Our trip along the 26-distillery Tennessee Whiskey Trail ended in the homeland of my grandparents: East Tennessee. But first, we had to make it from Short Mountain, down to Chattanooga and back up into what we in my family lovingly refer to as “God’s Country” to—what else?—sip our way through moonshine in Tennessee.
This post was last updated in September 2021.
Moonshine in Tennessee fuels many of the small towns scattered throughout Appalachia, but before we got to the stiff stuff that has purified into legitimate businesses once again, we had a couple urban stops to make first.
Filled with the motif that you’d expect at a place that uses many barrels of charred oak, the Chattanooga micro-distillery is constructed of interlaced staves, brick and walls of delicious spirits in bottles. Located in the heart of the historic Southside district and just across the street from Terminal Station, the gorgeously redesigned Chattanooga Choo Choo hotel and its Pullman train car sleeping quarters, Chattanooga Whiskey takes you through the entire process and culminates with a healthy sampling at a great bar.
With its first in-house batches of whiskey available to the public, the distillery is a terrific stop to get a sneak peek (and a couple nips) of the select straight bourbon whiskey, which based on the look of their newest manufacturing plant, will be an enormous addition to the supply chain once the liquor has had a chance to make a temporary home in their barrels.
The boys behind PostModern Spirits have an entirely different way of looking at the production of craft spirits and, therefore, have created a wildly divergent admixture of gins, liqueurs and a craft beer malt whiskey for their repertoire of offerings in this post-legalization environment in Tennessee. Their take on gin in particular has us all in a tizzy: orris root, grapefruit peel, rose hips, Szechuan peppercorn, angelica, cardamom, galangal (we had to look it up, too), citrus, lavender, coriander and juniper are some of the ingredients used to steep in their neutral grain spirits before finishing in a blaze of glory just before it hits your martini glass.
The result is a full slate of component parts that are any bartender’s dream (speaking of which, it’s mostly bad-ass females behind the bar, and you know we dig that!). Since the rules of Tennessee are still a bit quirky, the only way a distillery can actually serve liquor drinks on their premises is with their own mixers. The result? A seasonal-inspired menu of delicious modern cocktails that are a great way to start off the evening in the revitalized downtown Knoxville.
Even better? PostModern Spirits is open every day through 11pm (except Sunday when it closes at 7pm) so you can stay till last call, then mosey on down to burn the midnight oil in the Old City or call it a night and head back to your hotel. We won’t judge either way.
Knox Whiskey Works
Whiskey is a predominantly male-driven industry, so it’s always a treat to see a female distiller taking the reins. We dropped in Knox Whiskey Works unannounced and still got to peek back in the production facility and see what master distiller Miranda was cooking up. Like many of the distilleries we’ve encountered along the newly formed Tennessee Whiskey Trail, Knox Whiskey Works has the feel of a startup company; that’s to say, it’s small and intimate, and all the players are youthful with energy to spare (many of them UT grads like me!).
The aged alcohol business is about the hottest commodity in the country and Tennessee is still catching up. While technically the laws were changed in 2009, it took a lot of wrangling in the halls of government across the state both to implement the rules and for small-business entrepreneurs to realize the potential behind it.
Brewing up a mix of heirloom corn whiskey, gins and now liberating an in-house bourbon whiskey (Silver Release) that is slowly trickling out of the barrelhouse, Knox Whiskey Works as an establishment is playing the long game. Expect much more bourbon to make its way to the shelves as time marches on. In the meantime, the staff and crew are mixing up cocktails sure to wow you with a whole variety of dreamy liquors like the Marble City Pink Gin, which is run through a toasted Cabernet barrel, or the Deals Gap Dragontail Whiskey, utilizing honey, habanero and ghost chilis to spice things up.
Don’t Miss These Knoxville Attractions
- The Farmers Market on Market Square (Wednesdays and Saturdays)
- WDXV Blue Plate Special live broadcast (free, held every day but Sunday)
- A wander down to the Old City
- A trip through the Knoxville Ale Trail
- A swim in the quarries out at Ijams in warmer months
Old Tennessee Distilling Co. (formerly Thunder Road Distillery)
Bedecked in chrome, painted steel and institutional beards, Old Tennessee Distilling Co. harkens back to the days of illegal moonshine running. The huge facility, conveniently located right off I-40 near a Bass Pro Shop and a Harley-Davidson dealership, embraces the rock-in-roll vibe of the hotrod culture and the iconic 1958 movie Thunder Road, starring Robert Mitchum.
