In Gatlinburg, Tennessee, you meet family you never knew you had, whether they're tourists in these Great Smoky Mountains or they're Tastemakers at Sugarlands Distilling Co. And your family does one thing well: moonshine. A legal moonshine distillery is a fairly new idea; Sugarlands Distilling Co. opened its doors in March 2014 and ever since, they have had visitors with a curiosity for mountain 'likker'.
So what does it mean to visit a moonshine distillery? It means that your family is serving up generous pours of some seriously tasty spirits in a barn-style distillery on the main road of downtown Gatlinburg, where directions are given based on the stoplight number. And everyone is invited.
The Distillery Process
Sugarlands Distilling prides their transparency more than anything, something Reede tells me on the tour of the distillery. There are no magic tricks behind the door covered in a green grass mural, and if you want to take a tour, you can see it all in action for yourself. Reede told me on the tour,
"This is a very traditional set-up on how a still would've been found back in the day. There's a few upgrades, but we still use an Austrian stone-on-stone burr mill. This was actually handmade for us from Austria, so there's a stone in here...so the two products we make that we use this still for are our Silver Cloud and our Unaged Rye."
Everything happens here, in this smaller room offset from the tasting bars and the retail store. As the manager of the tasting room, there's an infectious excitement in Reede's voice, something that reminds me that making moonshine is unlike anything else in this country because it is actually an integral part of it. Moonshiners became legends here in these mountain hills, hiding stills deep in the countryside to make a little extra to put some food on the table for their families.
Reede knows this, and when he points to something, he connects it back to this past. Sugarlands isn't running from this history like so many in this country do; Sugarlands is preserving it. Here's how they're doing just that.
The Tasting + the Tastemakers
Not everyone who visits is lucky enough to get a tour from Reede himself, but they have an even better option in Connie. Take a tour with him when you visit Sugarlands; to call this experience authentic would be to sell it short. He's not a distillery tour guide, he's a man who knows that moonshine is a part of American history, and that's what he's educating his groups on.
Once you tour with Connie, you'll want to head over and grab a tasting tour led by one of the many charismatic Tastemakers on staff. I heard quite a few samplings in my time at Sugarlands, and every Tastemaker has a different flair that sets them apart. My tour was led by Abby, a fun and personable woman with long strawberry blonde hair who swings it when she's dancing during the tastings, who makes you just feel glad to be there, instantly at home. So what is it like to be on a tasting tour?
Abby starts you out strong, wants to get you cozy and warm enough to start interacting. As she tells me, it takes about six pours to get everyone around the bar laughing like family. But once the ice is broken and the first groups start to express just how tasty this moonshine is, that's when Abby hits her stride.
The varieties they offer change depending on the day of the week you take a tasting. One day, Old Fashioned Lemonade could be on the menu, and the next could be Blueberry Muffin Moonshine. You could try Tickle's Dynamite Cinnamon once, and come back to find they're pouring up Peanut Butter and Jelly. That's why it's worth the $5 ticket to taste at Sugarlands every day you're in Gatlinburg; after all, the moonshine is partly why you're here.
In my tasting group, there were 12 participants from all regions of the country. However, once Abby started the tasting, it was like we were all old friends, laughing as she led us through the varieties one at a time. Here are two of my favorite varieties from the tasting.
"Jim Tom Hedrick's Unaged Rye maintains an earthy balance between spicy rye and toasted grains with hints of black pepper. Distilled in Gatlinburg, this award-winning moonshine packs a potent enough punch to keep you sippin'."
"Mark Rogers' American Peach boasts the natural taste of ripe summer peaches. When sipped, this sweet and velvety spirit will deliver a traditional warmth of moonshine."
The last pour of the tasting, the last "Sips Up!" Abby shouts is dedicated to the first responders, the servicemen and women, and the ones on the front lines in this country who protect us and keep it safe every single day. The group shouts, "USA!" in unison and toasts to any veterans or first responders at the table, of which there are always one or two men or women. It's this tradition, this proud acknowledgment of sacrifice, that makes this moonshine worth drinking.
At the end of the tour, you can take your $5 wristbands and use them for $5 off a jar of 'shine or liquor, any flavor you want. If you're with a group, you can combine your bands for an even better deal.
Pick up the cocktail wristbands after your tour to head over to the cocktail bar in Sugarlands, where Cole from Waco, Texas, has worked to craft some cocktails that take the fear out of moonshine, even though there's nothing to be afraid of at all.
The Mint Hot Chocolate was a stand-out, made with Peppermint Moonshine and Dark Chocolate Coffee Sippin' Cream.
The Blueberry Mojito was a close second, and was probably the tastiest way to use Blueberry Muffin Moonshine I could imagine.
Finally, the Maple Bacon Bloody Mary, made with Reede's own recipe for a Bloody Mary mix and the Maple Bacon Moonshine, was one of the best Bloodies I've had made with 'shine.
Overall, Sugarlands Distilling Co. isn't just your regular ol' distillery experience. From the reclaimed murals in the barn-style building to the Tastemakers who drive over an hour just to show up and open the doors every day, there is a part of a lost America that lives and breathes in these walls. It's an America that is proud of where it comes from, one that doesn't take itself too seriously; an America that will preserve these traditions for decades.
This isn't our only exploration into Sugarlands Distilling Co. Check out features from our sister sites, Wide Open Country and Wide Open Spaces, about the origin story of Sugarlands' award-winning, exceptional Roaming Man Whiskey; and what moonshine means to America, from Mark & Digger of Discovery Channel's "Moonshiners" and part of Sugarlands' own Moonshine Legends liquor series.