A clue you’re in for a good time is when the guy pouring shots is named O’Damnit. Recently, I traveled to Eastern Tennessee to experience a popular Gatlinburg Attraction, Sugarlands Distilling Co. And, O’Damnit with Sugarlands was one of many who ensured I left with a better understanding and appreciation of moonshine.
A Brief History of Moonshine in Tennessee
Moonshiners emerged in the United States following the Revolutionary War in the late 18th Century. After the new nation racked up debt fighting for freedom from England, the young government imposed a federal tax on spirits and liquor. Distilling moonshine was a way for citizens in this new nation to enjoy their spirits yet avoid paying taxes.
“But isn’t distilling moonshine illegal today,” you ask?
Well, the recession in 2008 had many states looking for ways to keep residents employed and generate taxes to keep the economy going. Many relaxed distilling laws and I suppose many lawmakers reckoned alcohol was a necessity during these poor economic times. This resulted in a few distilleries in Tennessee counties to produce spirits and in 2009, state lawmakers made it legal for moonshine distilling in about a dozen more counties.
Ole Smoky Moonshine Distillery became Tennessee’s first distiller when it opened its doors in Gatlinburg in 2010 and other distillers followed. Four years later, Sugarlands Distilling Co. opened in the heart of Gatlinburg and thankfully, within walking distance of many downtown hotels, such as the Hilton Garden Inn Gatlinburg, the wonderful place I stayed (and it’s dog-friendly so maybe I’ll be back with my canine buddy!)
Admittedly, although I enjoy consuming spirits, I went into the weekend having no idea about moonshine, other than knowing it’s illegal for individuals to distill (in Tennessee, it’s legal if the individual has a license from the state), it can cause blindness (if you drink what’s called the “heads” over time), and the Baldwin Sisters on “The Waltons” enjoyed making and sipping their father’s “recipe” which was supposed to be moonshine. After spending three days in Eastern Tennessee, I departed with the knowledge of the mechanical process behind distilling moonshine, listened to those involved with the process and importantly, learned the philosophical reason moonshine is alive and well, especially in Eastern Tennessee.
How is Moonshine Distilled?
I took two tours of Sugarlands’ distillery. The first was an overview – which was in-depth – and the second was a little more detailed and included learning about the distillery’s whiskey operation.
So how is moonshine distilled? I’ll give you the abbreviated version because there are many moonshine distilling resources in the world.
Sugarlands uses ground Tennessee white corn, rye, malt barely and sugar to create a mash, ferment it by adding yeast then distill it not once, twice or three times but SIX times. I’m a moonshine novice but from my own taste-testing, distilling more often makes a difference. I compared moonshine distilled three times from another distillery to a six-time Sugarlands Shine and the latter is smoother and does not have a harsh bite.
I also learned the more moonshine is distilled, the higher alcohol proof it will yield. It’s not increasing the proof but concentrating what already exits. And, anytime a high-grain alcohol is distilled, acetone is created and found in what’s called the heads (180 – 160 proof).
“If you drink the heads over a period of time you will go blind,” my guide Connie said. He had an impressive long beard, and let everyone on the tour take a whiff of a Mason jar with the clear heads. It certainly smelled like nail polish or hairspray.
The other parts produced are the hearts (160 – 80 proof), which is the good stuff to drink, it’s the white lightning, it’s the moonshine; and the tails (less than 80 proof). I sniffed a Mason jar with the hearts, which was clear as water and smelled a bit like tequila.
The tails were a bit cloudy and what happens if you drink it?
“You’ll wake up with the worst hangover of your life,” I think Connie winked when he said that but would not admit if he knows this from experience.
Sugarlands Distilling distributes in 26 states and every jar is made in Gatlinburg. In fact, every jar used to be hand-tightened and 8.5 jars were sealed per minute. Recently, the sealing process was automated resulting in bottling 50 jars a minute. Find a store that sells Sugarlands Moonshine near you.
Fun quote heard on the tour: “Moonshine is made to drink right out of the jar,” Connie the guide said. I kinda agree!
Sugarlands Distilling: From Moonshine to Whiskey
It’s not all about the moonshine in Eastern Tennessee. Moonshine is popular and trendy right now but “whiskey is what you build your legacy on,” said distiller Andrew Holt. This is why Sugarlands Distilling has introduced Roaming Man Tennessee Straight Rye Whiskey. In fact, outside of staff and those who ordered the whiskey, I was one of the first few members of the public to taste it.
Moonshine is a spirit and whiskey is an aged spirit. Moonshine can sit in a jar for years and not age while whiskey relies on aging to season and mature, so to say.
The first batch of Roaming Man was released earlier in the year with a second batch on the way. Aged for two years in charred barrels. With a proof of 123.4, it is the only straight cask whiskey on the market. Quantities are limited for the next batch and available on a pre-order basis.
Whiskey drinkers and non-whiskey drinkers will appreciate the depth of Roaming Man. It’s aged for two years in charred oak barrels which are charred on the inside and have ratings of 3 and 4 on a scale of 1 – 4 with 4 being the most charred. I sampled this Tennessee whiskey neat and with water which definitely changed the flavor. Neat, it goes down smooth and has a deep, rich flavor with a bit of a bite after swallowing. With water, it tasted it bit sweeter and gentler.
Fun tidbit: Fresh oak barrels are used when aging whiskey and they cannot be reused.
Visiting Sugarlands Distilling
The 30-minute private tour of the still is $15 and includes a private mixology lesson with one of the TasteMakers. Who knows? It may be O’damnit! With more than a dozen flavors of moonshine, you’ll be shown five ways to create cocktails with Sugarlands Shine. The featured cocktails vary by season but I’m sure you’ll enjoy them all.
For $5, enjoy a flight of 11 moonshine shots (don’t worry, they aren’t full 1oz shots but you will feel a little sumthin-sumthin afterwards) with a bit of animation and a whole lot of entertainment. You’ll be standing at a round counter and will get to know your neighbors pretty well. Spirits seem to do that to people.
Distiller workshops are offered for $40 and an in-depth distiller for a day workshop is offered for $250. Visit the Sugarlands Distilling site for options.
Of course, you can bring home Sugarlands Shine by purchasing it in the shop. If you’re like me, you’ll be overwhelmed by the selection and I could not decide which ones to bring home! I know it’s sold locally but the selection is limited. What did I bring back? That’s another post but I’ll let you know I also brought back barbecue sauce made with the shine which is yummy on my chicken. And, I even used it to make BBQ jackfruit.
Whether moonshine, whiskey or another spirit is your beverage of choice, spending time with one of the most popular Gatlinburg attractions was time well spent. It’s a friendly and playful environment full of Southern hospitality. Sugarlands Distilling warrants a return visit in my book!
View additional photos from my trip to Gatlinburg including Sugarlands Distilling on Flickr.
Sugarlands Distilling Co.
Gatlinburg, TN 37738
Tel: (865) 325-1355