Moonshine, once the scourge of revenuers, Bible thumpers and prohibitionists from Turtletown to Bulls Gap has come out of the hollers and set up shop on the biggest stages of East Tennessee.
There was a time, not that long ago, that if you wanted moonshine you had to know a guy – and more often than not that guy lived in Cocke County. Now, thanks to a 2009 change in Tennessee law, moonshine is big business.
You want proof?
The Ole Smoky Distilleries three Sevier County locations – Ole Smoky’s The Holler, The Barrelhouse in Gatlinburg, and Pigeon Forge’s distillery The Barn – drew a combined 4.3 million visitors in 2019 alone. Throw in a meager 200,000 for Ole Smoky’s Nashville distillery – which opened in the fall of 2019 – and the Ole Smoky drew 4.5 million visitors last year, according to on-premise traffic counters.
The Holler was the most popular with 2.1 million visitors, nearly matching the combined total of The Barn and The Barrelhouse – which drew 1.1 million visitors each.
“2019 was a growth year for our brand and our distilleries. We continue to introduce innovative and appetizing new products and opened an impressive 30,000 square-foot entertainment complex and distillery in the heart of Music City, Nashville. Now with four locations, we provided memorable ‘see it made’ distillery experiences to 4.5 million visitors last year. From the quality and variety of our moonshine and whiskey products, to our attractive merchandise and live music, distillery tastings and tours, our visitors experience the full spectrum of our Ole Smoky brand,” said Robert Hall, CEO of Ole Smoky Distillery LLC.
Now, I’m no statistical wizard but we should probably note these were not 4.5 million unique visitors. It’s safe to say there’s heavy repeat customer traffic and more than a little overlap. Still, by itself, Ole Smoky outdrew all the distilleries in the country of Scotland, which drew 2 million visitors in 2018 to all 68 of the Scotch Whisky Association’s distilleries. Ole Smoky also outdrew Tennessee’s northern neighbor Kentucky, which drew 1.4 million who visited the Kentucky Bourbon Trail’s 17 distilleries.
What does that mean? Money. It means a lot of money. Scrooge McDuck money.
Money for Ole Smoky.
Money for Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge, the state of Tennessee.
Money for other businesses that benefit from Sevier County tourism.
Beyond that? It’s hard to say. For those of us who’ve been around awhile, it’s still weird to see just how much legal moonshine has left a bigfoot sized imprint on the region. Most of the locals I know view it as something of a novelty. Maybe it’s fun night out to go tasting. It certainly makes for a great gift. But for a lot of locals there’s still a stigma attached to the tourism moonshine versus the “real” thing.
Let’s put it this way, Popcorn Sutton – even though they put his name on a brand of legal moonshine – would never have approved of the current heavily marketed, heavily homogenized process. But, and this is an important point, Popcorn Sutton wouldn’t have turned down the dollars flowing in, either. And it’s also important to note, the professional, legal makers, aren’t crawling through some godforsaken mudhole to make their product. Ole Smoky may not be quite as authentic as the old style but it’s damn sure less likely to make you go blind or, as was the case with a guy I know, to mess up your digestive system enzymes and leave you unable to process food for the better part of a week.
At some point, we will all embrace our new moonshine overloads and toast their mighty success. Until then, if you want some “real” moonshine, I know a guy. He’s from Cocke County.