Johnny Baker’s hillbilly accent is as authentic as the moonshine his family has been making for generations, and he uses it to marked effect as he entertains tourists at their Gatlinburg distillery. “We are making coooorn liquor—moonshine,” Baker says, stretching out the vowel to emphasize the appeal of a distillate with a shady, complicated past.
Baker says families who settled the region, including his own, practiced “the art of making true corn liquor” out of economic necessity. “My mother was the baby of nine kids,” he says. “So my grandfather had a choice to make—whether he sold a bushel of corn for fifty or seventy-five cents or turned it into liquid corn and made twenty dollars.”
When Tennessee changed its laws in 2009 to expand liquor production from three to forty-one counties, the Baker family—led by Johnny’s attorney nephew, Joe Baker—saw the potential for selling shine and never looked back. “We present an authentic product in a fun setting that embraces the history and the culture of the area,” Joe says. “I think people really bought into that.”
It probably didn’t hurt that the Discovery Channel launched its popular Moonshiners series in 2011, a year after the Bakers opened the distillery. After a rollout that included just three products (Original, White Lightnin’, and Moonshine Cherries), “it just really started taking off, and we kind of hung on from there,” Johnny says. (Ole Smoky recently opened a second location, the Ole Smoky Barn, in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee.)
Operating out of the Ole Smoky Moonshine Holler, a weathered wooden structure meant to evoke backwoods stills and mountain gristmills, the Gatlinburg distillery now offers fifteen varieties of moonshine, including Apple Pie, Sweet Tea, and Peach flavors. Located across the parkway from Ripley’s Haunted Adventure and the Hollywood Star Cars Museum, the Holler literally stands toe-to-toe with some of Gatlinburg’s most popular tourism destinations. Guests can taste and purchase Ole Smoky products and listen to live music in the Holler. Johnny is part of the entertainment, too.
The reason moonshine is so cool, he says, is because it has such a checkered past. “A lot of people just like the story and want to be like that outlaw.” olesmoky.com •