We were taking the long way through North Georgia, made even longer because I kept falling prey to roadside distractions. Turning off the highway for boiled peanuts, I half teased my companion that I was looking for moonshine. A few months ago, a friend had given me a jar of the stuff. There’s no label and the contents are as clear as the glass that holds it. You might mistake it for water if the faintest whiff didn’t make your nose hairs stand on end. Headed into the mountains where Prohibition-era bootleggers gave birth to NASCAR, I kept thinking about that jar.
“What we’ll do is drive real slow on the back roads. That way we can look for a little plume of smoke rising from a still, and we’ll follow it to the source,” I said. She rolled her eyes.
Our first serendipitous find was Jaemor Farms Market—up past where I-985 branches off of I-85 and then narrows into I-365, just north of where legions of gas stations and fast-food joints beckon boaters headed to Lake Lanier. We bought a brown paper bag of steaming peanuts ladled out of a barrel-sized steel pot on the front porch, and admired the fresh produce and local crafts. If you’re looking for something pickled in a jar, this is your place. Pickled carrots, hot pickled garlic, pickled quail eggs. But no clear jars of North Georgia ’shine.
An hour or so down the road, we reached our destination just south of the North Carolina border. Brasstown Valley Resort & Spa is a full-service retreat built (and still owned) by the state of Georgia when Zell Miller was governor—not so coincidentally, in Miller’s hometown of Young Harris. Long before “LEED certification” became developers’ favorite buzzword, Brasstown was carefully planned to protect its 500 acres. Builders took out eighteen environmental permits before breaking ground. Golf course construction was halted and reconfigured when its path crossed an ancient Cherokee burial ground. The result was a massive 102-room lodge tucked unobtrusively into the mountainside.
A long driveway wound through thick woods before delivering us to the main entrance. We had just enough time to check in before our dinner reservation on the dining room veranda. We couldn’t have arrived at a better time. The porch faces where the sun sets over the mountains, and on this particular night, rain clouds were turning deep shades of purple and red against the black silhouette of the Blue Ridge. Every few minutes, lightning would strike a bright white flash through the sky.
The restaurant—a sort of glorified camp dining hall with sturdy pine furniture—serves the something-for-everyone menu typical of hotels everywhere: weekly prime rib and seafood buffets, steaks, pasta, salad bar. We opted for the few regional dishes: fried green tomatoes piled high with pickles and thick fillets of North Georgia trout, along with a couple of bourbons. It suited the evening just fine.
Approaching its twentieth-birthday mark in 2015, Brasstown seems mature beyond its years. Rocking chairs line wide verandas for soaking up an expansive vista that includes Brasstown Bald, Georgia’s highest point. Inside, fussy 1990s furnishings have mellowed into a shabby elegance. The octagonal lobby’s oak-paneled walls and vaulted ceiling and the soaring seventy-two-foot stone fireplace are grand enough to carry off the standard lodge-issue antler chandeliers and Adirondack knickknacks. Many of the guest rooms, furnished with quilts and twig furniture, have private balconies and gas-log fireplaces. Brasstown has become a place of simple comfort rather than precious pampering.
The next morning the grounds were still wet from rain. We strolled the narrow, hilly trails that run through the Chattahoochee National Forest, stopping to watch horses graze through a field. The hotel keeps a full stable here and offers trail rides. There’s also a golf course, a spa, tennis courts, and nearby streams and pristine Lake Chatuge to explore. The unique hotel pool is half indoors, half out; to swim across, you literally duck under a glass wall. We would’ve lingered longer, but the road was calling again.
Just outside the resort, in Young Harris, we came across a store stocked with sorghum. We found some country ham and sawmill gravy at the Hole in the Wall in Blairsville. We happened upon fried pies at Walker’s outside of Ellijay—making a mental note to return during October’s big apple festival. But still no moonshine.
Just when the humid clouds started to lift, we pulled up and peered over the rocky edge of Amicalola Falls, a high, narrow cascade that is the tallest in the Southeast. The sun glared down on wet trees in the distance, while steam rose up in thin, misty plumes—a mirage that was as close as I would get to whiskey smoke.
This article originally appeared in our October 2012 issue.