Tracking Legal Moonshine in Tennessee

By Paris Wolfe, Foodie/Traveler

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Tennessee Hills Distillery

It’s ironic: Without moonshine the biggest auto racing events wouldn’t exist. Not because driver’s drink.  It’s because bootleggers – the guys who historically drove moonshine to market – were the first NASCAR racers.

The story goes like this …

In the 1930s and ‘40s, Appalachian moonshiners made more money marketing moonshine in metropolitan areas. In northeast Tennessee, around Bristol, bootleggers drove firewater from the mountains to Knoxville and Nashville. To outrun the law, they tinkered with their cars to improve speed.

When they weren’t working, bootleggers started racing their modified cars. One thing led to another and an entrepreneurial spirit organized racing into a sport.  That morphed into NASCAR – the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing. And now, one of the top NASCAR tracks is Bristol Motor Speedway. In the heart of moonshine country. Go figure.

Today, the liquid lightening driving the sport is a petroleum product in the tank not moonshine in the trunk.

Moonshine, for the uninformed, has traditionally been a fairly neutral, high-proof distilled spirit made from corn mash. It’s a bit like bourbon whisky, before its aged. And, until recently, it was both homemade and illegal.

In the 2010s, several counties in Tennessee decided “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.” And, so moonshine became legal and taxable.  Though, if you talk to shopkeepers in Bristol, they’ll confirm that good ole boys are still making illegal ‘shine down in the holler. They’ll also warn you to stay away or risk being shot.

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Tiny Roberson at East Tennessee Distillery

You don’t risk your life at East Tennessee Distillery in Piney Flats about 14 miles from downtown. There, in 2012, legitimate distiller Neil “Tiny” Roberson started making Mellomoon Shine in 100 proof, 150 proof and 10 flavors. His operation is one of about 30 legal, tax-paying makers in Tennessee today.

Roberson – who is six feet eight inches tall and about 375 pounds– jokes it was too expensive for him get buzzed in a bar. So, he started brewing, fermenting and distilling as a hobby. The distilling stuck.

Those who tasted his ‘shine, liked it. “Then, we got a 400-case order for this stuff – it was illegal — so we had to find our path to be legal,” he says. For the record, with his long hair, beard and denim overalls, Roberson cultivates a hillbilly image. But he comes by his chemistry chops authentically. He was trained to distill drinking water from the sea by the Navy and for 12 years worked as a lab technician and analyst for two large corporations.

Mellomoon is really more of a “sugar shine” than a corn-based product, using a “little corn and a lot of sugar,” says Roberson.  The recipe must work because the caramel shine won a platinum “Best of Show” award at the 2013/2014 World Beverage Competition.

Flavored spirits play a large role. For his first flavor Roberson evaluated two similar tastes – caramel and butterscotch. Pronouncing caramel “Southern,” Roberson went with it. (He says butterscotch appeals more to Northern palates.)

“After that we used market research to find out what people like,” he said. That led to peach, strawberry, coconut and apple pie. Roberson’s latest, personal favorite is banana.  Recent additions include grape and, yes, butterscotch.

Today Roberson makes about 25,000 gallons in a year and sells in four states, including Ohio.

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