Moonshine Is Growing in the U.S., and Big Whiskey Wants a Taste

Moonshine, the outlaw hooch made famous in backwoods Appalachia, is now regulated by the government and is sold at Walmart. The spirit has grown so popular that even the industry's biggest distilleries are getting in the game

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Ole Smoky Moonshine Distillery

Eastern Tennessee is now home to several moonshine distilleries, including Ole Smoky. Several big-name whiskey distillers began releasing their own white whiskeys this year

For decades, most people had never even seen a jar of moonshine, let alone tasted it. These days, you can find it at stores and restaurants around the country thanks to loosened liquor laws and changing consumer preferences. Even the industry’s biggest distilleries are experimenting with moonshine.

Moonshine has been distilled in backwoods Appalachia since the 1800s. By its most traditional definition, the term means “illegal spirit,” and many families in that historically independent-minded, libertarian-leaning area of the U.S. made a living off making it — partly because the liquor could be produced and sold quickly, as it didn’t require years of aging in barrels. (That, by the way, is also what gives the hooch its oftentimes harsh character.) Today, moonshine is generally used as a catchall term for unaged white whiskeys, many of which are made in Tennessee and North Carolina.

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Another difference with modern-day moonshine is that the people distilling it aren’t operating outside the law. Making moonshine is now legal in Tennessee and is quickly gaining popularity around the country.

When the recession hit in 2008 and 2009, a number of states looked for ways to generate employment and keep tax revenue rolling in. One way to accomplish both goals was to loosen laws regulating distilleries. For years, the production of distilled spirits was legal only in a handful of Tennessee counties. But in 2009, the state legislature opened dozens of other counties to the business, including several in eastern Tennessee that had been home to unlawful moonshine production for decades. One of the biggest operations is Ole Smoky Moonshine Distillery, which opened in 2010 in Gatlinburg, Tenn. Roughly 250,000 to 280,000 cases of moonshine were sold in 2012, a jump from 50,000 in 2010 and 80,000 in 2011, according to food-and-beverage-analysis firm Technomic. (A case holds 12 750-ml jars.) Ole Smoky accounted for 100,000 of the cases sold in 2012.

Ole Smoky founder Joe Baker expects the company to sell 250,000 cases (3 million jars) this year. Baker attributes Ole Smoky’s growth to a number of big-box stores, including Walmart and Sam’s Club, deciding to carry the spirit “because it’s an American-made product from a small family business and because it was a well-known product that had been previously unavailable.” Ole Smoky is now available in 49 states.

While the very existence of distilleries like Ole Smoky can be credited to loosened liquor laws, the popularity of the product can be attributed to increasing consumer demand for products that are distinctive, novel and perceived as local. “Consumers are looking for a unique drink, that unique flavor you can’t get anywhere else, not something people are drinking all the time,” says David Henkes of Technomic.

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Ole Smoky, for example, comes in Ball mason jars, the way moonshine did (and still does in some places) when it was sold illegally. It’s distilled right in the moonshine heartland, and the product’s outlaw backstory alone piques consumer interest. “When I went off to college, one of the first questions I was asked by anyone who found out I was from east Tennessee was, ‘Well, can you get us some moonshine?’” Baker says. “That interest in the culture of the area where I was raised kind of pushed me along to embrace it.”

Ole Smoky’s unique flavors also play into another reason for the product’s popularity: 65% of its moonshine sales are flavored, and the distillery has even advertised flavored moonshines as Mother’s Day gifts. The company’s lineup includes apple pie, blackberry, peach and cherry flavors — all of which, Baker says, are authentic to the spirit’s heritage. “We tried to embrace the rich knowledge and expertise of this area instead of just basing it on my granddad’s recipe,” Baker says. “We took the best of a lot of different recipes and came up with a product that we think best represents the area.”

Frank Coleman, senior vice president of the Distilled Spirits Council trade group, says the recent distillery legalization in states like Tennessee, coupled with the popularity of small-batch distilleries elsewhere in the U.S., has led to the recent explosion of moonshine distilleries. Ole Smoky is just one of a number of distilleries to have popped up in the Appalachian region in recent years, including East Tennessee Distillery, Short Mountain Distillery and Asheville Distilling Company in neighboring North Carolina. “You’ve had a lot of people come into the business,” Coleman says. “There’s a little bit of a gold-rush mentality.”

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The growth of those distilleries has even gotten the attention of Big Whiskey, despite the fact that moonshine represents just 1% of the American whiskey sales. Earlier this year, Jack Daniels released its own white whiskey, Unaged Tennessee Rye, and Jim Beam released Jacob’s Ghost, a white whiskey that has been aged for only a year. (True straight moonshine is unaged. Regular Jim Beam bourbon, by contrast, is aged for four years in charred white-oak barrels, according to the company, which is what gives Beam and other aged whiskeys their golden brown color.)

Bill Newlands, the North America president of Beam Global, admits that the company’s new white whiskey is a direct response to the popularity of distilleries like Ole Smoky. “We certainly saw that moonshine had quite a pickup,” he says. “The question that we had around it is, ‘How broad-based would the interest be?’”

Newlands says his company isn’t quite convinced that white whiskey is the next big thing, but sales are being closely watched.

The growth in moonshine is somewhat akin to what’s happened in the beer industry over the past decade, during which big-brewery sales of beers like Bud Light and Miller Lite have been flat or declining while craft breweries like Deschutes, Brooklyn Brewery and Dogfish Head continue growing at a fast clip. That’s leading the big breweries to introduce their own “crafty” beers, like MillerCoors’ Blue Moon.

