MOONSHINE, Tennessee. You won’t really find Moonshine on the map, but the wickedly potent brew “still” runs deep along the Smokies in East Tennessee. Legally, and otherwise.
A number of licensed distilleries have sprung up in recent years, and just about everyone has either a wild uncle or curious nephew running the juice through automobile radiators, assorted pipes and various other paraphernalia, to produce that special kick for their friends and relatives.
It’s bottled in Mason jars, just like in the old days, and sells for about $20 a jar. It goes by many names in addition to Moonshine: white lightning, hillbilly pop, hooch, bush whiskey and, when the alcohol content goes off the charts, just plain and simple gasoline.
“We take a little to kick-start our football parties,” a waitress at the Firefly Café in Townsend (population 244) told me. “It doesn’t much matter who wins after that.”
“I take a little just about every day,” said a guide at the Heritage Center , which features an original, century-old home still. “If I feel something coming on, I take two or three shots before I go to bed.”
But that home brew, which can reach as high as 170 proof, isn’t all just fun and games. It can be dangerous, even deadly.
So for every thrill-seeker, there is someone like the female manager of the mountain chalet I stayed in who has a Mason jar of Moonshine in her kitchen cabinet, but “won’t touch the stuff,” even though it was brewed by her nephew.
“He insisted I have it,” she said. “But I’m afraid to drink it. Someone said if it was too strong you could go blind.”
The state eased the restrictions on Moonshine in 2008 and several distilleries subsequently began bottling their own versions, confident that there was a large market out there of people who were fearful of the unregulated home brews.
They were right, because today you can even get your Moonshine at select Walmarts.
In 2010 Ole Smoky Moonshine in Gatlinburg became the first legal Moonshine distillery in the state. Today, it ships to 48 states and the Canadian provinces of British Columbia and Alberta.
“Moonshine, properly controlled, is coming out of the shadows and attracting a whole new audience of people looking for something other than the traditional bar drink,” said Johnny Baker, a member of the founding family who took us on a tour.
“There’s nothing mysterious about the ingredients, as home brewers claim. It’s simply a combination of corn meal, yeast, water, sugar, malt and maybe a little rye. It’s the processing that’s the key.”
He dipped his finger into a vat that was fermenting, licked it and announced, “This is about 80 proof right now, just about ready.”
Ole Smoky produces 15 flavors of Moonshine, all bottled in old-time Mason jars. The strongest and purest, at about 110 proof, are White Lightning and The Original. The top flavored brands are Blackberry, Peach, Apple Pie and Cherry.
Baker said 120 proof would be about as high as his Moonshine would go, and anything over “like fire going down” and could be dangerous.
I sampled a shot of homemade “hillbilly pop” in Blount County, on the other side of the Smokies, and had a White Lightning with Baker. Both seemed to have the same “kick,” but the distillery brew went down a little smoother.
Gatlinburg and nearby Pigeon Forge are on the east side of the Smoky Mountains in the tourist area often referred to as Glitter Gulch and Honkytonk Holler. It’s filled with wax museums, side shows, replicas of King Kong astride the Empire State Building, Dolly Parton’s Dollywood, carnival rides, country music shows, a Titanic museum, Hatfield & McCoy shootouts and dinner shows. You get the picture.
This area attracts upwards of 10-million tourists a year; that’s more than many countries get!
West of the mountains lies Blount County, the so-called “Peaceful side of the Smokies.” The nickname fits. You can walk across four-lane divided highways here and not have to look either way.
A third of the county actually lies within the Smokies. You won’t see any flashing neon signs here, and not too many stop lights, either. For the most part, it’s pure, clean countryside, scattered houses with huge yards and the occasional drive-in movie…yes, they’re still operating here.
Blount County is also sky-high in religion and patriotism. There’s more than enough churches to serve the 130,000 residents, and a flag flying just about everywhere you look.
Next to religion and patriotism and possibly country music, residents are faithful supporters of their local businesses. A classic example of this was on display in the county seat of Maryville, population 25,000, with most of the residents upper-middle to upper-class.
I walked the downtown area with Mayor Tom Taylor. His very name fit in nicely with the neat, almost storybook business district.
“We support one another,” the mayor, a businessman himself, said. “Knoxville is only a short drive away, but we’d rather do our shopping here, where we live and know one another, and keep our community humming.”
Dozens of historic structures in the downtown core have been preserved and renovated. “That big restaurant over there used to be a J.C. Penny store,” the mayor said. “And that novelty shop is in the old library. Where you used to check out your books is now the cashier’s desk.”
A Fall festival was taking place and I witnessed my first tractor parade, about 30 vintage machines strutting down the main street. Along the route were corn-husking demonstrations, country music performers and about 85 artisans with their wares.
I stopped in a few small shops with storybook names: “Pop” Korn’s Popcorn (101 flavors), KupKake Katie’s (including one with a dash of Moonshine) and an amazing cake and pastry shop called Oven Art Designer. Amazing because the one-of-a-kind wedding cakes range from $500 to $5,000.
Lisa Cunningham, the owner/cake maker/designer, said the decorations alone can take up to 50 hours. They’re all hand-made and all edible.
Just down the street from this very unique cake shop is the Full Service BBQ, an eye-opener of a different sort.
Like some of the downtown historic buildings, this structure has also been preserved from its previous life. It used to be a gas station. And there has been no attempt whatsoever to disguise that fact.
The Full Service BBQ sits on a corner of the busiest intersection in Maryville, with cars, tractors and an occasional ambulance or firetruck whizzing by. A huge smoker sits by the side of the road and several others are scattered about the grounds.
Along with that down-home atmosphere, the owner has a tomato plant growing on a small dirt patch under a corner mailbox, using the legs of the mailbox to support the vines.
Where you once paid for your gas you now order your chicken and ribs.The same men’s and women’s restrooms are off to the side. There are picnic tables where the pumps used to be.
The only thing missing was the grease pit.