Old Forge Distillery Celebrates History with a Focus on the Future

In the spring of 2013, a huge change to liquor laws in Tennessee happened, allowing once prohibited distilleries across the state to finally open. Long before then, though, distillers and those interested in the craft had dreams of producing spirits, mainly moonshine. The masterminds behind Old Forge Distillery, located in the heart of Pigeon Forge, Tenn., were some of those lobbying for the new legislation.

Prior to 2013, only a handful of distilleries existed in Tennessee, and many of those were located in a few isolated clusters. When the legislation passed, though, provisions governing where distilleries may be located were loosened, opening the floodgates to moonshine enthusiasts. Distilleries could now open in areas with premier tourist attractions, where liquor could be sold in both restaurants and liquor stores, and where distilling had historically taken place (though distilling sites have to be listed with the National Register of Historic Places and have to possess a record of distilling). Pigeon Forge, a popular vacation destination in East Tennessee, was one city that became eligible for a distillery under the 2013 law. When the Old Forge guys approached Bone McAllester Norton PLLC attorney Robert D. Pinson, who focuses his Alcoholic Beverage Law practice on laws for distilleries, this law was still being lobbied. They knew they would have to wait to open, which they chose to do. What they did not do, though, was sit on their laurels.

“We knew there was a wave in this industry that was heating up, and we wanted to jump on it,” said Kris Tatum, general manager of Old Forge Distillery.

Without any formal knowledge or experience in the spirits business, they did know one thing: They wanted their moonshine to be different. Old Forge’s 1830 Original is entirely handmade because they want you to taste the various grain flavors – corn, wheat and/or rye.  Many of their flavors are Grain Neutral Spirits (GNS), liquor distilled up to 95 percent alcohol by volume to ensure maximum flavorlessness of grain. Old Forge wants you to taste the specific flavor on the label and not the grain used to make it.

“Since we really did not know much, we turned to other distilleries in Tennessee, who helped us tremendously before we opened. We have become a brotherhood. There is just great camaraderie among us,” Tatum said. They also visited with those in the industry in cities like Chicago and San Juan, Puerto Rico.

The Distilled Spirits Epicenter in Louisville, Ky., became their second home. There, attendees can collaborate with experts on everything from creating to prototyping and distilling spirits of all kinds. It was there they learned the science behind what they wanted to make.

After the legislation passed in 2013, they went straight to work, constructing Old Forge in a historic barn that housed a farm supply store more than 100 years ago. Old Forge is named after the iron forge that brought about the Pigeon Forge community. Every aspect of their spirits is done by hand, including grains grown right on their land.

“We are very open about our process, and we have a personable aspect about our distillery,” Tatum said. “When visitors come here, they get a little show. They see the entire process from start to finish—mash being put into a still, the product running through bottling spouts and the labels being put on the bottles. We have fun doing what we do, and I think that shows when folks come to see us.”

That personable aspect is one of the differentiating factors between Old Forge and other distilleries. Not only does Head Distiller Keener Shanton, a hometown guy turned-distiller-from-firefighter, craft the spirits while answering questions and explaining what he does while he’s working, he also teams with local bartenders to find out the kinds of products they want. . .and then he heads back to the distillery to make those very things. Everyone at Old Forge is also committed to educating their consumers. They want people to know what they are drinking and why it tastes the way it does.

Old Forge Distillery opened June 27, 2014. Since then, more than a million visitors have walked through their doors. They currently offer nine varieties of moonshine, including 1830 Original, made from pure mountain spring water and grains ground at the Old Mill next door to the distillery, as well as six flavored moonshines inspired by the recipes from The Old Mill Kitchens. Tennessee Roots is a line of innovative 80-proof, small-batch spirits they are working on releasing next. Old Forge’s line can be found in liquor stores in Knoxville and Chattanooga now. Tatum and his team are working to get distribution in middle and eastern Kentucky, as well as in Nashville, soon.

“I love what I do,” Tatum said. “We are experiencing history in the distilling business. From the law that passed that allowed us to open, to what’s on the horizon, we are on the cusp of something big with what we can do with Tennessee whiskey. It’s an exciting time.”