Ole Smoky – Just Good Ole Boys

What could be more redolent of whiskey heritage than the moonshiners of East Tennessee – down in a holler with a hardwood fire and length of copper wire? OK, OK, perhaps I’ve been listening to too many Country songs. Because what could also be more redolent of 21st century product and marketing innovation than a company that has joined the Inc 5000 list of fastest growing private companies in the US? Tradition and cutting edge in one mason jar, Ole Smoky is a brand that matches tradition with experiment, making it one of the most interesting and dynamic outfits that we’ve spoken to.

Ownby Whisky

I met two ‘shiners from Old Smoky, Will Ensign, in Gatlinburg Tennessee and Stephanie Warner in San Diego via the wonders of digital technology, and asked them why this company has seen such dramatic growth:

‘Great product.’ Said Will. ‘Great marketing.’ Said Stephanie.

Both are correct – but that’s just the tip of the pot-still. They also have a great story. When Tennessee legalised the production of moonshine after a long and lively not-so-legal history, Ole Smoky was the first company to set up a distillery in Gatlinburg. It’s a town right on the edge of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park – the most visited Park in the land that invented the National Park. Moonshine is unaged whisky – lacking the colours that ageing picks up from the casks. It’s a white, clear liquor that can be admired for its purity and unique taste, or it can be transformed with flavours and colours. 

Will takes up the tale: ‘We were driven along initially by the huge volume of visitors to the National Park. We started out by making sure tourists got the authentic taste of the area and we’ve grown from there. After ten years development, we sell in fifty states and over twenty markets worldwide, but the cornerstone of our trade remains on-site sales. ‘We now have four distilleries with a visitor experience, The Holler and The Barrelhouse in Gatlinburg, The Barn in Pigeon Forge and 6th and Peabody in Nashville –  our most recent opening,  a joint venture with Yee Haw brewery.’ 

Ole Smoky and Yee Haw. At this point I’m feeling so Southern that I might break into a Hank William’s number, but luckily Will has more to say on the visitor experience, and Ole Smoky’s legendary flavoured moonshine. 

‘We focus on tastings at the distilleries – each visitor can sample up to seven flavours. It  is the perfect way to promote the product. In Nashville – where we are at the heart of down-town, just off Broadway – we have a wider catering offer with lots of food options, but guests can try our products there too. ‘We see five million visitors a year. It makes us the most visited distillery in the world.’

Will lets that sink in for a second. In the world. More than Jack Daniels. And way more than the home of whisky. Will continues: ‘Across all the distilleries in Scotland there are around two million visitors a year.’ Now at this point I feel I should mention that the heritage of whiskey distilling in the Appalachian Mountains owes much to the Scottish and Irish settlers who first brought their skills here in the eighteenth century, but I say nothing, for this is a phenomenal marketing story.

Will also notes that the development of a hugely popular range of flavoured whiskies is partly due to the opportunities that come from having face-to-face contact with customers while they sample your product: ‘The sheer volume of people tasting our products has allowed us to experiment and try out different flavour across out moonshine and flavoured whiskey ranges.’

Stephanie takes up another strand in the company’s marketing nous: their ability to play to different regional tastes. As we Europeans are often guilty of forgetting – the US is a very big place. ‘We have twenty-five moonshine flavours and seventeen whiskey flavours,’ she says. ‘Each one is strong and distinctive enough to stand on its own, either straight or on the rocks. But they are also a mixologists dream, giving a rich base for cocktails.‘In the South, in our home territory, we have a sweet tooth. So, cocktails are often based on our Peaches or Apple Pie Moonshine. ‘Out here, where I’m located in Southern California, the taste is for something with a bit more edge. I’d recommend a Margarita Moonshine with soda water and lime. Our range is so wide that it covers all tastes.’

The marketing extends to the packaging. The moonshine range is packaged in distinctive (and very traditional) mason jars. But the labelling and the natural colouring of the flavours give the products a luminous glow which makes them almost irresistible on a back-lit bar shelf. Personally, I have my eye on the Root Beer Whiskey. The company recently released James Ownby Reserve Tennessee Straight Bourbon, a premium whiskey named after the great-grandfather of James Baker, Ole Smoky’s founder.  James Ownby has a mash of 79% corn, 13% rye and 8% barley and has been aged for five years. It has all the sweetness of the corn but with a spicy overtone from the rye. It is currently on a limited release of two hundred barrels.

 ‘Flavoured whiskies are often the entry point for consumers who then want to go on to try the un-touched product,’ says Will. ‘James Ownby gives us a whiskey that they can move on to. It’s very much a sipping whiskey – mountain mellow. One for drinking on the back porch as you watch the sun go down behind the Great Smoky Mountains.’ I’m almost reaching for my guitar again. Appropriately – as there is live music every day at the Gatlinburg distilleries. The company is wildly innovative. From Mint Chocolate Chip Cream Whiskey to Hot & Spicey Moonshine Pickles, from canned cocktails to whiskey candles.  ‘It’s a fun place to work,’ says Will. ‘We’re never frightened to experiment. It’s my great regret that all the employees have had to work on their own for so long over the last couple of years. I’ve missed our regular get togethers to taste  new recipes – always a highlight.’ 

It is little wonder the company has grown in such a spectacular way. There is no doubt about the heritage – those five million visitors are there for the smell of the mash and the traditional tang of the woodsmoke. But Ole Smoky’s ability to listen to customers, innovate, take risks and deliver a brilliant range of high-quality drinks has taken them to a level of success they richly deserve.  They’re modest in respect of established brands: ‘Jack Daniels? They’ve been around a  bit longer than us!’ says Bill. But if I was Jack I’d be looking over my shoulder. 

Now, where’s my hat? My boots?

Visit the Ole Smoky Website