I rolled across the border into Tennessee with the stereo pumping out the Charlie Daniels Band, as is required. Get me back to Dixie, I love my Tennessee! In the Smoky Mountains, that’s where I wanna be!
My destination was Gatlinburg, a tourist madhouse on the edge of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. But first, I had to get across most of Tennessee—which turned out to be a lot more pleasant than I’d expected. Being in the Confederate South is a whole different experience now that my plates and ID don’t say “Damnyankee”. I’d always thought “Southern hospitality” was a myth, or an ironic joke like “military intelligence” or “compassionate conservative”, but it turns out they just don’t like damn Yankees. Stop being one and they get all nice and welcoming.
Gatlinburg, of course, is home to Cooter’s, the largest Dukes of Hazzard store in the entire world. In the world! You might think London’s Dukes of Hazzard store would be bigger, but you’d be wrong. Istambul? Nope. Not even Beijing has a larger Dukes of Hazzard store than good ol’ Gatlinburg, Tennessee.
Cooter’s isn’t just arbitrarily named Cooter’s, either. It’s owned by the actor (and former Congressman) who played Cooter, Ben Jones.
Here, you can buy basically anything you might imagine would be associated with Dukes of Hazzard: T-shirts, toys, pictures, props, a Confederate flag spare tire cover, Hazzard County license plates, and so on. You can get your photo sitting in the General Lee. They even have mini-golf and go-karts, for some reason.
If you act fast, they can order you a 1/18th scale General Lee, the last run before the humorless killjoys take the flag off the roof, raping our childhoods to an extent previously reserved only for George Lucas.
Gatlinburg exists for tourism. It’s an almost absurd concentration of tourist-oriented shops and restaurants, selling all the trinkets and souvenirs and food you expect. The Confederate flag, more popular now than ever, was featured in many storefronts. Uncharacteristically, I was staying at the Gatlinburg Inn, a hotel right in the middle of it all, instead of some campsite way out in the woods. I could step right outside for some barbecue, some ice cream, and a bit of who-shot-john.
Yeah, we should talk about the hooch. Tennessee seems to be the epicenter of the whole moonshine craze, and Gatlinburg features three distilleries operating right on the main drag, making and selling Mason jars of rotgut. But this is a supply-side craze.
Bourbon, rye, Scotch, and all the other kinds of whiskey are aged in wooden barrels for years. Newly changed regulations have all these new “craft” distilleries opening up, but if you start a new distillery, it’s two years before you can sell your first bottle of bourbon, and at least four before your first good bottle. What do you do in the meantime to keep the lights on?
You can sell vodka, but there’s only so much you can do with something that by legal definition has no distinctive taste. You can buy whiskey in bulk and sell it under your own name, but drinkers catch on quick. Or—you can take your whiskey and put it straight into bottles, unaged, and sell legal moonshine, using the aura of mystery to get people interested.
At a liquor store I frequent, the clerks know me as a whiskey drinker, and sometimes ask me questions about it. (It’s funny when store employees ask you about the products they’re selling, but that’s whiskey.) Once, they asked if I’d tried any of the new white lightning. No, I said, but I guess I should, since I guess that’s what people are into now. No, they told me: they’ve got lots of it on the shelf, but no one is buying it.
The beauty of Gatlinburg, though, is that you don’t have to buy it to try it: three distilleries, right on the main drag, are giving out free samples of redneck baby-maker. That’s right: free booze, you guys! In Gatlinburg, you walk around and get drunk for free.
You gather ‘round the bar with the other tourists, and a friendly bartender goes through a whole spiel, pouring you a mini-shot of every flavor they sell, from straight panther’s breath to flavors like apple pie and peach. They throw in a lot of local color, playing into the stereotype that you’re visiting a people whose idea of a classy cocktail is Dr. Thunder and Everclear.
Your first taste of moonshine is filled with memories: you remember that they age whiskey for a reason.
Yeah, it’s not great. The sickly-sweet flavors are mostly designed to hide that, and those went down easier for the women around the bar, but I’m a bourbon drinker, so I liked the raw stuff best—but “best” is relative. It’s free. Sugarlands had the best brew in town—again, relatively.
At twenty-five bucks for a jar of happy Sally, hell, they have to get people drunk and show them a good time to get them to buy the stuff. And, when you can spend the evening walking around a crowded tourist town getting your buzz on for free, you’re having a good time.
Oh, yeah—Gatlinburg is right next to a national park, too. But it’s not a spectacular one, and it was crowded, and the light wasn’t great. It’s the Confederate South, not my usual cowboy country. Here, it’s all about the moonshine.