Mountain Spirit in a Jar

When you’re talking about the beverage traditions of the rural U.S. South, it’s hard for the conversation not to turn to moonshine. And it’s a distinction that many in classic moonshine regions are wearing like a badge of honor and nurturing a bona fide distilling micro-segment. Notable among those is Ole Smoky Moonshine, which captures the spirit of its namesake mountainous region in its home state of Tennessee with recipes drawn from generations of covert distilling escapades. Varieties include Ole Smoky Original Moonshine, an unaged whiskey made from 80 percent corn; White Lightnin’, made from 100 percent grain neutral spirits, designed as an alternative to vodka, gin or tequila; Moonshine Cherries, maraschino cherries soaked in 100-proof moonshine and Apple Pie, a 40-proof mixture of apple juice, cinnamon and other spices whose flavor lives up to its name. All are packaged in mason jars, as was the custom among moonshine producers. The only difference: These are 100 percent legal. National sales director Josh Breeden, whose brother, Tony Breeden founded the Gatlinburg, Tenn.-based company with partner Joe Baker, had a few thoughts to share with Beverage World on the two centuries of heritage that inspired the two-year-old company, whose products are now available in 32 U.S. states.

Beverage World: What sets you apart from some of the other moonshines on the market?
Josh Breeden: What separates us is that we want to make sure our moonshine doesn’t just represent one family or one person. We want to make sure our moonshine is a representation of every family from the Smoky mountains. Everything about our products is from [around] Knoxville, Tenn. The corn is raised there and milled right outside of Knoxville. We try to keep everything within a 20-mile radius. Even the folks who mill the corn and raise the corn for us are part of the family.  

BW: What was the thinking behind your Cherries and Apple Pie products
Breeden: We call [Cherries] the party in a jar. It’s an Appalachian party tradition. You can’t go to a party without the cherries. Legally, two to three cherries is one shot, depending on how much alcohol each cherry has in it. It’s a great item for any on-premise to have because they can make almost $100 a jar out of it. You can add two cherries to any martini, you can add two cherries to any drink and they can upsell their customer, two cherries for $1 or two cherries for $2, whatever they want to do. We also say, ‘hey, we want to be able to create that ultimate Cherry Coke where you can actually pour the cherry juice into the Coke.’

What we want to do with [Apple Pie] is we want to make it smell just like grandma’s Apple Pie cooling on the window sill. We call it Americana in a jar. It’s very drinkable, it goes down easily, full of sweet apple pie. Some people just drink it cold, some drink it hot. I prefer to drink it straight up from the mason jar.

BW: What’s some of the more interesting feedback you’ve gotten from consumers?
Breeden: We love the stories people tell us. I guess the craziest one I’ve heard was about a car that was painted black, even the windows were painted black…The cops wouldn’t always bust up the moonshine stills, they’d wait for people to come out of the hills and bust the people who are bootlegging the moonshine. There was a cop sitting there every night at around 12:30 whose radar would go off and say 85 miles per hour, but he’d never see anybody. The car was decked out all in black and its headlights were turned off, so for two straight years the cop couldn’t figure out what was going on.  

BW: What sort of image are you trying to create for the brand?
Breeden: When you see the mason jar, when you see moonshine, you think about America. Our whole philosophy is we want people to drink American. We just want to be who we are. What we do is we use the best ingredients and we try to make the highest quality product we can deliver. We try to keep our packaging simple. We wanted to represent the work of all the families that have made shine here in the Appalachian Mountains for hundreds of years. And they use that same jar. If we could’ve left the label off the jar all together, then we would have done it. That’s exactly how it used to be.

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