Its wide-ranging inventory of liquor is overseen by Dwight Bearden, the head distiller from the hills of Georgia who learned the art of moonshining from his father. Dwight’s original still is mounted on the wall and surrounded by cultural artifacts from a time when whiskey and moonshine manufacturers blanketed the state, from tip to tail, often running from the authorities. The select, single-barrel Butcher’s Bourbon is an excellent addition to the line-up, as is Mitchum’s Thunder Road corn whiskey, a tribute to the namesake with a buttery mouthfeel and smooth finish.
In yet another sweet honor that speaks to the cherished southern tradition of honest work in a tough business, Old Tennessee Distilling Co. commissioned a pair of rums to celebrate the life and legacy of Calvin Fackler “Cal” Johnson, a repatriated slave that died in 1925 as one of Tennessee’s richest African-Americans. Cal F. Johnson was directly employed by the Union Army during the Civil War as a young man before working for the US government reinterring battleground graves to a proper resting place at the Knoxville National Cemetery.
According to the history books, that work enabled Cal to eventually purchase three saloons in Knoxville, build a horserace track (now a city street called Speedway Circle), numerous brick buildings and serve two terms on Knoxville’s Board of Alderman in the 1880s. He also was a philanthropist and donated a building to create a local black YMCA, among other charitable endeavors. Tennessee’s teetotalers and the early prohibition of drinking establishments and gambling in the early 1900s forced him to close up his saloons and racetrack but the name lives on, both in place (Cal Johnson Park) and in these bottles (Black Mountain Rum).
Keeping with the theme of illegal manufacturing and transport of products, Bootleggers Distillery has etched into its very name the trick of concealing a flask in the tops of riding boots to smuggle the illicit liquid around. Darrell Miller is intent on making small batches of product, 25 gallons at a time, and in 2017 recruited his daughter Taylor into the business at 18 years old, making her the youngest legal distiller around. This is one of the smaller distilleries we visited, producing around 12 gallons a day on production days (or 10 cases), and it’s a nice contrast to the bigger players like Jack Daniel or George Dickel.
The range of flavors can make for a dizzying visit if you sample them all, so choose your shots wisely. Bootleggers also now has Tennessee whiskey (Bootleggers Select), too.
Tennessee Legend Distillery
Situated on the fringes of the Great Smoky Mountains and on one of the main arteries into the most popular national park in the country, Tennessee Legend Distillery is in a prime spot for a quick sampling of the myriad moonshine in Tennessee before heading up into the hills. This massive tasting room and gift shop serves up all of the flavors: apple pie, blackberry, peach, salted caramel, root beer float, lemonade and much, much more. They’ve also started carrying cream liqueurs, so if you’re on vacation, it wouldn’t hurt to snatch a little coffee additive for the cabin share.
Ole Smoky Moonshine
It doesn’t matter where you live, you’ve likely encountered Ole Smoky’s distinctive branding slapped on top of a mason jar; it’s distributed in all 50 states and upward of 65 countries and was at the forefront of the nationwide moonshine craze when it opened in 2010—in fact, it’s the biggest moonshine distillery in all of the US, which should come as no surprise given that it sits sentry at the gateway to the country’s most visited national park, the Great Smokies.
In fact, Gatlinburg averages about 10 million visitors per year, and Ole Smoky welcomes at least half of those into its facility. The building itself is one of the most impressive, sprawling complexes in Gatlinburg, complete with multiple tasting counters in the roomy retail space and a central courtyard that regularly features free live music. The energy of everyone working and visiting here is a palpable joy so even if you’re not interested in a sampling of the essentially free, 21 possible pours of fire water, definitely pop in for a minute and browse around the gift shop.
Ole Smoky now has two locations in downtown Gatlinburg—the original, The Holler, is where the ‘shine is, while the other is dedicated to whiskey barreling and sampling—an outpost, The Ole Smoky Barn, at The Island in Pigeon Forge and a location in downtown Nashville.
Sugarlands Distilling Co.
Just a few years behind Ole Smoky (and only a few doors down) came Sugarlands Distilling Co. in 2014, and it opened up with guns blazing and a sleek 10,000-square-foot tasting room and store. All moonshine is distilled six times, and the team bottles between 4,000 and 5,000 jars a day.
Sugarlands was one of the first distilleries to capitalize on the liquor-by-the-drink referendum that passed in mid-2017, and the result is a rotating roster of cocktails you can sample right in-house (we recommend the Cheerwine concoction, which is both delightful and nostalgic).
