Stan Voit: As moonshine thrives, Baker scales back law

Jan. 03, 2013 @ 04:43 PM

Can a 37-year-old guy really walk away from a thriving law practice? Well, maybe not walk away, but certainly he can scale it back several notches if there is something else that demands his attention.

Joe Baker is cutting back on his law practice in Sevierville over the next several days. His two associates will strike out on their own. It’s not that he has soured on the law. It’s just that his other interests have grown so fast and so, well, prosperous, that he feels compelled to devote more time to them.

Three years ago, not long after state law was changed to allow distilleries to operate in counties where they had been banned, Baker and two friends decided to invest in a moonshine distillery. They hoped to capitalize on the continued fascination with this once underground industry in much of the rural South.

It was a risk. Baker, Cory Cottongim and Tony Breeden sought approval to open Ole Smoky Moonshine in Gatlinburg. They had trouble getting financing for such a unique and unconventional investment. Baker raised money by borrowing against the property value of his law office next to the courthouse and taking out a personal line of credit.

The gamble has paid off in a big way. Ole Smoky Distillery has expanded from its original space in downtown Gatlinburg. A sister store has opened nearby. Baker says the product they make in Gatlinburg is now shipped to 46 states. In fact, more of the moonshine is sold outside of Tennessee than inside the state.

Some 20 people spend the day bottling the product in an assembly-line operation hidden from the public at the distillery site. Baker says the businesses now employ around 100 people.

And that leads us back to the law office. Baker’s plan is to continue with an office in his building, and retain his paralegal. But he’ll only take 10-20 cases a year.

In the meantime Steve Hawkins and Travis McCarter will continue to practice law on their own, not as Baker’s associates. Andrew Farmer, whose law office is behind Baker’s but shares the same building, will expand his practice into much of Baker’s current space. Farmer was elected to the Tennessee House in 2012, but despite his absence for much of each year’s legislative session, he is adding to his law practice and gratefully agreed to take over much of Baker’s building.

“I never imagined this,” Baker said of his reduced law practice. “I love the law. I really enjoy practicing law. I have enjoyed helping people over the years. I take a lot of pride in the practice of law. But I also like that my other businesses have allowed me to scale back so I can enjoy both. The law can be a stressful lifestyle.”

With three children ages 8 and under, Baker and his wife Virginia — who also works in the law firm — want more time to spend with the kids. Running a law practice and a thriving business just got to be too much. Choices had to be made.

Baker continues to hope Sevierville and Pigeon Forge one day approve package stores so Ole Smoky Moonshine can be sold in those two cities as well. It already can be found in Sam’s Club and Costco stores around the country. And construction never ceases on the business, which continues to expand in Gatlinburg.

Baker had an unsuccessful run for district attorney general in 2006. He won’t rule out running for that office or any other office one day. For now, though, he sees providing jobs and making sure the business stays strong as bigger priorities than seeking public office, “not that you ever close the door on it.”

While that door stays open, at least a crack, the doors to the moonshine business stay wide open. And filled with spirit.

— Stan Voit is editor of The Mountain Press. His column appears each Sunday. He can be reached at 428-0748, ext. 217, or e-mail to svoit@themountainpress.com.