In Search of Moonshine
It was a cold January day when Nancy and I decided to take the day off and head to Gatlinburg, Tennessee in search of the various legal moonshines that are sold there. Leaving Robbinsville we head north on NC 143 and crossed Stecoah Gap. We were treated to a fabulous view of the vast Great Smoky Mountain National Park where we were heading.
Passing through Cherokee it was still early in the morning and the winter tourists had not yet ventured from their warm motel rooms. Harrahs Casino parking lot was deserted as was the tourist section of Cherokee. We passed the downtown Cherokee Harley-Davidson Store which carries some great souvenirs. The Qualla Museum was not yet open and the dancing Cherokee Indians in traditional garb were not yet posing for the passersby. But it was only 25 degrees and it would be a while before much activity would begin.
It was a perfect time for us to visit the normally crowded Oconaluftee Visitor’s Center located just a few miles inside the Park on US 441. The Center is open year round and features an excellent period Mountain Farm Museum that covers several acres of log structures complete with free range chickens. We had hoped to spy an elk or two, but they were nowhere to be found. We had seen one of these magnificent animals a week before on the side of the road in Maggie Valley. There are some 150 now roaming the mountains since the reintroduction of the species in 2021. There is a ton of history here in the Smokies, but we’ll leave that for another trip. We are on the way to get some Shine!
Leaving the Center US 441 begins to climb for the next 15.5 miles to Newfound Gap, the low spot in these rugged mountains at 5048 feet elevation. There are a number of pull-offs/parking areas along the way to photograph the Oconaluftee River or the mountain views. In the summer the side road to Clingman’s Dome at 6,643 feet is open. Here the famed Appalachian Trail crosses.
Be advised that US 441 for the most part is open year round. It is sometimes closed when ice/snow prevents safe passage. It was closed for a short time two days after our trip. In the Blizzard of ’93 there was 5 feet of snow with drifts up to 10 feet. It was closed for days.
Heading downhill from the summit are a number of good view pull-offs. And then you come to The Loop where the road actually turns under itself.
Approaching Gatlinburg you’ll see the Sugarlands Visitor Center. Here they have various programs and a 20-minute film on the park’s history.
Finally we can almost smell the moonshine fermenting as we drop into Gatlinburg. Most of the year this small tourist town is packed with people from all over the world. This January day the traffic was tolerable. We actually were able to park right on Main Street which is not allowed in the busy months.
We ventured into Davy Crocketts Wiskey and Moonshine store an had a free hit of the 103 proof corn moonshine. Even though it is not as powerful as the real stuff at 160 proof, the taste was very similar. This is not a bar, the store sells bottles of whiskey and moonshine with free tastes of each.
Just down the street is Sugarlands Distilling which features Jim Tom Hedrick and Mark Roger’s Sugarlands Shine. These two made it big on the Discovery Channel’s Moonshiner Show. Now their photos are prominent on bottles of legal moonshine. We have known Jim Tom since 1991 when he was “cooking” at a local inn making what he told us was “ethanol”. He is quite a character and we are glad to see him make it big. His Unaged Rye legal shine is 100 proof and quite tasty.
And the third moonshine store on Main Street is The Ole Smoky Tennessee Moonshine Distillery. This was the first to open in Gatlinburg back about 2008 and is owned and operated by East Tennessee families who have a long history in “shining”. They feature shine Ole Smoky Tennessee unaged corn whiskey is 100 proof and has excellent taste. Their newest product is the strongest at 105 proof; the Harley-Davidson Road House Customs Charred Moonshine. This is right up our alley.
The Ole Smoky Distillery has the best displays with a 1940 Ford Coup and a 1955 Ford F-100, both used prominently in the transport of illegal spirits. They also have live music and seasonal specials. We brought home a bottle of the Harley shine and it is most excellent.
All three moonshine outkets have distilleries operating right on-site. The smell of the fermenting mash wafts through the stores.
After a few tastes we decided to head home to really get into it.
Back into the Great Smoky Mountain National Park we headed south on TN 73 also known as Little River Road. It has been rated as one of the top ten scenic highways in America. The 20-mile route follows Little River for most of the way and there are many scenic pull-offs, hiking trails and waterfalls.
At mile 11 is the turn-off to Cades Cove. This scenic one-way, single lane road is a big attraction. Visitors often spy deer and bear roaming the cove and there are a number of old churches, homes and cemeteries to explore. At the half way point is a one-way, ten-mile long gravel road leading out to US 129 (Tail of the Dragon). This road, with some 19 water ford crossings, is closed in winter. Another one-way, 7.5 mile gravel road out of the cove leads back into Townsend, Tennessee.
At the intersection of TN 73 and US 321 is Townsend, Tennessee. This quaint mountain cove offers “the peaceful side of the Smokies”. A number of events take place here each summer including for 2015 the Bronco Truck Show, the British Car Show, the Studebaker Car Show, the Volkswagen Car Show, the Ford Truck Show and many cultural/craft shows.
Just west of Townsend the Foothills Parkway heads south for 17 miles with spectacular views of the great Smoky Mountains to the east and to the west Maryville and the Cumberland Mountains some 60 miles distant. This ill fated 71-mile scenic roadway has been planned since 1944. As of 2015 only the southernmost 17-mile section and the northernmost 6 mile section have been opened. Funding and environmental concerns have slowed construction to a crawl. An additional 4.3-mile section is due to open in 2016.
The Parkway terminates at US 129 at Chillhowee Lake. Turning left will bring travelers to the Tail of the Dragon in three miles. We crossed the Dragon and met only 3 cars at 3 in the afternoon. There is not much traffic in the winter months.
Ole Smoky Moonshine located in Gatlinburg TN. First “legal” moonshine distillery in eastern Tennessee. Local family business. See moonshine being made, tasting room, purchase a quart and take it home! No alcohol sold on Sunday. Located in downtown Gatlinburg, across the street from Ripley’s museum (traffic light #8). Links: Ole Smoky Moonshine website
Sugarlands Distilling located in Gatlinburg TN, on the main Parkway. Featuring Robbinsville’s legendary Moonshiners Jim Tom and Mark and their special recipes. Links: Sugarlands Distilling website
Davy Crockett’s Tenessee Whiskey located in Gatlinburg TN, on the main Parkway. Featuring whisky mellowed by dripping through sugar maple charcoal until the perfect flavor is acquired. Links: Davy Crockett’s Tennessee Whiskey website
Important links for Smoky Mountain National Park: