Before you start snickering about East Tennessee genealogy, Old Forge Distillery in Pigeon Forge is indeed owned by two couples who happen to be siblings and in-laws. Laurie Faulkner and Chris Blanton are brother and sister who have invested in the distillery with the respective spouses, Craig Faulkner and Leslie Blanton. The family already owned property and several businesses in and around the Old Mill neighborhood of Pigeon Forge, and the old general store/gift shop next door to the historic mill building looked like the perfect location for the new distillery.

Screen Shot 2017-01-13 at 10.59.16 PMThe family also runs a construction business that tore down the old building and repurposed some of the old beams and planks to create an attractive tasting room and efficient production and packaging space. “The new floor was the old ceiling a hundred years ago,” shares Laurie Faulkner. “We tell people when you come into Old Forge, don’t drink too much because you’re walking on the ceiling.”

The next link in this family affair was probably the most important. Keener Shanton is a cousin to the clan who was working full-time as a fireman when he heard that some of his kin were planning to open a distillery. Already a home brewer on his days off from the firehouse, Stanton was experimenting with some legal home distilling under a fuel ethanol distiller’s license. He went from full- to part- to no-time working at the firehouse. As the distillery was being designed and constructed, he prepared to jump in with both feet. Plus, it never hurts to have someone with experience with fighting fires when you’re dealing with the distilling process.

Old Forge officially opened to the public on July 1, 2014 and immediately started to take advantage of the crowds of tourists visiting the Pigeon Forge area. Spending little on traditional advertising, Old Forge generates plenty of traffic through tastings and word of mouth. Unlike some other East Tennessee moonshine purveyors, Old Forge offers a lineup of products that extend far beyond just the traditional flavored ‘shines.

To be clear, they do sell plenty of fruity and sweet moonshines, and Shanton is not ashamed of these products. “We don’t hide the fact that our flavored shines are made with 100% corn mash grain neutral spirits that we blend in house with flavorings. We specifically wanted a blank canvas to compound with because our customers don’t want coffee or French toast flavored drinks that also taste like corn. We could have distilled our own mash until it was flavorless, but that would be a waste of our resources.”

So yes, there are plenty of flavored options available at Old Forge, with some of the most popular including Blackberry, Coffee and Bananas Foster. The flavored moonshines are all bottled (well, jarred) at 60 proof except for a spicy Cinnamon version that packs an 80 proof punch. That purchased GNS is also run through a proofing still process to create an 80 proof vodka that really offers little benefit over other vodkas except that you can buy it on Sundays at the Old Forge gift shop.Screen Shot 2017-01-13 at 10.59.47 PM

But the rest of Old Forge’s products do demonstrate creativity, ingenuity and dedication on the part of the distiller. Three versions of clear moonshine are interesting when tasted side-by-side as part of the 1830 series, named after the year the Old Mill started up operation. The 100 proof Unaged Corn Moonshine is made with a traditional sugar and corn mash in about a 55%/45% ratio by weight. The sugar definitely still manifests itself in a sweet palate entry, and the hot finish is expected in such a young higher proof product.

The 1830 Original Distiller’s Blend adds rye and malted barley to the mix of sugar and corn milled next door at the Old Mill. Closer to the white dog whiskey that goes into barrels for aging at traditional bourbon/whiskey distilleries, the additional grains add some spiciness and herbaceousness to the flavor. The third clear moonshine is 1830 Original Miller’s Blend with sugar, corn, malted barley and wheat comprising the mash bill. The softer wheat lends a gentle mouthfeel to the ‘shine, and you can imagine what this might turn into if it had some time on oak.

Old Forge also makes a rum, a product that Shanton is particularly proud of. Winner of a gold medal at the 2016 SIP Awards, Silver Old Forge Rum is made from blackstrap molasses and cane sugar. “Our first batch of rum did really well at the awards,” shares Shanton. “In fact, we haven’t come away from any competition we entered without at least some hardware.” Bottled at 92 proof, this rum contributes nice fruit notes and autumn spice to cocktails.

Old Forge also sells an aged bourbon, but it is not a product that was distilled in their facility. Old Forge Reserve Single Barrel Release Tennessee Bourbon Whiskey is a purchased product, selected from a stock of 8-year old whiskey with a high rye content (30%) and then laid down for another year in oak before bottling. They are also looking at aging some of the bourbon in rum barrels and some rum in their bourbon barrels to experiment with new finishes. The result is a fine smooth sipper, but probably not the best bargain in the brown liquor market at almost $50 a bottle. Feel free to pick some up while you’re visiting the distillery, but there are more interesting products coming from Old Forge.

Like their gin, for example. Part of their Tennessee Roots line of products made primarily with local products, Old Forge’s Harvest Gin is a quite unique product. Distilled from wine made with Tennesseegrown Muscadine grapes, this spirit is run through a gin basket attached to the still to introduce some lovely botanicals to the aroma and flavors. Not as Juniper-forward as many gins, Harvest started as an experimental project. After tasting the first batch, Hanton suggested Old Forge purchase the entire output of the vineyard for this gin. The final product is barrel-aged for at least six months to create a soft herbaceous and earthy gin that offers up hints of vanilla from the oak to complement the expected piney juniper notes.

That gin basket is also an integral part of what might be the most innovative series of products offered by Old Forge, their Distiller’s Select series. The basket acts as a pressure infuser to impart interesting flavor combinations into a base 92 proof spirit that is great with just tonic water or as the foundation for inventive cocktails. Rather than just using the syrups and extracts that add flavor and color to the moonshine products, Shanton uses fresh ingredients in his Distiller’s Select Series, although some recipes do include a little but of extract to accentuate the flavors.

Shanton is probably a pretty good cook in the kitchen, because some of his flavor combinations are absolutely delicious, notably Ginger/Lemongrass, Orange/Rosemary. Cherry/Basil and Peach/Habanero. Other fun flavors include Sarsparilla made from real roots and also a blend of three different types of mint. Future releases will include sophisticated flavor combos such as Lemon/ Fennel, Cucumber/Dill and Anise.

There’s more good news coming for Old Forge as they install a new 300-gallon still which will expand both their capacity and capabilities as a distillery. Where the old still system uses four 5500 watt water heater elements to warm the mash, the new stainless steel system will be steam jacketed and will be great for both cooking and stripping runs. The old copper still will continue to be used for rectifying. Shanton is quite excited about the distillery’s future and his role there. “They let me produce what I want how I want to make it!” Considering how their product line has expanded in just two years, the owner’s faith in Shanton is well-placed.

By Chris Chamberlain 

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