The Tasting Panel magazine

October 2016

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Page 61 of 108

october 2016  /  the tasting panel  /  61 "It's a really cool experience to do this in the open," he says, referring to moonshine-making's secreted past. But since 2010, it's been thoroughly on the up and up in the Holler of Gatlinburg, Tennessee—ironically, now the most visited distillery in the world, with two-and-a-half million guests annually and counting. "It makes me feel good because we're paying back our heritage with a distillery where all the people can see what we're doing and smell the smells." King would know, as would Joe Baker, the man who co-founded the company with two college buddies, Cory Cottongim and Tony Breeden (who, along with Baker, were also fellow criminal defense attorneys, ironically). The Kings and Bakers have been moonshining in this part of Appalachia for generations, learning the passed-down skill that's kept the stills running since Scottish and Irish families settled in this area. But while you'll hear that Ole Smoky's recipe is based on a 100-year-old family keepsake, King knows it's not necessarily about measurements jotted on a frayed, yellowing piece of paper. "There's no exact recipe of moonshine—the recipe is the guy running the still, knowing when to make a heads cut, a tails cut and what alcohol to collect." Today, King does that via a trio of pot stills custom-crafted to his and Baker's specifications—that is, as close to the kind of stills the mutual families grew up using. Moonshining has often been a craft performed in the wee hours when fewer eyes were open to bear witness to the process, as a way to support a family and avert the high taxes upon it. "The thing about moonshine is it was made to be an untaxed spirit that you made money on. You think back to my grandfather or Joe's grandparents making moonshine and a bushel of corn would cost you 50 cents. As a farmer growing corn, do you want to sell that bushel to make 50 cents or turn it into moonshine and make $200? Moonshine was a way for people to make extra money and feed their families." In late 2009, Tennessee changed its laws, allowing cities and counties to vote as to whether distilleries should be allowed in their midst. Gatlinburg voted in. Joe was still a practicing attorney at the time and closely watched the laws change; when they did, he and his partners jumped at the opportunity to apply for a distillery license, the first in East Tennessee. In 2010, Baker tapped King to manage the distilling, and he has been the man behind the craft of Ole Smoky Moonshine ever since. If the notion that he could do this legally for a living wasn't enough to get his head around, the lightening-fast growth of Ole Smoky certainly added to the surprise turn his life would take; he quickly became the Master Distiller of the most successful new distillery to come out of the Volunteer State. They've grown from a smattering of employees to over 300 in six years. A multitude of traditional (Apple Pie, Peach) and less-traditional (Mountain Java, Pineapple) flavors of the moonshine have launched as well, as the kick-off of a barrel-aged whiskey line earlier this year. And not only has Ole Smoky found its way far and beyond the Holler into all 50 states, it's also found its way around the world. It's a little mind-boggling, certainly, for King to step back and look at how far they've come in such a short period of time with the secreted spirit that was part and parcel to the fabric of generations of Appalachian families, like the Kings and the Bakers. "When you grow up in east Tennessee and around the Smoky Mountains, moonshine is just normal to see growing up. It's not like, oh, hide the moonshine! It's just a normal part of day to day life. I don't remember it not being around." Now, no one else has to, either. In the past six years, Ole Smoky has launched a multitude of flavors. PHOTO: VAN GALLIK PHOTO: VAN GALLIK

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