John Cochran, former CEO of Pabst Brewing Company and Aquahydrate, tells BeverageDaily.com that ‘moonshine’ is a broad term for a family of products distilled in the South for the last 200 years, and illegally made for a section of that time by the light of the moon.
But Ole Smoky Tennessee Moonshine has been distilled legally at The Holler, America’s most-visited brewery in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, for the last three years using traditional recipes, and is now sold in over 48 US states, with global interest growing.
“The industry, during and post-prohibition, grew up in those states around moonshining out in the countryside using homemade stills, and this cottage industry still exists in and around Gatlinburg where we make moonshine legally now,” Cochran explains.
Traditionally speaking, he adds, moonshine has been made as a precursor for either Tennessee Whiskey or Bourbon, both of which are made predominantly with corn as their grain bill, or at least 50% corn if you want to market your spirits using these names.
‘Un-aged child of two American products’
But whereas those products are aged for years in barrels, Cochran describes moonshine as “the un-aged child of those two American products, basically an un-aged corn whiskey that varies anywhere between 60% to 100% corn on the grain bill”.
The first year of sales “famously well”, Cochran adds, with Ole smoky (led by founder Joe Baker) selling circa. 8000 cases from its bottle shop in Gatlinburg.
“As the business has grown, the bottle shop has grown dramatically, since there’s so much tourist footfall through Gatlinburg. This year we’ll probably sell 30,000 cases just at the bottle shop, while the wholesale business is also growing dramatically,” Cochran says.
The entire spirits industry taking share from beer and wine, he adds, with brown- and traditional American ‘craft spirits’ popular and resurgent, with whiskey and bourbon growing strongly, and moonshine a new, emergent category riding the macro-trend.
Millennial consumers are not as attracted to high volume spirits and “some of the plain Jane stuff that their uncles and fathers drank for years”, Cochran insists, because more complex flavors and interesting brands are now available.
Challenging consumer expectations
Discussing Hawaiian demand for Pineapple Moonshine, and tweaks to improve Ole Smoky’s Lemon Drop flavor, before rolling it out beyond Tennessee, Cochran explains: “We have a constant desire to do fun things, but also things that are scalable, that we can then produce and ship around the world.
“Our two core traditional products, the White Lightnin’ and the Original, which vary slightly in their taste profile, are not what people really expect, which is probably a very harsh, difficult to drink spirit,” he adds.
“Both of these products are 100 proof. So they’re definitely strong versus a traditional whiskey or vodka at 80.
“But because people aren’t used to drinking as much corn-based spirits, they find that there’s a slight sweetness and smoothness to the finish of both products that make them a great substitute for vodka, whiskey and in some cases even tequila,” Cochran explains.
Ole Smoky sells 12-14 flavored Moonshine varieties at its bottle shop and Cochran says its four most popular products sold nationwide (Blackberry, Peach, Apple Pie and Cherries) and Cochran are a “spectacular substitute” for flavored vodkas and anything flavored.
“If you like Peach Vodka, then Peach Moonshine is just as good or better and is really taking off with men and women just because of the taste profile,” he says, while insisting that his brand will not fall foul of what he dubs the ‘marshmallow cotton candy fad’ with only limited, niche appeal.
Business has a ‘huge runway’ ahead of it
Ole Smoky also plans to launch a product targeting the more traditional whiskey and bourbon devotees, called Charred (Moonshine aged in barrels, but for much less time than whiskeys or bourbons) this Fall, and Cochran insists that distilling Moonshine also makes sound business sense.
Rather than “having juice sitting there is barrels not making you any money” (as per 3-7 years for whiskey), he says that one of the great things about lightly aged spirits is that “you don’t have to sit and wait for something to sell”.
Cochran says: “Some people in the industry might look down their noses, but the consumer by and large doesn’t know the difference, if the product tastes great, and does the job, then the consumer doesn’t care how long you’ve had to put it in barrels!”
And given the brand’s success to date, would Ole Smoky’s owners consider selling-up if a major spirits brand owner took an interest in the business?
“Like all good owners, if at some point the business gets big enough and attractive enough that one of the big portfolios would be interested in acquiring the company…we would have to consider that,” Cochran says.
“But this business is already successful, has a huge runway right ahead of it. And if no suitor ever shows up, no-one’s ever going to be worried, which is probably why it will be attractive to someone.”