The city’s first jar of legal moonshine was sold July 3, 2010.
Some saw the moment as a salute to independence, a shedding of antiquated laws that kept the region from telling an important part of its history.
For others, that first sale marked a potential shadow that could hang over the image of the tourism-dependent city.
In the five years since Ole Smoky Moonshine Distillery opened in downtown Gatlinburg, three more companies have jumped onto the liquor wagon: Davy Crockett’s Tennessee Whiskey (owned by Gatlinburg Barrelhouse) in 2011 and Sugarlands Distillery and Doc Collier Moonshine in 2014.
Moonshine has long been a part of the Appalachian culture and continues to play a role that appears to be growing.
Gatlinburg’s city manager recalls how in early 2010 the city was approached by the founders of Ole Smoky Moonshine about applying to open a distillery. Soon she would have talks with the city attorney to fully understand the new state law that eased restrictions on distilleries.
In February 2013, Gatlinburg’s city commission passed ordinances in an attempt to regulate the distilleries. Soon after they were nullified.
Now one restaurant in Gatlinburg has even created a menu featuring moonshine in foods and beverages.
The General Assembly passed legislation in 2009 that made distilleries legal in 41 Tennessee counties, including Sevier. Whiskey production previously had been restricted to Moore, Coffee and Lincoln counties in Southeast Tennessee, home to the Jack Daniel’s, George Dickel and Prichard’s distilleries.
The result has been increased tourism business in Gatlinburg, state Sen. Doug Overbey said.
“I think it has been a plus from an economic standpoint and tax revenue standpoint,” he said.
Overbey said he realizes there are concerns the distilleries, which offer free tastings to patrons, could hurt the town’s image.
“I think Gatlinburg is still viewed as a family-friendly place. I’ve driven down the Parkway in the past two weeks, and you see a lot of families strolling along the sidewalks,” he said.
Joe Baker, one of the owners of Ole Smoky, says he started the distillery in part to give tourists in Gatlinburg a taste of the heritage of the Smoky Mountains.
“I saw an opportunity to share a bit of our culture and heritage with tourists who came to Gatlinburg,” Baker said.
Gatlinburg City Manager Cindy Ogle said city officials hope the distilleries won’t prove to be a mixed blessing.
“There’s no doubt there has been a positive economic impact, and also there is no doubt we have continued concerns with the free samples,” Ogle said.
Fourth Judicial District Attorney General Jimmy Dunn said he has his doubts. Dunn personally has seen the devastation alcohol can cause after a family member was killed by a drunken driver.
“I’m a teetotaler and I wish those businessmen success, but I wouldn’t trade places with them. I’m not a fan,” he said.
Anyone wishing to sample or buy legal moonshine in Gatlinburg has four different distilleries available to visit in town.
Just don’t try to get samples on a Sunday after 7 p.m. City ordinance states distilleries can offer free samples only from noon to 7 p.m. on Sundays.
Each distillery says its ingredients, offerings or heritage make the product unique.
Although the idea might seem popular now, Baker and partners Cory Cottongim and Tony Breeden weren’t so certain when they set about getting federal and state permits to open Ole Smoky.
“I remember it was stressful. We were running out of money. It was getting close. We were losing lots of sleep worrying about when we would open,” Baker said. “In June of 2010, we got our state license to open. We had no idea it would be as popular as it was. That is how it played out those first few months.”
The trio opened the distillery in a 2,500-square-foot facility in downtown Gatlinburg and sold their first jar of moonshine soon after.
“Fast forward five years and we operate in about 80,000 square feet of space. We have facilities in Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge, Pittman Center and warehouses throughout Sevier County,” Baker said.
The product now is sold in all 50 states and 30 countries.
“Not in my wildest dreams … I didn’t think what we created would be something that so many other people would see and want to do,” Baker said. “That was the interesting thing. When something is successful, I think folks generally want to try to emulate it.”
Baker’s wife, Jessi, along with her brother Charles Edwards and partner Virginia Cottongim, opened the second distillery in town, Davy Crockett’s Tennessee Whiskey.
Edwards said their distillery is more focused on the whiskey element versus moonshine, although the distillery offers some moonshine products.
“Where moonshine is unaged spirits out of copper still, we’re working toward aged whiskey,” he said. “It is a lengthy process for sure. That is our ultimate goal. We want our whiskey to age at least four years.”
In March 2014, Kent Woods and Ned Vickers opened Sugarlands Distilling Co. The founders wanted to create a major attraction, Sugarlands spokesman Jay Miller said.
“We have a back porch stage where bands play each night. We have some of the best Americana acts in the region,” he said. “We want people to come in, have fun and have the full experience of moonshine production.”
Phillip “Don” Collier, Kay Collier-Pittman and Brent Collier opened the youngest of the town’s distilleries, Doc Collier Moonshine, in March 2014.
The trio are the great-grandchildren of William “Doc” Collier, a well-known moonshiner in the English Mountain area of Sevier County, general manager Buddy Keyes said. The owners pride themselves on offering a wide variety of flavors.
“We are actually following a true family recipe Doc Collier used,” Keyes said. “We’re staying very traditional with our shine and ingredients. If our research is correct, we are the only commercial distillery that is making a true blueberry moonshine brandy.”