Distillery bill OK'd; Gatlinburg getting third one
Assuming Gov. Bill Haslam signs it, a law to allow more distilleries in Gatlinburg paves the way for developer Ned Vickers and his partners to start building what will become Sugarlands Distilling Co., a direct competitor to established Ole Smoky.
"We feel good about it," Vickers said. "We're excited to have the opportunity to compete. We know Ole Smoky will be tough competitors."
It took legislation to make Sugarlands a reality. The Gatlinburg City Commission was enforcing an ordinance that required at least 1,000 feet between distilleries, which would have stopped Vickers' plans since his business would be closer than that to Ole Smoky Distillery. He and his partners, along with officials in Chattanooga, pushed for a bill to allow distilleries in those two cities. The law allows distilleries with state and federal permits to open despite any municipal rules and regulations.
Joe Baker, co-owner of Ole Smoky, opposed it, but in the end the measure passed and awaits Haslam's signature.
Vickers is majority owner of the planned distillery. His partners are David McMahan of Nashville, a lobbyist and former Maryville resident; and Doug Swaggerty, an owner of the family sausage business in Kodak. One of Vickers' partners in his Pigeon Forge businesses, including Waldens Landing shopping center, is Jay Ogle, who is running for a seat on the Pigeon Forge City Commission. Ogle did not want to be partner in the distillery, Vickers said.
If Sugarlands opens, it will give downtown Gatlinburg three moonshine distilleries — two already operated by the Ole Smoky partners — and there are rumors a fourth may be in the works. Asked if he fears that could change the culture and dynamic of downtown Gatlinburg, Vickers said it would only spotlight a key feature of the area's history.
"I disagree we're changing Gatlinburg," he said. "I would point in the direction of Ole Smoky. What they have done is brought a lot of attention to the history and heritage in the area. They've done a really great job promoting local and bluegrass music. This type of thing allows for exposure to the craft and music and everything that made the area. They talk about bringing crafts back to downtown. That's what this type of attraction will be able to do."
Sugarlands Distillery will be built on property that now houses a street-level parking lot, where the former Midtown Lodge was. The distillery will take up a corner of that property that is undeveloped. The plan, Vickers said, is to manufacture moonshine and whiskey, using a different recipe from what Ole Smoky uses. He and his partners have already started the process of getting state and federal permits, and they have all the equipment ready to move into the future building.
Vickers hope Sugarlands will open in late fall.
He said he expects no difficulties from the city, and he's probably right. City Manager Cindy Ogle said this week that the law takes away most of the authority the city might have had to regulate distilleries, including the number of them that could be opened and the distance between them. The city still would have a say in the design of such structures. The Sugarlands Distillery Co. building already has been approved by the city.
The bill passed this week expands the original 2009 law and includes Hamilton County, where Chattanooga Whiskey Co. hopes to open a distillery to manufacture its own product. The bill also allows distilleries to sell product on Sundays; package stores cannot.