The “hoochiest” of American Craft Spirits is a real Tennessee family business.
Moonshine — white lightning, mountain dew, hooch — was illegally distilled by the light of the moon in the Appalachians for nearly half a century until 2009, when Tennessee lifted the ban on distilling spirits. And when that happened, the folks at Ole Smoky were ready. Set in the Smoky Mountains, the aptly-named distillery is the state’s first to produce now-legal moonshine.
Using a 100-year-old secret family recipe, Ole Smoky’s traditional corn whiskey is made of 80% corn, 20% of a secret ingredient, and is best for sipping. All Ole Smoky moonshines are 100-proof and come three additional varieties: White Lightnin’, a smoother, more distilled spirit for use in cocktails; Apple Pie, which tastes as warm and gooey as the real thing; and a Cherries version (fruits soaking in the old, Ole Smoky elixir).
Proprietor Joe Baker is no stranger to moonshine. He grew up on it. Baker made his first batch of (then illegal) moonshine before he was in high school. Born and raised in the Smoky Mountains, moonshine was always a part of Baker’s ancestry, and today it’s still a family affair. “When we say family business, we mean it,” says Baker, who prefers drinking his ‘shine neat. “Most of the people who work with us, we’ve known our whole lives. People sometimes tease that everyone in eastern Tennessee are cousins, but we really are. There are about 20 to 30 employees who are really related.”
Approximately 60 people work the moonshine-making shifts, including Baker’s parents. Fresh corn is milled once a week, then mashed for each batch of moonshine. They never want to use stale corn, so the freshly milled corn goes straight into the cooker, the first step in prepping the “hooch” before it is fermented for three to four days. Once distilled, the moonshine fills Mason jars to the brim — the Ole Smoky packaging of choice. “We take our time and don’t want to rush and strip it of its natural flavor,” says Baker.
Even if Ole Smoky follows the traditional distillation process, the machinery used today is just a bit fancier. “The difference is that it’s [distilling moonshine] now legal,” says Baker. “So we’re able to control the quality of the product and the type of equipment we use. We take pride in maintaining the heritage of the product.”
Next year, Baker is hoping to meet the new demand for Ole Smoky. There are some new flavors in the works or being refined, but don’t expect several new versions of moonshine to join the Ole Smoky catalog anytime soon. “It’s easy to make a flavor and put it out there, but we have to be careful about what we do and how we do it,” he says. “Want to make sure that anything we put out there keeps up with the quality.”
Baker predicts they’ll produce 50,000 cases next year and says that word of the once-banned spirit keeps getting around. “A friend of ours said that he ran into someone in Costa Rica with our shirt on,” says Baker. “What can I say, people like it.”
Spirits from Ole Smoky Distillery
Apple Pie Moonshine