Oooh, can I try the Apple Pie? And then I want to sample the Blackberry and the Butter Pecan!
Head swimming with delicious possibilities, no I was not in a 37-flavor Baskin Robbins. Instead, I was at the Old Smoky Tennessee Moonshine Distillery, and the flavors I experienced were bright, authentic and way, way more fun than anything ice-cream can offer. It’s moonshine, baby! However, if you’ve ever tasted true mountain moonshine, this elixir is about as far from your grandpappy’s brew as Thunderbird is from a fine Chateau Margaux. Whether it’s 35-proof Pumpkin Pie flavor, a 60-proof Apple Pie or a blow-the-top-of-your-head-off, 100-proof Blue Flame, these brews are smooth, velvety and utterly scrumptious. The company has the distinction of being in all 50 states and numerous countries around the world.
Born from the Appalachian Mud & Mist
More than any other spirit, Moonshine is misunderstood. Once an integral part of prohibition culture, moonshine was illegally produced in the backwoods. The new crop of moonshines are created under far more auspicious circumstances, yielding a spirit that is celebrated, maintaining the devil-may-care allure of its past, but that is entirely safe to drink and, yes, delicious. “We have an incredibly rich history with making liquor. It’s an important part of who we are,” says Joe Baker, co-founder of Ole Smoky Tennessee Moonshine.
The distillery is in Gatlinburg, a mountain village centrally located in eastern Tennessee, which means that it’s less than a day’s drive from most major cities. Home to The Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the town’s beginnings were humble, but it has grown to become one of the top vacation destinations in America—an entertainment-filled Mecca the whole family can enjoy.
The Place of Blue Smoke
This is what the Cherokee people called the Smoky Mountains because of the lovely bluish mist from which the mountain tops rise. Today, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park straddles the border between North Carolina and Tennessee and encompasses lush forests and an abundance of wildflowers that bloom year-round. Streams, rivers, and waterfalls appear along the hiking routes that include a segment of the Appalachian Trail. It’s the country’s most visited national park, drawing millions of visitors year after year, as well as world-renowned for its biodiversity and its Southern Appalachian Mountain culture. The Smokies are one of the oldest mountain ranges in the world, between 200 and 300 million years, and there are more than 850 miles of hiking trails, many open to horseback riding. And – a rarity among National Parks – this park is free of charge.
The Evolution of Craft
I’d heard so much about the Great Smoky Mountain Arts & Crafts Community that I knew I couldn’t leave the state before I found out just what all the buzz was about. Turns out this small mountain hamlet of Gatlinburg is home to one of the largest populations of artists and craftspeople in the United States. Way back in 1937, several local artists decided to move out to The Glades where they set up their studios, shops and galleries and Gatlinburg’s Great Smoky Arts & Crafts community was born. On my visit to this 8-mile loop of loveliness, I watched artists whittling, painting, sewing, weaving, and carving, their work of such superior quality that I was glad I brought my credit card—I wanted everything! I came away with some intricate basketry, a silver bracelet and earrings, and a small painting of the mountains to remind me always of the warm, affable and totally charming craftspeople who I met. There are over 100 studios, dozens of eateries, quaint lodging and even a wedding chapel—just in case you and your honey couldn’t resist buying those art deco wedding bands fabricated by one of the talented craftsmen. Do not leave Gatlinburg before you’ve visited this special place.
Keeping in the arts and crafts vein, there’s the world-renowned Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts located on 13 acres in the heart of Gatlinburg, yet only minutes away from the Smoky Mountains. Founded as a settlement school in 1912 by the Pi Beta Phi Fraternity for Women, Arrowmont has grown into a national contemporary arts and crafts education center. The school’s buildings are low and seem to nestle into the forest—very Frank Lloyd Wrightish, cozy and intimate. Offered annually are 150 workshops, children’s classes, and ArtReach provides a day of art to over 1,200 children yearly, as well as gallery exhibits, symposia and conferences. People travel from across the nation and the globe to take classes here and experience the magic.
When only creamy, cheesy, hearty dishes will do, let me introduce you to three remarkable restaurants serving nifty nourishment and answering that hankering we all have for comfort food. The food comes from the inspired vision that resides in the kitchens of The Peddler, The Park Grill, and the quaintly-named Crockett’s Breakfast Camp.
At The Peddler, I found a table in front of a rustic stone fireplace, the setting sun casting a warm glow through intricate stained glass windows. The restaurant is renowned for its steaks cooked tableside. The Little Pigeon River flowed by the restaurant, and an 80-foot-high redwood planted decades ago graces the steps to the front door. A word of advice: do not be discouraged if you arrive to crowds of people waiting for a table (the restaurant doesn’t take reservations). It moves swiftly and it’s well worth the short wait.
The Peddler’s owner, Geoffrey Wolpert, set his sights next on another eatery just around the corner—The Park Grill. Rustic is again in evidence here, eye-catching, novel décor that’s as interesting as the fanciful food the Grill serves. A specialty is the shrimp and crab bisque. So loved is this potage that the restaurant brought huge vats of it to firefighters last year while they battled the Smoky Mountain fire. Yes, it’s that good!
I was told not to leave Gatlinburg without experiencing a breakfast at Crockett’s Breakfast Camp. So, before getting on the road for the ride home, Breakfast Camp it was. The décor is that of an authentic Smoky Mountain camp and the offerings are colorfully named. The menu I perused was a knock-off of the White Oak Flats Daily Post of November 1886. The fare runs the gamut from Hen Fruit (that’s eggs) to flapjacks, Huevos Rancheros, candied apples and biscuits ‘n gravy. Finger-lickin’ good it was, not to mention fun, a hoot, and a must-visit. I was sent on my way cozily sated and fortified for hours (days?) to come!
As I was leaving Gatlinburg, I thought back to a sage slogan of Ole Smoky Tennessee Moonshine: “Shine Responsibly.” Shining is what happens when you taste this moonshine. Good advice to heed. The distillery also offers a cheerful enticement: “C’mon, live a little!” On my visit to Gatlinburg, yes, I did some livin’ for sure – and shining – you betcha!
If You Go:
— Uncharted101.com (@Uncharted1o1) November 13, 2017