You’ll never truly understand America until you understand its drinking habits.
Alcohol has been part of American history almost from the beginning, from the Whiskey Rebellion through Prohibition and Repeal. And although wine and beer are plenty popular here, it’s our history of distilling unique spirits that adds so much character to the American bar.
Visiting distilleries around the country is a lively way to learn about our national culture and history. Here are five such sites that welcome groups for tours and tastings.
Ole Smoky Moonshine
Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, Tennessee
Throughout Prohibition, many speakeasy operators had homemade liquor smuggled into their establishments. They might have got some of their goods from the family behind Ole Smoky Moonshine.
“We have a history of hydrating the North,” said Johnny Baker, the distillery’s group tour coordinator. For his family, illegal booze was a matter of survival. “Like my Grandpa put it, everybody had a garden and grew corn, and some of them sold corn, and my decision is, do I make 25 to 30 cents per bushel, or do I make 10, 15, 20 dollars for a liquid bushel?”
Today, not only is the moonshine legal, but Ole Smoky Moonshine is America’s most visited distillery, right at the foot of America’s most visited National Park, Great Smoky Mountains. Both of the distillery’s locations, in Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, accommodate groups. Gatlinburg can handle two buses simultaneously, and the smaller Pigeon Forge facility can manage one busload at a time.
As groups walk though the tour, “they can see, smell, hear, watch the distillers while they work,” Baker said. Their product is genuine moonshine, which master distiller Justin King described as “unaged corn whiskey — we can bring grain in and go to a jar in five days. It’s really easy, good-to-drink corn liquor.”
Tours end in the tasting room, where visitors can put King’s claim to the test as they sip any or all of the 13 varieties. If you prefer to eat your alcohol, you can nibble on moonshine-soaked cherries. Or you can just settle back in a rocking chair and relax to the live bluegrass music. With dining, shopping and entertainment, visits to the rough-hewn Moonshine Holler capture the essence of time gone by.
Bacardi Rum Factory
San Juan, Puerto Rico
For many people, fun in the Caribbean sun isn’t complete without a rum drink in hand. On Puerto Rican beaches, the rum is local.
“Eight-five percent of all the Bacardi rum that’s consumed in the entire world is made here in Puerto Rico,” said William Ramos, senior brand manager at the Bacardi Rum Factory in San Juan. The company has been giving tours since 1962, and Ramos said the goal for guests is “to live an experience, to use the whole five senses.”
Multiple tour options give visitors different ways to get that experience. In the first tour, guests go through the visitor center’s re-creation of the company’s first distillery, through a nosing booth and to a re-creation of Bacardi’s first bar in Cuba, where a bartender explains Bacardi’s classic cocktails.
The mixology course teaches guests how to make classics such as the daiquiri, the mojito and the Cuba libre. That tour also takes visitors inside the distillery building, where they see fermentation tanks and distillation columns.
A third tour offers tastings of four Bacardi products, including the “mother brand,” Superior, Oakheart and two very old aged rums, Reserva Limitada and Bacardi 8. Take this tour if you want to understand why Bacardi is the world’s most awarded rum.
“Now we’ve just added another experience where the tourist could actually bottle a special blended rum that was made specifically for the Bacardi Visitor Center; you can’t get it anywhere else in the world,” Ramos said. The visitors fill their bottles from a cask before sealing it with wax.
Georgina, a restaurant that recently opened at the factory, offers rum-pairing dinners for groups.
Tours run multiple times per day; groups of more than 20 people should make arrangements in advance so the whole group can go together.