Amid the debut of the Discovery Channel's new "Tickle" series, which follows the everyday life of Steve Tickle, one of the breakout stars of "Moonshiners," audiences are showing an appetite for "white lightning," a.k.a. moonshine, an unaged, corn mash-based liquor most people associate with backyard stills and midnight runs.
But not everyone making 'shine these days is doing so outside of the law.
Raised in the Smoky Mountains, Joe Baker chose to honor his family's moonshining roots by starting his own federally licensed distillery when legislation in 2009 made it possible to do so. Located in the mountain resort city of Gatlinburg, Tenn., just across the street from a Ripley's Believe It Or Not, the Ole Smoky Distillery attracts a steady customer base of families and college students, and includes daily tours and music performances -- a far cry from ye olde moonshine hollows.
"It would be nice not to have to pay taxes, but we live in a great country and part of that is paying our fair share," said Baker, who founded Ole Smoky Tennessee Moonshine after years working as a criminal lawyer. "In Tennessee, we have a lot of good families who, in the past, made liquor to get by. It wasn't done to throw it in the face of the law."
Another boon to producing moonshine in a controlled environment? A safer, more consistent spirit, said Baker.
"Obviously, we're able to ensure the proof is exactly where we want it and the ingredients are represented the way we want them in a much greater fashion than if we were cooking over a fire in the woods," he said. "The recipes are the same, the formulas are unchanged -- all we have is greater control, which helps to create a superior product."
Travelers to the city clearly agree with him, as the distillery has seen an estimated 2 million visitors in the last year alone. It is a family-friendly environment, with guests invited to tour the facility, listen to live music and taste the myriad fruit-flavored moonshine varieties being poured from iconic mason jars in back of the house. To date, Apple Pie, Peach and Blackberry are the best-selling products.
While some may always dispute whether an alcohol that pays federal taxes can be called "moonshine," versus "white whiskey," Ole Smoky's head distiller Justin King defines all moonshines as "a good unaged corn likker."
As the category continues to expand, Ole Smoky is not alone in its mission. Other brands like Popcorn Sutton and Hudson New York Corn Whiskey are gaining popularity among adventurous drinkers.
In fact, another alum of Discovery's "Moonshiners" series, Tim Smith, recently introduced his own legal product to the market: Climax.
"Just like with anything else you see on TV, there's a big distinction between what's entertainment and the entire process," said Baker. "I think [those programs are] sensationalized."
What's real is the dramatic impact Ole Smoky Distillery has had on the region.
"We've clearly touched a lot of lives in our hometown by creating 200 jobs in our own business and bringing more tourists to the area," said Baker. "When hotel occupancy goes up, restaurant diners go up and so on. That's a great thing to be a part of."
Ole Smoky plans to open its second distillery location in Myrtle Beach, S.C., in 2014.