Comin’ Down From the Mountain

As an alumna of the University of Tennessee, I’m no stranger to moonshine’s reputation – after all, it’s at the heart of our fight song. For the uninitiated, “Rocky Top” is an upbeat ditty played religiously at sporting events and by loyal fans year-round. It celebrates the moonshine stills famously hidden in the Tennessee hills with the line, “all the folks on Rocky Top get their corn from a jar.” Since the state changed its laws in 2009, moonshiners have been coming down from the mountain to transform family traditions into booming businesses that are quickly becoming East TN staples.

Moonshine for the Masses

Ole Smoky, the first East Tennessee moonshine distillery to be federally licensed, is often credited with kickstarting moonshine’s surging popularity in the area. Founder Joe Baker uses an old family recipe developed by his ancestors, who were among the first settlers in the Smokies. Other distilleries, also inspired by recipes shared through generations and encouraged by Ole Smoky’s success, opened in the years following, giving locals and tourists a number of flavors and brands to choose from.

Amanda Mountan, public relations coordinator for Ole Smokey, talked to me about why the moonshine company has seen so much success on a local and national scale.

“Ole Smoky has a very dedicated and loyal group of customers that enjoy not only the product, but the company’s values of tradition and community,” she says. “The family history behind our moonshine makes it exciting.”

As to why moonshine itself appeals to so many people, some of that can be attributed to its colorful history.

“Moonshine has such a great story and so many mysteries, that people want to taste it for themselves,” Amanda adds. “Unlike other liquors, moonshine has a unique history, which draws people in. Sipping on moonshine is an experience in itself.”

In addition to its exciting place in Appalachian lore, moonshine’s versatility has definitely contributed to its newfound fame.

“There is a flavor for every palate,” Amanda says. “So, whether you like it high-proof or low-proof, sweet or neutral, Ole Smoky has a flavor to fit any taste bud’s criteria.”

Aside from the plethora of flavors available, moonshine’s as comfortable in a shot glass as it is in a craft cocktail and as refreshing in the summer sun as it is comforting on a winter night. You’ll find moonshine recipes for seasonal cocktails on nearly every distillery’s website, including Ole Smoky’s.

Moonshine’s emergence in the bar scene has cast it in a more polished light, which can seem at odds with its reputation as the down-home liquor often shown in mason jars and shot glasses. That dichotomy doesn’t necessarily prove that legal moonshine has abandoned its humble beginnings. Rather, it’s just another facet of its adaptability.

“While Ole Smoky has presented itself as an edgier brand, it doesn’t forget where it comes from,” Amanda tells us. “Through our marketing efforts, we have showcased moonshine as a fun, edgy, and unique spirit of choice. We make sure to reference our deeply rooted family history because without it, nothing we do today would be possible.”

The Saga of ‘Shine

Before Tennessee’s laws changed, “moonshine” referred to unaged corn whiskey produced and distributed illegally to avoid taxes and regulations. Across the social media accounts of East Tennessee’s distilleries, you’ll find traditionalists declaring that legal moonshine isn’t really moonshine. Those distilleries maintain that what they’re producing isn’t a knock-off.

“The difference between our shine and what people make at home is we pay taxes,” Amanda says about Ole Smoky moonshine. “That’s why when people post those comments, we tell them the truth: It is real moonshine. Our product undergoes a distilling process that follows the rules of how moonshine is made.”

Because moonshine was a relatively well-kept secret for so long, it’s no surprise that some folks are refusing to accept it as a mass-produced imbibement. After all, this isn’t the first time moonshine and the folks who make it have been monetized.

Before “mountain dew” became the name of a popular soft drink, it was common slang for moonshine. As the story goes, the original creators of the drink made it as a mixer for liquor, and the name was chosen as a joke. Vintage Mountain Dew marketing used a caricature of a hillbilly with a classic moonshine jug and catchphrases like, “It’ll tickle yore innards!” Over the years, the company has changed the formula and ditched the rural shtick (except for an occasional throwback product), but for most modern consumers, the name has become more attached to the citrusy beverage than the high-proof one.

More recently, the Discovery Channel show “Moonshiners,” which follows the exploits of purported moonshiners in Appalachian regions, has been on the air for five seasons. The show’s cast looks the part, with overalls and beards aplenty, but has been plagued by suspicion that reality TV is the only product actually being made.

It’s also worth noting that the necessity of running moonshine in fast cars paved the way for a whole new sport. The National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing, known by its sleeker acronym NASCAR, was created by bootleggers and their associates. Like the liquor that inspired it, the southern event has outgrown its origins, spreading as far north as New Hampshire and as far west as California.

Despite the growing competition, Ole Smoky is confident that its product and history will keep the company at the front of the pack.

“The increase of competitors shows that the interest for the moonshine category as a whole is growing,” Meg Bruno, Ole Smoky’s head of marketing, says. “Our brand name is very well known since we were the first to pioneer the growth of the moonshine category.”

The Buzzfeed video below shows that legal moonshine may not be for everyone – but everyone sure seems to have fun trying it.

Ariana Keller
Ariana Keller

Ariana Keller was raised on the banks of the Chattahoochee River in south Alabama, where she learned to fish and love football. She moved to Knoxville with her family when she was 12 and later graduated from the University of Tennessee with a bachelor's degree in English. She spends her free time playing tabletop and video games and passionately rooting for mediocre sports teams. She is an advocate for animal rescue and lives in Knoxville with her husband and their two adopted pets: a hound dog named Beau and a Maine Coon mix named Vesper.