When Tim and I lived in the Smoky Mountains, we started doing Gatlinburg Moonshine and Whiskey History walking tours. Our Airbnb experience would always sell out and I still get messages from a number of people requesting tour dates. Since quite a few of our previous guests have reached out and it is that time of year when everyone starts heading to Gatlinburg for family vacations, I am finally putting on paper (err, blog?) how you can do a self-guided version of my tour. So, get ready to learn and have fun with moonshine tasting in Gatlinburg!
Whiskey and Moonshine History Walking Tour
I loved the history side of Gatlinburg Moonshine and whiskey culture. This self-guided you will take you on a historical trip through Tennessee’s spirit history. From there as you walk, you’ll visit 3 distilleries that makeup part of the Tennessee Whiskey Trail. I’ll tell you how to go on a behind-the-scenes tour at a real working still house and you’ll get to see how everything is made start to finish.
You’ll learn all about the time before, during, and after Prohibition, the state’s history with whiskey, and why those Smoky Mountains were such an integral part of Gatlinburg Moonshine culture.
Going at your own pace, you’ll see first hand what present-day distilling looks like and get to see a real working distillery! I’ll cover stories of famous moonshiners and get to see what the history and traditions of Tennessee Whiskey look like today. You’ll spend time at some of my favorite places to get moonshine in Gatlinburg where you will get a taste of the mountains with some world’s finest whiskey and the nation’s most sought-after moonshine.
Moonshine vs. Whiskey
In these parts, you’re going to hear the terms whiskey and moonshine tossed around interchangeably so we’re going to start by hopefully clearing up any confusion.
Moonshine, historically, is any untaxed liquor. So, we get together and make wine in my basement, we’re good. We make beer, we’re good! The moment we take that wine or beer and distill it, it becomes moonshine. Now when you go into some of these distilleries, they are going to be selling “moonshine” but I promise you they are paying their taxes! Nowadays, moonshine is an unaged, white corn whiskey.
Whiskey, in Tennessee, is moonshine once it hits the barrel for aging – be that five minutes, five months, or five years. Once it hits the barrel, its considered whiskey. But depending on who you ask, they might call a clear unaged spirit, whiskey. Why? Well… Historians also generally state that whiskey in the United States was largely unaged. It wasn’t until trade routes and shipping grew that whiskey was aged and accidentally so! Legend has it that the unaged (clear) whiskey was put into barrels and sent down the Mississippi en route for Nola. The barrels were branded “Bourbon” for the port off of Bourbon Street they were being sent to.
There are some other specifications when you go a little deeper into the barrel – like the Lincoln County Process or the difference between Bourbon and Irish Whiskey, but that is for another tour and another day!
Starting Point: Ogle Cabin (Across the street from Landshark Bar and Grill)
The historic Ogle Cabin is our starting point for our Gatlinburg Moonshine tour mainly because it gives you a good visual of what people’s lives in the 1800s looked. The cabin is the first home built in what we know now as Gatlinburg. But it isn’t in its original location. The cabin has been moved around a few times before finally settling into its now final location.
William Ogle lived in South Carolina with his wife Martha and their children. He traveled to the Smokies, which he called “Land of Paradise” for its majestic views and wildlife, and started to build a cabin with the intent of moving his family. When he want back to South Carolina, an epidemic of Malaria broke out and William died in 1803 of a fever. As a woman and a widow, 47-year-old Martha packed up her five sons and two daughters to finish her husbands dream of living in the Great Smoky Mountains. I think we can all agree that Martha is kind of a badass! The cabin is open for visitors seasonally, Monday through Saturday 10 am – 5 pm and is furnished with period pieces, some of which are original to the Ogles.
In Martha Ogle’s time and neck of the woods in Gatlinburg moonshine and whiskey were made at home. It was made in small batches and for internal family use either medicinally or recreationally. Back then, if you didn’t have it you most likely had to make it. Whiskey was no exception.
Doc Collier Moonshine, 519 Parkway, Gatlinburg, TN
At Doc Collier’s you’ll want to ask one of the employees for a Tennessee Whiskey Trail Passport. All the distilleries you visit on this tour are stops on the Whiskey Trail, so grab your passport and don’t forget to get yours stamped! Are you ready to start your Gatlinburg Moonshine adventure?
