Moonshine might have a glamorous outlaw reputation, but to the families of Appalachia who made their own 'shine, it meant so much more.
For all of the ways moonshine has impacted America, few will point to its economic power in the Great Smoky Mountains. However, if there's one way that families in the deep forests of the Tennessee hills survived, it's through moonshine and its hard-earned profits.
Sugarlands Distilling Co. isn't just taking a name that is bound to this history; it's embracing it one moonshine variety at a time.
In the 1800s during America's westward expansion, Scottish and Irish settlers moved into the area of the Great Smoky Mountains once occupied by the Cherokee tribe. They brought with them a rich history of farming and a tradition of making liquor. In fact, some families in the first small communities even brought stills with them from Europe. More and more families turned to making liquor from corn in the Sugarlands Valley and soon it became known as Moonshiners' Paradise. Using the dense forest to their benefit, families were able to hide stills deep in the mountains - despite it still being very much illegal.
I spoke with Mark Ramsey and Digger Manes, of Discovery Channel's Moonshiners and part of Sugarlands Distilling Co.'s Legends Series, about the impact of moonshine in the region and how their collaborations with Sugarlands is upholding this tradition.
"People come in [Sugarlands Distilling Co.] and say, 'Well I want that real liquor,'" Digger Manes said as we sat down, "It don't get no realer than this and they don't understand, they don't realize that our method of making liquor and this method of making liquor, this legal liquor is a tiny bit better."
"This is better because it's more consistent, you know. In the woods, when we make a batch, every batch doesn't have to taste the same," Mark Ramsey added. Digger continued, "If we spill 50 pounds of sugar and only add 40 pounds of it in, well it's got 40 pounds of sugar."
Sugarlands collaborated with Mark & Digger on two liquors that are, from personal experience, delicious. The first is Mark & Digger's Rye Apple Moonshine; it has a smooth taste that is quick to finish but long to remember. The second is Mark & Digger's Hazelnut Rum that blends the tastes of vanilla, cinnamon, and honey and finishes with a sweet, oaky kick.
When I asked how people generally react when they hear these two men make liquor, both chuckled. They know fans come to see them at the distillery and have jars signed, but they also know that many people in the country don't understand the complex past associated with moonshine.
"People didn't have much of a choice, they didn't have any money, there was no jobs. Nobody had any more than their neighbor did so you know, it wasn't frowned upon," Mark paused for a moment. "They were honorable people, they just did the best they could with what they had to do with."
Digger continued, "These old guys who made liquor in our neck of the woods, the reason I admired them was because they worked hard if they were fortunate to have a little bit of a job, then they still worked on past that job making liquor so they could have a little something extra. And they're the ones that were better to their family and better to their churches and better to their neighbor."
Mark nodded his head, and added, "Liquor in this part of the country built many, many churches."
"I can tell you the men who put money in the walls, there's liquor money in the walls," Digger said.
"The traditions of it and the heritage of it. When the Scotch and Irish came to this country, they brought stills with them. They knew what was important... George Washington had the biggest distillery in the country," Mark laughed.
The bottom line is, moonshine means something deeply traditional to these men because it was what built their communities for generations.
They are carrying on a tradition passed down from generations, sharing knowledge they gained from working with some of the best moonshiners in the country for decades. These traditions made many American towns, and it's time we celebrate the history of moonshining and honor the hardworking families that forged a way of life from very little in this country.
To try Sugarlands products, head on over to their website or see if it's in a store near you. Like Mark & Digger said, it is better than the 'shine coming out of the woods! If you buy Sugarlands Spirits before December 15, you'll receive a free shot glass with your purchase. You can follow Sugarlands Distilling Co. on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.
The Sugarlands Distilling Giveaway
Sugarlands Distilling is hosting a holiday giveaway of 15 total prizes! The grand prize is a trip for two to the Great Smoky Mountains to visit Sugarlands Distilling Company in downtown Gatlinburg, Tenn.
Four lucky winners will each receive a $100 gift card for Sugarlands Distilling Co., and 10 lucky winners will receive boxes of Sugarlands Distilling gifts! Customers that order between November 14 and December 14 will receive a gift with their purchase courtesy of Sugarlands Distilling.