Gatlinburg, Tennessee is a special place. Situated at the foot of the Smoky Mountains and just a stone’s throw from Dollywood, it’s touristy in a wholesome, 1950s road trip kind of way. During my visit to the mountain town in May, I was told several times that it boasts the largest number of pancake houses in the United States.
Pancakes, however enjoyable, were not what brought me to Gatlinburg. I had come on the invitation of Sugarlands Distilling Company, one of several distilleries that have made their tasting rooms bonafide downtown attractions, competing with dinner theaters and themed mini golf courses.
Sugarlands, which opened in 2014, has earned renown for its wide range of moonshines, some of which were made in collaboration with the stars of The Discovery Channel’s show Moonshiners. Its distillery and tasting room, located directly across from a Ripley’s Believe It or Not, has a raucous atmosphere that packs in the crowds.
But this rowdy moonshine mecca hides a secret. In a little building behind its distillery sit 123 barrels that are slowly turning moonshine into an exceptional and sought-after rye whiskey.
The Ric Flair Effect
Only one phrase can accurately describe the scene within the Sugarlands distillery, and that phrase is “a damn good time.” Scores of weekend revelers stream into the tasting room portion of the building, flashing IDs and affixing wristbands so they can join one of the perpetual tastings happening at several round, stand-up tables.
Seemingly everyone has a nickname. “Tugboat” is the tastings manager. Two long-bearded, beanpole skinny brothers going by “Tadpole” and “Oh, Dammit” lead tastings. I land a spot at Oh Dammit’s table, amid a crowd that includes visor-wearing grandmas and Iraq War vets in leather motorcycle club jackets.
We’re going to sample a range of Sugarlands’ moonshine, which runs the gamut from the 100-proof Silver Cloud Tennessee Sour Mash to a 40-proof Electric Orange Cream Liqueur. The samples are poured into the same tiny plastic cups used for communion wine at Baptist services. Oh Dammit pours in a circle, theatrically knocking the bottle against the counter each time a cup is filled.
His pours come with colorful commentary. “If you buy your moonshine from a good ‘ol boy in a Wal-Mart parking lot at 2am, this is what you get,” he says in reference to their flagship Silver Cloud Tennessee Sour Mash.
“I have little old ladies from Florida tasting that, they get the Ric Flair effect,” he says, referencing the legendary WWE wrestler with a penchant for saying “Woo!”
It’s a whole lot of fun. Enough to wave aside a shrill inner voice that’s scolding me for ingesting flavored liquor—and enjoying it. Perhaps it’s Oh Dammit’s spirited leadership that’s getting me into that sip of Electric Orange Cream Liqueur (he likens its taste to that of a Flintstone’s push pop, and it’s an awesomely accurate comparison)—or maybe the base spirit is just pretty damn good.
There does seem to be a marked difference between Sugarlands’ stuff and other flavored moonshines that I’ve experienced. It’s certainly sweet—no one’s looking for Peanut Butter and Jelly moonshine with a dry finish—but the flavors feel a little deeper, a little longer-lasting, not overly syrupy or flash-in-the-pain saccharine.
Everything that we’ve been tasting has been made perhaps 20 feet away, in the actual distillery part of the building. That’s where two stills—a 750-gallon and a 250-gallon—proudly stand. Sugarlands’ corn, which comes from a local provider within a 30 minute radius, is ground on-site before entering the 1,000 gallon cooker.
My standout favorite is their 100-proof Jim Tom Hedrick’s (of Moonshiners fame) Unaged Rye, which has a clear, earthy flavor that I wouldn’t mind savoring on a slow porch swing over an extended period of time. It seems as though the powers behind Sugarlands have been enjoying this unaged rye as well—enough to place it in barrels and turn it into an entirely different product—an aged rye.
Roaming Man Tennessee Straight Rye Whiskey
Tugboat—aka Kris Killingsworth—gives me my first taste of Roaming Man Rye. While we’re standing at a wooden bar behind the gift shop, a little oasis of quiet, he pulls out a small blue box containing a 375ml bottle of the two-year-old rye whiskey. The name and the packaging are callbacks to local heritage. The name itself is an homage to Wiley Oakley, a Gatlinburg native who became known as “The Roamin’ Man of the Smokies” thanks to his extensive knowledge of the local wilderness. The box containing the bottle features a foil reproduction of an old-timey map covering the local terrain.