Doc Collier was a real man. He was born in 1878 and lived on English Mountain, about an hour and a half from where the distillery is today. Doc got his nickname because he made his living selling moonshine to friends and neighbors for medicinal purposes. And even though that was the respectable way to use moonshine and whiskey, he wasn’t one to discriminate – if you wanted to party and were willing to pay, he was willing to sell. He is rumored to have been a moonshiner before it was a thing and known for having one of the best liquors in the mountains. What made him, and makes the distillery, different is their use of English Mountain spring water. Doc’s moonshine from his days and the bottles you can buy today all start from the same mountain spring water source which his family still owns the water rights to!
Doc’s is a boutique distillery so they don’t ship which means the only place you can buy Doc Collier products is in Gatlinburg! So go ahead, buy a sample round and take notes in your passport. Trust me, by the end of this they will all sound the same and you be asking yourself “What was the one I liked at the place in that bottle?”
Alright, so we’ve got some Gatlinburg moonshine and whiskey in y’all. Which means, right around this time you are asking yourself if moonshiners and rum runners were all Bonnie and Clyde like. You’re thinking about all those Dukes of Hazzard reruns you’ve watched. You’re thinking about police shoot outs and out running the cops. So, why don’t we walk across the street?
To The General, General Lee that is!
Cooter’s Place, 542 Parkway, Gatlinburg, TN
If we’re going to talk about pop culture, whiskey, and Gatlinburg moonshine we might as well do it within earshot of The General! At Cooter’s Place, you will find one Dukes of Hazzard Museum (which is free!) filled with memorabilia from the show.
Moonshine money and moonshining were pretty civil. If you got caught, you did your time and kept on keeping on. The sheriff realized that you (the moonshiner) were just trying to feed your family by making shine, and you understood he was just doing his job to do the same thing. It wasn’t until the prohibition that you see the shoot outs and danger factor come into play because that is when men like Al Capone got into the shine business.
Rumor has it that he hid his moonshine in the Smoky Mountains… and while a lot of things in Moonshine culture are often exaggerated this one doesn’t seem so farfetched! Tennessee has long been a leader in producing distilled spirits. When the Irish and Scottish settled the area they brought with them the tradition of spirit making. In fact, Cocke County (which is the next country over from Sevier County) was known as the moonshine capital of the world. During the prohibition, no matter what part of the country you were in there was a really good chance that what you were drinking came from Cocke County – one county in Tennessee was supplying about 80% of the country’s illegal booze. From NYC to Chicago to LA, Cocke County spirits were being shipped all over the country. The best moonshiners and whiskey makers were in Tennessee so it would make sense, from a business and quality stand point, that Capone would seek out moonshiners in the state to supply his growing demand for illegal spirits.
Al Capone was a frequent visitor to RyeMabee in Monteagle, Tennessee (near Chattanooga) when he was traveling between his home in Chicago and his Florida estate in Miami. It is said that the house was owned by his favorite mistress too! Add into the mix that the railroad in Johnson City was only a hop and a skip away for easy shipping and it really isn’t as farfetched.
Next stop, the Gazebo on River Road by the Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies
I briefly touched on the Irish and Scottish immigrants that made a home in the Smokies but we didn’t really get into how that translated into whiskey making. Soft water is vital in making any spirit and if you look around you’ll see that Tennessee has creeks, rivers, and brooks all over the state. Geographically, the state has the perfect climate and humidity for whiskey making so it was easy for the families that settled the area to bring their love of whiskey and whiskey making with them when the settled in these mountains.
Any time you have an illegal activity, I think it is pretty safe to say that the police tend to be a few steps behind. Moonshiners in these mountains learned how to find good water sources by looking at the plants that grew near the banks. They came up with ways to let each other know if cops were headed your way and even if you weren’t the one making it, in some way, you were a part of moonshine culture. For the most part, whiskey making was a way of making ends meet. It created cash flow in cash-poor societies that depended heavily on bartering at the local general store.
