or peanut butter whiskies. Take a behind-the-scenes tour to see how the moonshine’s made, and stick around for free concerts, where you just might hear big-name acts like Easton Corbin or the Soggy Bottom Boys.
Ole Smoky Barn | 131 The Island Drive Pigeon Forge, TN 37863
Ole Smoky Moonshine Holler | 903 Parkway, Unit 128 Gatlinburg, TN 37738
Ole Smoky Barrelhouse 650 Parkway Gatlinburg, TN 37738
Belly up to the bar at this award-winning distillery in Gatlinburg, TN. Sugarlands is keeping Tennessee’s moonshine history alive with a modern twist. They stay true to their roots by following traditional heritage recipes dating back to the Smoky Mountains’ classic moonshine days, while adding in fresh flavors for the more contemporary palates. Take a still house tour to go behind the scenes for a first-hand look at the art and science of distilling, then finish off with a tasting. Warm up with their time-tested classics, or try original flavors like Blueberry Muffin, Maple Bacon, or Apple Pie. Afterwards, hang around on the back patio for some free live music from talented local bands and touring acts.
Inspired by Pigeon Forge’s historic past – and the iron forge from which the city gets its name – Old Forge Distillery produces moonshine made from the area’s pure mountain spring water and freshly ground grains. Their signature drink, 1830 Original Unaged Corn Moonshine, pays homage to the year that the area’s historic grist mill was built. Their copper column stills make innovative small batch spirits, extracting the grain’s natural flavors that result in award-winning moonshine. Try the Oatmeal Cookie, Vanilla Bean, or French Toast. You can also sip bourbon, rum, vodka, and cream liqueur at their tasting bar. Be sure to stop by the gift store before you leave to pick up a handcrafted moonshine jug or hand forged knife made by the resident blacksmith.
170 Old Mill Avenue, Pigeon Forge, TN 37868 | 865-774-4126
Take a listen to theGateway to the Smokies Podcast, where host, Joseph McElroy talks with Dave Angel of Elevated Mountain Distillery about his personal take on whiskey and the traditions of moonshine in the Smoky Mountains!
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