As moonshine creeps into the mainstream, however, there are some in Appalachia who question whether a spirit that’s aboveboard — and regulated and taxed by the government – can truly be considered moonshine. It may be unaged whiskey. But is it really good ol’ ’shine?

“I think there are people out there who feel that if you’re paying taxes on it, it’s not moonshine,” says Ole Smoky’s Baker. “And sure, if you pay taxes, you lose a little bit of credibility. But I think most folks — certainly people who are familiar with how we make our products and people who have been to our distillery — they see that we do it the same way that it’s been done around here forever.”

Updated, July 26: A previous version of the story stated that 130,000 cases of moonshine were sold in 2012. According to updated numbers by Technomic, between 250,000 and 285,000 cases were sold last year. Piedmont Distillers, which makes Junior Johnson’s Midnight Moon, sold roughly 130,000 cases alone in 2012.

20 comments
JasonPryor
JasonPryor

I'm not saying it's not moonshine, but this stuff is horrible. Problem is when you go main stream; not only do you have to pay taxes, but the fed's regulate how you make it too! I get it; its big on TV now and everybody wants to try some, but take my word for it you just gonna have to know someone if you want anything worth a count.

sictransit5
sictransit5

I wouldn't try flavored moonshine - or flavored Vodka for that matter. But for years I have served Georgia Moon (made in KY by Johnson Distilling due to GA's archaic laws!), "guaranteed less than 30 days old" with egg nog at my Christmas parties. No other whiskey's taste blends as smoothly with egg nog, and it is always a hit - even with some teetotalers who ask (too late!) "what is this wonderful stuff in the little glass pitcher beside the egg nog bowl?"

jmsarxt
jmsarxt

Wish I knew where I could buy some!   I had it one time (given to me by my Son-in-law) and I've never tasted anything so smooth!   Love to have some this minute1

PrincessBandit
PrincessBandit

Are you sure this is available at Walmart and Sam's Club in Tennessee? I live in Tennessee and for years now the grocery stores have been trying to get a law passed to sell wine in grocery stores. Still didn't pass this year. As usual, Tennessee is really behind. I could buy wine in grocery stores in Texas when I lived there 40 years ago. Doesn't seem like moonshie would be in Walmart here. It's a lot stronger than beer which you can get at Walmart.

valentine.godoflove
valentine.godoflove

MOONSHINERS SINCE THE COLONIAL DAYS HAVE ALWAYS KNOWN  IT........THE FEDS ALWAYS KNEW IT.......THE REVENUERS REVENUERS ALWAYS KNEW IT.......THE LOCALS KNEW IT.........MOONSHINE BREWED BY SOME LOCAL TALENT TALENT..........IS .....G R E A T !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Nonow now......everybody wants in !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

valentine, comedian, lol

MoFreedom
MoFreedom

Internet sales, moonshine, etc.   No matter what people have going for themselves, government wants a piece of the action. 

And then, slowly but surely, government expands its control over the enterprise, until it gains enough control to be in a position to determine the winners & losers.  (And being in a position to determine the winners & losers generates huge campaign contributions for politicians.)

imminentthought
imminentthought

Midnight Moon is the best selling moonshine in the U.S. by far. Why does this article insinuate that Ole Smoky is the leader of the pack?

Backnblack_66
Backnblack_66

If it's less than 180proof it's not shine...

JamesBenjaminWales
JamesBenjaminWales

Ole Smoky White Lightning is expensive.  $40 for a 750ml.  If I want White Lightning, I go through one of my co-workers who knows an illegal distiller who makes 180 proof that goes down smooth (no burn) and no corn taste and sells it for $25 for a quart (946ml)

roninkai
roninkai

So how is it different from vodka?

It would be nice if Mr. Sanburn described what the flavor profile of moonshine is.

nolanmar
nolanmar

I have no problem with legal moonshine. It is not the government's responsibility to tell me what I can eat or drink.  But why is moonshine; a highly dangerous, addictive, easy to overdose, explosively flamible substance legal when pot, a relatively harmless, non-toxic plant is not?

Johnnyj864Ca
Johnnyj864Ca

And the Ole Smoky apple pie is amazing. Those cherries they have are great too!!

Johnnyj864Ca
Johnnyj864Ca

Ole Smoky is by far the best shine I have had. I am so glad it made it to Oklahoma. We got married in Gatlinburg 20 years ago, and Ole Smoky is the best thing about Gatlinburg. We have so much fun every time we go, and love to see it around the country now

gllahone84
gllahone84

But moonshine is still native to Tennessee and North Carolina. 

phil4100
phil4100

Nice article, but not entirely correct.  The biggest "moonshine" producer is Piedmont Distillers with their Midnight Moon.  With the headline, I thought for sure you'd mention Firefly Distillery's entry into the moonshine category.  Their product is actually produced by the Sazerac, in Frankfort, KY.  Now that's a big whiskey company getting into the moonshine category in a big way.  

jdmaulden54
jdmaulden54

@sictransit5 Having been living in the situation of not being able to find that, that would blend with homemade shine. There are Others online that sell flavored packets that mimic bourbon flavored. Your not truly guaranteed 100% Authenticity You cant prove the alcohol in your shine ever touched corn juice before.

jdmaulden54
jdmaulden54

@sictransit5 When I make my own homebrew I Favor some Sweet corn in a blender mulched to a gritty puree, some cornmeal, some vitamin fortified cornflakes, sugar, yeast, Grapes, Raisins, Pineapple, Peach, Apricot, Mix  fruit water.