Moonshine is an iconic part of life in Tennessee’s Smoky Mountains. When you visit the cities of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, you will find numerous distilleries where you can sample and purchase authentic “white lightning”’. Although making moonshine is big business today, up until the last decade or so, the practice was illegal. Visit My Smokies did a little research to bring you the fascinating history of Smoky Mountain moonshine.
A Centuries-Old Tradition
The origins of moonshine can be traced back across the Atlantic to Scotland and Ireland. In these Celtic countries, making and drinking whiskey were time-honored traditions. When Scottish and Irish immigrants made their way to the Smokies beginning in 1620, they used local corn to distill whiskey for their community to enjoy.
For over two centuries, Smoky Mountain residents made whiskey without any trouble. However, everything changed when the federal government passed a new $2 per gallon excise tax on whiskey. This 20 cents hike in the tax proved too much for many folks in the mountains, so they simply stopped paying it.
Moonshine is Born
The daring men who decided to produce whiskey outside the bounds of the law became known as “moonshiners”. The name “moonshine” is derived from the fact that the illicit whiskey was often secretly distilled in the mountains under the light of the moon.
Making moonshine became an important revenue stream for many farmers in the Smoky Mountain area. When extra corn was transformed into whiskey it became more valuable, simpler to move, and easier to trade and sell. Farmers used the extra cash they made from selling moonshine to provide for their families, pay their bills, and start new businesses.
Some of the most popular areas for making Smoky Mountain moonshine included Wears Valley, Pittman Center, English Mountain, and Cosby. The underground cave that is known as Forbidden Caverns was also a favorite spot for moonshiners because of its remote location and reliable water supply (a subterranean lake). Modern day visitors to Forbidden Caverns will see an old moonshine still during their tour of the cave.
The moonshine trade in the Smoky Mountains spawned some legendary characters. The distiller Lewis Redmond, a native of the North Carolina side of the Smokies, became a mythic figure when he shot and killed a deputy who tried to arrest him in 1876. For the next five years, Redmond became a Robin Hood-esque outlaw, evading the long arm of the law and sharing his moonshine money with Appalachian residents. Although he was arrested in 1881, Redmond was eventually pardoned by President Chester A. Arthur and went on to work in a government run distillery in South Carolina.
During Prohibition, the illegal production and sale of alcohol became a nationwide endeavor. It has been rumored, though never documented, that the notorious gangster Al Capone used to store his alcohol in the Smokies. The mountains allegedly provided the perfect hiding spot for Capone’s liquor before he brought it to Chicago.
The most famous contemporary moonshiner was Marvin “Popcorn” Sutton, who was active in both Tennessee and North Carolina. Popcorn Sutton became a celebrity after appearing in various documentaries and releasing an autobiography called “Me and My Likker”. Sutton was busted by the federal government in 2007, but he died before serving his sentence.
Where to Try Smoky Mountain Moonshine
Around 2009, changes in Tennessee state law paved the way for the creation of legal moonshine. Today, visitors to the Smokies can visit a number of awesome distilleries that sell authentic white whiskey. For just $5 you can sample some moonshine right in the store, and that money is applied to the purchase of any jar of moonshine you want to take home. Moonshine comes in a seemingly endless variety of flavors, including apple pie, sweet tea, pina colada, blackberry, and many more. Here are some of the most popular moonshine distilleries in the Smoky Mountains: