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 moonshine.
Moonshine 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. Set to release its first in-house batches of whiskey to the public in 2019, 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
Thunder Road Distillery
Bedecked in chrome, painted steel and institutional beards, Thunder Road Distillery 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, Thunder Road Distillery 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).
Cocke County Moonshine
In 2015, local business owner Arvis Keys turned his attention to making 100-percent corn liquor on the fringes of the original Thunder Road, a native phrase for the winding pathway from Kentucky to Tennessee used by hotrod whiskey cars running illegal spirits across borders to evade a repressive post-Prohibition federal tax. The price of untaxed alcohol made these trips quite profitable for moonshine runners and the road was well traveled by souped-up vehicles filled with rattling jars. Much of history has rendered its verdict upon these technical criminals as doing what they needed to do to support their families in a rough time for rural Appalachia, and there’s no judgment from us on that argument other than to note that much of our state’s cultural and institutional knowledge about ‘shine and whiskey came from flouting the law. It’s not much talked about these days other than in books like Driving with the Devil, but NASCAR owes its rip-roaring roots to the moonshine trade, as well, with Junior Johnson leading the pack of outed and famous racers.
Using three locally made copper stills, a huge warehouse and a couple of mousetrap cats, Cocke County Moonshine Distillery proudly sticks to the basic moonshine recipe of corn and sugar. Arvis soaks the resulting distillate in Hungarian oak barrels with a light char to make both Tennessee Charred Barrel Proof and Tennessee Charred Honey liquor that are then bottled in hook-handled bottles (for easier drinkin’).
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. In December, Bootleggers announced its very first batch of Tennessee whiskey (Bootleggers Select) to be released to the general public. We haven’t tried this one yet, but we’re looking forward to revisiting this nice little stop along the banks of the Pigeon River, just off I-40 on the road to North Carolina and the Great Smoky Mountains.
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 myriad moonshines 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 two million 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 ($5), 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. Our advice? Visit them both! You’ll only get one stamp on your passport, but they’re within stumbling walking distance of each other, so why not? Its third location, The Ole Smoky Barn, is an outpost at The Island in Pigeon Forge for those who don’t make it all the way to the ‘burg. AND Ole Smoky just announced it’s opening its fourth location by teaming up with Yee-Haw (one of SVV’s and my favorite Tennessee beers!) to debut a 12,000-square-foot brewing-distilling-entertainment complex in Nashville’s SoBro neighborhood this year. Consider us the first patrons, sir.
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 recently changing its ways, 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!
Doc Collier Moonshine
Using an exclusive partnership with a local bottled water company, Doc Collier Moonshine sources its main ingredient from a little spring in a tiny town called Dandridge, just down the road. This is one of the key reasons that the production of alcohol even became a thing in the south, as Tennessee is full of secret holes like this that gush pure, limestone-filtered water up onto the landscape from the karst aquifers below.
The boys making the booze in the back keep most of their secrets for the family recipe close. But one of the means they use to achieve their unique blend is a single run of the distillate with a selective recycling of the flavorful tail back into the still. In addition to many favorite moonshine flavors—“you’re going to taste things you’ve never tasted in apple pie moonshine before,” Buddy told us while we were sampling—they’re also experimenting with dipping electrified white oak staves into the ‘shine to achieve the traditional taste of whiskey, only faster. It really does taste similar to the legally mandated and aged product, and you have to try it when you stop in for a full flight to tell us what you think.
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, nearly four years after opening, 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
TL;DR: We completed the 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.
To help you plot your trail experiences, we’ve broken it down by section:
- How the Tennessee Whiskey Trail came to be
- The sole distillery in Memphis
- The urban distilleries of the Nashville area
- The backroads of Middle Tennessee
- East Tennessee’s moonshine culture
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.
A big thanks to the Tennessee Distillers Guild for sending us off on this spirited adventure. It was definitely one of our favorite projects to date!