Killingsworth tells me that a whiskey was always in the works for Sugarlands.
“It’s a natural progression from moonshine,” he says, “particularly with the recipes we were using here, like the unaged rye.”
Pouring with care, Killingsworth offers me a small dram from the bottle. Its nose is highly aromatic, packed with toffee, vanilla, and caramel. It’s hot on the tongue, and kicks things off with bright fruit followed by vanilla, black pepper, and oak before hitting a cigar box note at the center. The most exceptional part is the finish: the mouthfeel turns creamy and a thick, chewy peanut butter note emerges, which coats the tongue as if you’re biting into a PB&J. The whole experience is played out by a final note of black pepper that lingers for what feels like a pleasant eternity.
This whiskey, whose existence I learned of just minutes before, already has me hooked. And I want to know more—starting with where I can find it in barrel form.
Enter the Sugarlands Barrel Room
I’m given a tour of the barrel room by Lead Distiller Andrew Holt. It’s a small building located behind the distillery, adjacent to an outdoor stage that hosts live music shows. At the time of my visit there are 126 barrels in the room, and each holds either 25 or 53 gallons. Each are new American white oak, and feature a char level of three or four.
Holt is 27 and had no previous experience in distilling. Four years ago he was managing another attraction operated by Sugarlands co-owner Ned Vickers. Holt told Vickers that he was ready to move on with his career, but Vickers mentioned that he had another project in the works and he needed Holt’s help. That project was Sugarlands, and Holt came aboard in December 2013, working alongside Head Distiller Greg Eidam. Holt, who had studied physical therapy in college, suddenly found himself producing a rye whiskey.
He compensated for his inexperience by aggressively pursuing knowledge wherever he could find it. He spent time on the forums of the American Distilling Institute, absorbing posts written by industry veterans with decades of experience.
“I came in with zero knowledge of any of this,” says Holt. “And just through experience and travel and who I’ve talked to, who I’ve met, you learn all these things.”
The juice that rests within each barrel is the same stuff going into all the mason jars bearing Jim Tom Hedrick’s likeness. Its composition is 51% rye, 45% white corn and 4% malted barley. However, the unaged rye sold as moonshine is proofed down to 100, while Roaming Man Rye is bottled at cask strength and clocks in at an undiluted 123.4 proof. (The Roaming Man I sampled was aged for two years: subsequent releases have been aged slightly longer.)
“We released it at cask strength. I was so happy to hear that, because that’s how it is right now,” Holt says. “If you were to open one of those barrels and taste it in there, that’s what’s coming out.”
Unlike the liquors promoted by the Moonshiners cast, Roaming Man Rye is a quasi-secret with a tightly limited distribution. Its very first edition was released in April 2017, and that run consisted of just 300 375ml bottles, sold for $49.99 each. Purchasers had to pre-order the whiskey, which could only be picked up onsite. The first order sold out almost immediately, and inspired more interest that supply could satisfy.
“People come in and say they heard about the whiskey,” says Holt. “And I’m like, ‘Yeah… what whiskey?’”
A second release followed in May, and quickly sold out as well. A third release is available for pre-order via the website on October 20th, and can be picked up at the distillery starting November 3rd.
Holt dangles the possibility that a fourth edition might be sold outside of the distillery itself: but that potential distribution would be limited to local stores. If you’re living a fair distance from Central Tennessee and wish to get your hands on some Roaming Man, a road trip may be in order.
Roaming Man may occupy a significant amount of Holt’s attention, but it isn’t the only brown liquor on his mind. He hopes to release a Tennessee whiskey produced in the “Lincoln County Process,” next, though no firm plan has been established.
Like Killingsworth, Holt tells me that making a whiskey was always a part of Sugarlands’ plans. “Whiskey is where you build your legacy,” says Holt.
Roaming Man’s Tennessee rye whiskey hasn’t been in this world for very long, but that legacy is already shaping up to be something special.