Mountain Mall, Site of the Ogle’s General Store
611 Parkway, Gatlinburg
The Ogle family was one of the first to settle in the backwoods community of White Oak Flats (now Gatlinburg), Tennessee in the early years of the nineteenth century. The Ogles were, and still are, a prominent force in all phases of local life. Back then most of them were farmers and they were active in the politics, education, economics, and religion of Sevier County. Noah W. “Bud” Ogle was descendent of Martha Ogle and lived from 1863 to 1913. He was the town’s first merchant and established the Ogle General Store where the Mountain Mall sits today.
Noah Ogle’s house and outbuildings are still standing today. They reflect the way of life in this vicinity around the turn of this century, almost a hundred years after Martha came with her children. You can see Noah’s cabin by driving along the Roaring Fork Motor Trail – something both Tim and I did often while we lived in the Smokies!
Ole Smoky Barrelhouse, 650 Parkway, Gatlinburg
The Jack Daniel Distillery reopened soon after law allowed in 1940 and George Dickel followed suit in the 1950s. The two were the only legal distilleries in the state and together began rebuilding the legal distilled spirits industry. It would take Tennessee almost 60 years before any real change was made even though in the mid-1990s a craft distillery opened but this is where progress stalled.
In 2009, Tennessee began reforming its prohibition-era laws. Inspired by the craft beer movement that was rewriting growler laws in states like Florida and brewing regulations across the country, a group of individuals saw the potential for tourism. Together, they worked to eliminate many of the legal barriers distilleries faced. One of the first distilleries to pop was Ole Smoky. They were able to dive into the industry head first, getting a head start which is why you can find them in every state and a number of countries today.
Ole Smoky has 3 locations in Sevier County, 2 in Gatlinburg (The Barrel House and The Holler) and a location on The Island in Pigeon Forge. The Barrel House is where you will find mostly their whiskeys. They do sample and carry a few shines but they won’t have their full shine product line up. For that, you can go up the road to the Holler, but more on that later!
Out front of the Barrelhouse location, you’ll see how the distillation process works and depending on when you visit they might have it running! You’ll notice, too, when you walk up to the distillery that there is a smell of freshly baked bread in the air. That, ladies and gentlemen, is the mash! The money maker! The start of a beautiful thing.
Mash is at its simplest terms, a really basic beer made of sugar, corn, yeast, and water. The easiest way to think about the science behind fermentation is based all on Mrs. Pac Man. Think of the yeast as Mrs. Pac Man, they eat the sugar which fuels them and as a by-product (or as a 12-year-old said on my tour once “they fart out”) you get the alcohol and carbonation. I promise you will never forget this. And someday when you win Jeopardy to Cash Cab, I don’t expect a share of the winnings, just a shout out. Once the Mrs. Pac Man process has had 5-8 days to do its thing, you have a super simple beer. That brewer’s beer as it is called is the distilled down to make liquor. Since alcohol evaporates at a lower temperate than water, you are quite literally pulling the alcohol out. That’s how you can take something that is 8-10% AVC and turn it into a 180 proof moonshine!
Over recent years, the number of Tennessee distilleries has grown from the original two to the now thirty distilleries Tennessee host’s across the state. These distilleries range from Doc Collier-like small, boutique-style operations making traditional and small-batch spirits to well-known distilleries like Daniel and Dickel that have been making legendary Tennessee Whiskey for as long as the state has allowed.
Gatlinburg Inn, the birthplace of “Rocky Top”
755 Parkway, Gatlinburg
Of all the hotels you’ll walk by in Gatlinburg, The Historic Gatlinburg Inn has one of the richest and most intriguing histories. The hotel was built in 1937 as the Great Smoky Mountains National Park was being created and was the home to many firsts – the chamber of commerce, the local newspaper, the town’s first bank, its first dentist, and the offices of the City of Gatlinburg.
The hotel boasts a long list of interesting visitors. If you’ve ever wondered what Liberace to Lady Bird Johnson have in common, well, it’s the Gatlinburg Inn! Other famous guests include J.C. Penney, Dinah Shore, and Tennessee Ernie Ford.
