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Legal moonshine: East Tennessee Distillery now making 100-proof white whiskey

Madison Mathews • Oct 22, 2012 at 8:59 AM

PINEY FLATS — While illegal moonshine once flowed throughout the “hollers” of Northeast Tennessee and its surrounding areas, the potent beverage commonly associated with the Volunteer State is now available on liquor store shelves, and one of the latest ’shines is made right here in the Tri-Cities.

East Tennessee Distillery, located in the former Paty Lumber Co. facility on Piney Flats Road, began rolling out Roberson’s Tennessee Mellomoon a little more than a week ago.

The 100-proof Tennessee-made white whiskey is the first in a line of commercial moonshine made by Sullivan East High School graduates Byron Reece, Neil Roberson and Gary Melvin, all of whom founded East Tennessee Distillery in August 2011.

When the liquor laws changed in Tennessee in 2009, allowing the production of whiskey and other distilled spirits, Reece, Roberson and Melvin began looking into the liquor business as a possible new entrepreneurial endeavor.

“It was an uphill challenge all the way, but luckily the law changed and allowed us to do it and now here we are,” Roberson said.

The moonshine-making business was a new area for each of the founders: Reece came from a marketing and design background and had worked in real estate for a number of years; Melvin is the owner of Continental Alarm Systems, a local electronic security business; and Roberson is a former Navy technician who later worked for both Nuclear Fuel Services and Eastman Chemical Co.

So why start producing moonshine?

Melvin said it didn’t take a whole lot of thought since East Tennessee is known for its high-quality ’shine.

“When people in the United States think of moonshine, they invariably think of East Tennessee first,” he said.

It was Roberson who took his lab experience and love of home-brewing and decided to test out his own moonshine recipe, which is why his name is printed on each bottle of Tennessee Mellomoon.

Roberson took some recipes that dated back to the 1700s and added his own spin to it before settling on the recipe for ’shine that’s now on the market.

“There’s a million different recipes out there, so you give and take from some of them, but it really is trial by error to get the right mix of ingredients and how we actually distill it,” he said. “Everybody around here has got a recipe, and really they all involve the same type of fermentables: corn, rye, barley, sugar, corn syrup.”

Before the first batch hit store shelves this month, Reece, Roberson and Melvin had to go through all the proper legal channels in order to get their distillery off the ground.

It wasn’t a cheap line of work to get into, either. A lot of upfront investment was required before they were ever given the green light.

“It really took an act of faith because the way the laws and everything are set up, we had to have all the equipment in place and ready to go before we could apply for the permit at the federal level,” Roberson said.

“If anyone thinks they can take on this kind of business on a shoestring budget, they might want to rethink it,” Reece added.

When everything was signed off, the trio began production at the end of June.

“We were able to get our license, and it was the quickest anyone had ever gotten it from application to approval,” Reece said. “Since we’ve been on the shelf, we’ve really been positively affirmed that we know what we’re doing cause it’s been mounting a lot of positive feedback.”

East Tennessee Distillery is the ninth distillery in the state. About half of those distilleries produce moonshine.

The leader of the legal moonshine market is Ole Smoky Moonshine, located in the nearby Smoky Mountains of Gatlinburg.

Owned by Sevierville attorney Joe Baker — who also owns the CC&O Depot, the future home of Tupelo Honey Cafe in Johnson City — Ole Smoky was the first legal moonshine distillery in the state.

The owners of East Tennessee Distillery look at Ole Smoky as one of their biggest competitors.

And competition just makes them work harder.

“Ole Smoky has a little bit of a head start on us. They’ve been around for two, almost three years now. They have a heck of a product and it’s marketed very well. We believe we’ve got a good product that can compete and the others that are coming in, it’s all good in a way. It gives people a choice on the shelves,” Reece said.

While the operation is relatively new, the proprietors of East Tennessee Distillery are already looking at the future of their moonshine business.

Tennessee Mellomoon, which retails for $26.99 per bottle, is the distillery’s only product right now.

Roberson has already designed recipes for flavored ’shines, such as caramel, strawberry, peach, apple pie, blackberry, pomegranate, Irish cream, butterscotch, banana and cheesecake, and hopes to have them on the shelves by the first of the year.

The one-still operation is small but has potential to grow and add jobs to the area.

“Our facility should show that we’re pretty big thinkers. We’ve got 22 acres and roughly about 30,000 square feet here, so we’re anticipating our product doing well,” Reece said.

The community has been very supportive of the business and all three founders of East Tennessee Distillery hope to put Piney Flats and the Tri-Cities on the map with their version of Tennessee’s famed white whiskey.

“They already know that the good stuff comes from here, and now they’re going to know exactly where it comes from,” Reece said.

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