Due to the City of Gatlinburg changing its ways in recent years, all distilleries are now required to charge for tastings (they used to be free), but $10 gets you a tasting and two cocktails—and you can also apply the credit to any merch you may purchase. The Roaming Man Tennessee Straight Rye Whiskey release, liberated from the barrel in 2017, was an instant hit and is Sugarlands’ first aged product to hit the shelves since they opened. It’s a delicious potion, it’s bottled at a friendly 123 proof and is only available through pre-sales with an in-person pick up. We hope they crank up the supply because demand is intense!
Old Forge Distillery
Old Forge was our last stop of the trip, and we couldn’t have saved a better distillery for our final passport stamp. As many times as I’ve been to this area of the state, I’ve somehow never visited The Old Mill, and I’m not sure how: It’s basically a city of its own!
And while it’s brimming with tourists, it somehow maintains its authenticity by being reminiscent of a bygone era when everything was made by hand (and not in China, ha). With a blacksmith, bakery and café, ice cream parlor, a working mill dating back to 1830, a pottery studio and adjoining shop, a wildly popular restaurant and now distillery, this Pigeon Forge gem could easily occupy a day of your life.
Just be sure you save time to actually experience the distillery. While the production area in the back is quite small, the copper column still is on full display from the retail shop and tasting room. Keener Shanton, a former firefighter, sits at the helm of the distilling process, and like many of the other distilleries, Old Forge may have started with white whiskey, but its offerings quickly expanded to include pretty much every spirit you can dream up.
Today, you’ll find a plethora of diverse products on the shelves: Tennessee Roots Harvest Gin, Old Forge Reserve Single Barrel Release, Peaches & Cream liqueur, rum, vodka, the list goes on (you can try it all in the tasting room before committing to buying). And in keeping it about as local as you can get, Old Forge sources its grain from the mill next door—with all of the spent, fermented grain going to regional cattle farmers.
Don’t Miss These Sevier County Attractions
- A drive through Great Smoky Mountain National Park
- A visit to Foxfire Mountain
- A detour to Wears Valley
- A bike through Cades Cove
- A day at Dollywood
- Breakfast at Courthouse Donuts
Looking for more moonshine in Tennessee? These eastern distilleries have since joined the Tennessee Whiskey Trail:
TL;DR: We completed the Tennessee Whiskey Trail over the course of five weeks, visiting a handful of distilleries two to three days a week. We spent more time at each spot than most would, taking the tour, meeting the distiller, chatting with the brains behind the operation and, of course, tasting the product (I mean, how are we to recommend something as extensive as the whiskey trail without covering every last square inch of it?!). Hypothetically, you could do it all in 10 days, though I think spreading things out over two to three weeks makes for a more leisurely trip.
Now, off you go to drink all the whiskey! Be sure and check back in and let me know how your own trail exploration went. And if you’re looking for other whiskey ideas, I’ve got a few…
- How the Tennessee Whiskey Trail came to be
- West Tennessee’s lone distillery in Memphis
- The urban distilleries of the Nashville area
- The backroads of Middle Tennessee
- Going on a Jack Daniel’s Tour in Lynchburg
- Hit the NASCAR Circuit with Sugarlands Shine
What a comprehensive look at distilleries in the East Tennessee area! I knew some but definitely not all of these. Pictures really help tell the story, too! One of your best posts that I’ve read, and one I’ll enjoy keeping! Rusha Sams
Thank you so much, Rusha! Kudos to Scott for all the history research that went into this post. The distilling culture in Tennessee spans 200 years, so this (even at 3,000 words) was still just a brief synopsis. Appreciate you!
Did you not make it Mellomoon in Piney Flats? You must make it back to visit Tiny Roberson. He is an absolute treat to learn about the shine business from. Heck, I’ll go back with you!
We did not! We “only” did the 26 distilleries on the TN Whiskey Trail, and they’re not on there (yet). Currently, the trail only goes to Newport, and no further east. But heck, let’s plan a road trip!
I went to at least 5 moonshine distilleries around the Smokies and, not gonna lie, some of them are generously using the term. Those bright colors and artificial flavors are no bueno. But I liked Cocke County and a few others!
Ha! You have to get off the beaten path to the guys making the REAL stuff. Some of the ones in the Smokies (not on the trail) have been shut down because they weren’t actually producing on-site, which is a big no-no in Tennessee.
Do you bring bottles home with you after visits as well? If so, you must have a really impressive liquor cabinet at your house 🙂
Oh, girl, you know it! We have SO much whiskey after this project!