The Gatlinburg Inn appeared in the movie, “A Walk in the Spring Rain,” starring Ingrid Bergman and Anthony Quinn. But its strongest connection to pop culture is by way of Hall of Fame songwriters Boudleaux and Felice Bryant, whose catalog includes more than 1,500 published songs, among those the famous “Rocky Top,” which was written in Room 388. And if you think that this is just another random trivia stop on the tour, think again and give the lyrics a listen. There is more than one reference to moonshine in the song!
Sugarlands Distilling Company, 805 Parkway, Gatlinburg
Of all the distilleries, off all the Gatlinburg moonshine there is one that is my favorite. Each one of the stops on the Tennessee Whiskey Trail will have a different feel. But to me, Sugarlands Distilling is the best. If you plan on visiting I HIGHLY suggest you reserve a still house tour (you can do that here) so you can go behind the scenes. You’ll get to see, first hand, what modern distilling looks like and how the team at Sugarlands are keeping moonshine history alive! If you’re lucky enough to have Connie or Kevin as your guide, you’ll come out ready to start making your own moonshine. Both of them are incredibly knowledgeable and of the hundreds of guests that I brought in with my Airbnb experience, I don’t think there was ever a question they couldn’t answer!
I love Sugarlands’ commitment to keeping true to their Gatlinburg moonshine roots. They follow 2 traditional heritage recipes that date back to prime moonshine days and are from Cocke County. One is even rumored to be the same recipe George Washington used at Mount Vernon… I won’t give away too many of their secrets because the tour is totally worth it, so how about some recommendations?
If you can get your hands on a bottle, Roaming Man. All. Day. Long. Butter Pecan Sippin’ Cream is where it is at! I know its an old lady flavor but hear me out. It is delicious. And when it comes to buying a gift for someone back home you can never go wrong with their Appalachian Apple Pie! Unlike other apple pie shines that use red apple and allspice, Sugarlands throws you a delicious curve ball of green apples and caramel. Pay attention when you’re doing your tasting, this one does a magic trick!
Now, don’t forget to check out the back patio and their cocktail bar. Believe them when they say they have the best Bloody Mary in town! But if vegetables in your cup aren’t your style you can always go with the Purple Rain (Tim’s favorite), a Cheershine (my favorite!), or the Hot Toddy on colder evenings. We love the patio so much that we usually entertain with recipes inspired by the Whiskey Trail.
You never know who you might run into on that back patio either! If you’ve watched the Moonshiners show on Discovery Chanel, there might be a familiar face from time to time.
Optional Distillery Stop
Ole Smoky Holler, 903 Parkway Suite 128, Gatlinburg
Generally, our Gatlinburg Moonshine tours ended at Sugarlands because I saved the best for last. But if you are looking to feel saucy, head on up the road a little to Ole Smoky’s second Gatlinburg location. Here you will find all of their moonshines and they usually have live music!
Gatlinburg Walking Tour Map
I’ve marked all the stops, interesting points for tidbits of history, and cool things to see so that they correspond with this post. Just click it and follow along, and shine on!
If you are up to visiting some other distilleries while you are in town, here are some others in East Tennessee worth checking out!
- Bootleggers Distillery: 3567 Hartford Road, Hartford TN
- Chattanooga Whiskey Co: 1439 Market Street, Chattanooga TN
- Cocke County Moonshine Distillery: 519 Old Knoxville Highway, Newport TN
- Knox Whiskey Works: 516 W Jackson Avenue, Knoxville TN
- Old Forge Distillery: 170 Old Mill Avenue, Pigeon Forge TN
- Old Smoky Moonshine Distillery – Barn: 131 The Island Drive, Pigeon Forge TN
- PostModern Distilling: 205 W Jackson Avenue Suite #205, Knoxville TN
- Tennessee Legend Distillery: 2874 Newport Highway, Sevierville TN
- Tennessee Legend Distillery #2: 866 Winnfield Dunn Parkway, Sevierville TN
- Thunder Road Distillery: 3605 Outdoor Sportsman Pl, Kodak TN