Just 10 years ago, Jessi Baker’s career wouldn’t have been a (legal) possibility. As a former lawyer, that irony isn’t lost. Today, she and her husband are proud moonshiners. They are also the owners and creators of Ole Smoky Moonshine and the many business ventures that have come along behind it. She is a mother, a cookbook author, a former lawyer, a moonshiner, an entrepreneur and a visionary with exciting dreams for the future of their company. Meet our newest FACE of Nashville, Jessi Baker!
You have such a varied, fascinating work background! Tell us about the path that led you to moonshine distilling.
I never thought I’d be a moonshiner. I grew up in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, a special small town where genuine hospitality and tourism are fostered by a community of smart local entrepreneurs — two of whom happen to be my grandparents. They started the Ole Smoky Candy Kitchen in 1950, and it’s since grown to be a must-visit destination. I grew up watching them realize the American Dream. My grandmother was at the candy shop every day, leading by example, and impacting lives through the jobs she offered people in our community. She was so well-respected, everyone called her Chief. What a role model … she’s just the epitome of grace and class and work ethic. I dreamed, as a child, of taking over the candy kitchen one day, but fate had other plans.
After leaving Gatlinburg for college, Joe (my high school sweetheart and now husband) and I both returned to Tennessee for law school. We both became attorneys and worked as prosecutors. A few years into our careers, Joe switched to criminal defense and, once we began having children, I moved into a stay-at-home mom role to focus on our growing family.
I’ll never forget the morning Joe came into the room where I was nursing our youngest baby and told me that we were going to make moonshine. I thought he had lost his mind. But like any good, stubborn hillbilly, he persisted as I warmed to the idea, and nine months later Ole Smoky opened for business.
Why moonshine? Where did the idea originate?
Being from Appalachia, moonshine was a part of life. The idea of making it wasn’t all that original since our family roots in moonshine go back 200+ years. However in 2009, the law changed, and it was suddenly legal to make, distill and sell the infamous bootleggers’ hooch. Joe and I, along with friends and family, got to work, and since opening our doors in 2010, our Gatlinburg Ole Smoky location is the most visited distillery in the world. Last year, across all our locations, we welcomed a record 4.1 million visitors. To put that into perspective, that is more than twice as many guests as all of Scotland’s distilleries combined. What started as a few flavors of moonshine created over my kitchen stove, has now grown to 20 creatively flavored moonshines sold in all 50 states and in 53 countries. I had my hesitations in the early days, but now I’m proud to call myself a moonshiner.
Tell us a little bit about moonshine — how it’s made and how it differentiates from other spirits.
The roots of moonshine can be traced back to our Scots-Irish ancestors, who first settled in the Smoky Mountains during the latter half of the 1700s. In the early 1900s, when the government developed laws to regulate the making of spirits, our ancestors took exception to these outsiders getting involved in their affairs. Mountain folk have always had a healthy mistrust of government, and this way of life is memorialized in one of Tennessee’s state songs: “Once two strangers climbed Ole Rocky Top lookin’ for a moonshine still. Strangers ain’t come down from Rocky Top. Reckon they never will.”
Moonshine is actually not all that different from whiskey. It’s simply unaged, meaning it doesn’t spend any time in a barrel or cask. Since it was unregulated for so long, moonshine can be made from just about anything, but most traditionally, and in the case of Ole Smoky, moonshine is made from corn.
And now, you’ve expanded far beyond the original dream! There’s a cookbook, there’s a distillery downtown … what has that growth been like?
Thank you! Growth has been great for us but it’s, of course, also been hard. The reality is that we are a true family business – it’s not just me and Joe, we have our three kids who are in this crazy business with us. And while growth is beautiful, it also stretches us in new ways that are uncomfortable. Each new opportunity has also often meant moving our family and brings with it a new community to build — new schools, etc. It’s been a blessing to have these opportunities, but it’s also important to recognize the stress it has, at times, put on our family.
Nashville has been a dream for us for a while, so it’s very exciting to see that dream fully realized with the opening of 6th and Peabody. It is the first joint venture of our two companies, Ole Smoky Moonshine and Yee-Haw Brewing. It features an on-site distillery, soon-to-be-finished brewery, a stage with live music just about every night of the week, an outdoor courtyard with plenty of seating and outdoor games, multiple bars, two huge (21-by-11-foot) televisions, lots of moonshine and several Yee Haw beers on tap. We’re excited to have some great food options there. We teamed up with some friends from Asheville to open their popular taco spot White Duck Taco within our venue. And we’ve partnered with the family behind the beloved OG of the Nashville hot chicken scene, Prince’s Hot Chicken, to have their food truck in our courtyard daily.
The cookbook, titled Shining: Ole Smoky Moonshine Family Cookbook, is especially important to me personally. I’ve always loved to cook for my family, and when Joe and I started Ole Smoky Moonshine years ago, my initial job was developing the moonshine flavors and our moonshine food items. This book aims to take that concept a step further. I found ways to use our moonshine and whiskey to enhance flavors in everything from chili to blackberry cobbler. This book was also inspired by my desire to create something tangible for my three kids to show them that you’re never too old to pursue a passion in a new way.
What’s the biggest lesson you have learned, or the most difficult challenge you’ve faced, as a businesswoman?
As a mother, wife, daughter, sister, author and businesswoman, I think it’s really difficult to recognize that yes, while we as women can do it all, that doesn’t mean that we should … or that we even can do everything at once. The mental load of caring for a family, organizing our schedule, filtering social media for my teenagers – it’s a lot. All of this comes in tandem with other things that are happening in life. So my biggest lesson is simply to take things as they come, day by day, and realize that everything has a season.
What’s your ideal day in Nashville?
My ideal day starts with a coffee and matcha latte from Dose. I’d then head for a hike at my favorite trail in Percy Warner. After some fresh air, I’d head down to 6th and Peabody to check out what’s happening at Yee-Haw Brewing and Ole Smoky. Our Yee Haw Dunkel and Cerveza beers are my favorites, so I’m sure I’d have at least one of those! I love eating at Epice in 12South and walking around that area. I also cook all the time, so after a trip to the market, I’d make some yummy stuffed squash and settle the family in for a fun movie night!
What is your best piece of advice?
Kindness matters. Manners are extremely important, and hard work defines your character.
Aside from faith, family and friends, what are three things you couldn’t live without?
A good book, wine and yoga
Thanks so much for sharing with us, Jessi! And thank you so much to Style House Salon and Jamie Wright Images for these beautiful, fun photos. You can visit 6th & Peabody at 423 6th Ave S, Nashville, TN 37203, Monday through Friday from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. Cheers!
Dr. David Yi is a self-described life-long learner with an unwavering desire to be the best at everything he does. And at TriStar Southern Hills Medical Center, he’s committed to making a difference in the lives of his patients. Meet this dedicated and passionate FACE of TriStar! Click HERE.