Gatlinburg, Tennessee

The Napa of Moonshine

The Parkway shoots out of nearby Pigeon Forge and doesn’t relax the throttle until, bathing in the cool air of the forest, it winds into Gatlinburg. The knick-knacks of small Southern towns decorate the roadside, telephone poles handing off a procession of thick garland and brick motels leaning over the creek. Standing above it all, the Great Smokies press in on the snug boulevard, refusing to play second fiddle, and holding tight to the landscape.

gatlinburg from smokey mountains

Gatlinburg is a destination where tongue-in-cheek kitsch runs alongside Tennessee culture. There are dozens of simple adjectives that can be blindly prescribed to this tourist town as if each description is a way to heal the scene, but, taking in the mix of silver-brown buildings and long standing trees, it’s more than just a “quaint” “mountain town” for “weekend escapes”. Visiting here is a chance to tuck away into a secluded cabin in the mountains and is also a rarely found opportunity to take in the warm charm of the Appalachian South. Like the endless rows of vines in Napa, this is the authentic setting for making moonshine. Finding our way into the first of many moonshine distilleries the crowd reflected the spirt of shine – excited, relaxed and fun.

Billed as a “Moonshine Tasting”, like everything in Gatlinburg, the words underestimate the experience. Not your traditional off-the-menu pour, these tastings are something like close-up magic performed by carefully crafted hillbilly characters; where animated tenders pour shot after shot of corn liquor in worlds designed to take guests away from their everyday bar experience. It’s the closest thing to an adult Disneyland that I have found. It’s a show and it’s 100 proof.

Ole Smoky Tasting Line-up

There are a number of places for sampling shine, and each offers a different kinda of experience:

Ole Smoky Moonshine Holler– According to their site, this is the ‘most visited distillery in America’, and stopping by to taste their full range of shine is a must.  Tucked back in the Holler, you’ll find a manicured tasting bar – imagine a country version of a tiki bar – where shifts of shots are poured and guests are welcome to taste every variety in a single tasting. For me, this was the tasting where the shots never dropped the kick of  shine, even as the proof fell.

sugarlands bartender with textSugarlands Moonshine Distillery – Sugarlands is the tasting experiences that most closely mixes the ideal ‘shiner’ culture with a fun customer experience.  Unlike Ole Smoky, the distillery purposely feels a bit more relaxed and rough around the edges. While there is a stage for music and a design that carries out the homespun feel, the best part of the experience is the cast of tasting pourers.  Reaching across the copper tables to liberally dispense the full line of shine, these ‘hillbillies’ play in to the fabled mountain character in a way that compares to a Disney character ‘meet-and-greet’, full of fun and smiles, while touching on the best parts of the backwoods culture.

davy crocketDavy Crockett’s – On the other end of the sipping spectrum is Davy  Crockett’s. Dark woods and frayed rope garner this frontier style shop that harkens back to the early days of Tennessee. While the crew pouring shots may not be as colorful when raising their glass or as liberal in their pouring, the well thought out theming makes for a unique experience that is great for photos. Also, unlike Ole Smoky and Sugarlands, Davy Crockett’s makes moonshine and aged whiskey – so the tasting here have a much larger variety of flavors.

Making the full tasting rounds also includes a couple of wineries, even more moonshine, and local brews, which can complicate standing up, but is a really cool way to spend an afternoon and evening in Gatlinburg. How cool? Well…

Ole Smoky Bluegrass band 3 piece

Some things you do in this life overwhelm the words most often used to describe them, which is the case with moonshine tasting in Gatlinburg. The closest I can get to describing how awesome and refreshing my experience was, is by weaving together places and things that feel like pieces of the visit and together wrap up the sensation of the experience. So I want to leave you with a picture of sensations.  Use your memories associated with these words to imagine the ‘Napa of Moonshine’.

Log Cabin, Golden-Brown, New Years Eve, Nestled, Sports Bar, Ernest P Worrell, Bluegrass