I had the opportunity to sit down for a phone interview with Jessi Baker, author of the new cookbook “Shining” which features a collection of family recipes as well as the story of Ole Smoky Moonshine. Jessi and her husband Joe Baker started the now global business back in 2009 with absolutely no idea they were building what would become the most visited distillery in the country.
Forgive me for paraphrasing some of Jessi’s answers. My stenography skills are not what they should be.
Your family has a rich history in Gatlinburg and The Smoky Mountains. Now you and your husband have cemented your own legacy. What does that mean to you?
It means everything to me. I think my history in Gatlinburg is the reason I’m a well rounded and well adjusted woman. The Ole Smoky Candy Kitchen that my grandparents opened in Gatlinburg back in 1950 paved the way.
My grandmother had 3 tenets:
You have to be kind, have good manners, and hard work defines your character.
I thought Joe had a screw loose when he told me we would be making moonshine but clearly I was wrong. I think my kids have benefited from watching us the way we benefited from watching my grandmother.
How did the idea for Ole Smoky come about? You and your husband are both lawyers. Did you get burnt out?
Yeah, I would say we experienced burnout. Many lawyers would tell you that’s not a rare occurrence.
In 2009 the law changed to allow for distillation of spirits in additional counties to include Sevier County. We had a busy law practice and 3 babies. Then Joe comes in and says, “Jessi, I think I’m going to start making moonshine.”
They got off the ground in 9 months. Now we’re in 50 states and 54 countries. It’s been a wild ride. Once we opened in 2010, within the first 6 months the Today show came. It was timing. It was branding. It was all the sudden cool to be southern. We had really tapped into something, probably accidentally, that was cool. Gatlinburg was a game changer. Being in a city that gets 11-13 million visitors annually. Now we’re the most visited distillery in the country. It’s been incredible. We wanted to do nothing but justice to our area, to Gatlinburg, and to the Smoky Mountains. Branding was really important to us. People really touched onto that. With our locations we wanted to keep the musical presence. We wanted to showcase what people in Appalachia do and do well.
What inspired you to write this cookbook?
[Jessi explains that she lost a baby.] Grief is a really peculiar thing. I really needed something to pour myself into. I wanted to make something for my other children that was tangible and real that they could hand down to their grandkids. Life is full of hard things and I love to tell them, “You don’t always have to be happy. We can do hard things and we can do them together.” It’s about moving forward. I think if that hadn’t happened it would still be an idea and not finished.
There are over 65 recipes featured in “Shining”. Do you have a favorite?
I think one of my favorites is blackberry cobbler because of my kids. An unexpected favorite would be the bone in moonshine chicken breasts… and the meatloaf. That’s really for Joe. That’s his favorite and I love him. Definitely the cornbread because I’m a butter girl. I put butter on everything. Once people see how much butter goes in the cornbread… well… just be careful if you’re watching your cholesterol.
So you have the tasting rooms in Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, the new venue called “Mashville” in Music City, and now this cookbook. What’s next for Ole Smoky?
It’s hard to answer that question right now. We are in the wild days of opening our 4th location. Really what’s next is what’s happening right now with “Mashville”. I’d be lying if told you that’s all figured out. What’s next is trying to make that run as efficiently and wonderfully as our locations in Sevier County do. With the music we’ll be doing there, it’s not all bluegrass, we’ve combined with the Opry Trust and we’re doing a radio show on Sundays called “Gospel Bird Jubilee”. We’re still fine tuning and making it as awesome as it can be. The second phase has not been built yet so there’s a lot of work left to do there.
Alright, now let’s shine the spotlight on you. You’re a mother, a lawyer, a chef, an entrepreneur, and now an author. What are you going to tackle next?
I don’t know. I’ve always been good about riding the wave. What I mean by that is it’s important to take opportunities staring you in the face and see them through. The biggest gift in life is not being able to predict the future. The best stories, whether they’re stories of love, or like our moonshine business, or any story of success… the best ones come from the most insane and unpredictable things that led people down path their on. I try to be accepting of opportunities that come my way. I want to live a life that feels good to me and my family and represents who I am and where I came from. That’s the most important thing to me.
After speaking with her for just a short while, it’s no surprise that the sun shines in Florida, the moon shines in Tennessee, and Jessi Baker shines wherever she endeavors to succeed.
Her cookbook “Shining” is available for purchase now. Make sure to pick up a copy for Jessi’s book signing event on June 20th inside Ole Smoky Moonshine at The Island in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee.
As an added bonus, Jessi was gracious enough to allow me to share her recipe for Mango Habanero Salsa from “Shining” with the readers of “You, Me, & Tennessee”.
- 2 mangoes, peeled and diced
- 1 red pepper, deseeded and small diced
- 1 small red onion, small diced
- 1 habanero pepper, deseeded and small diced
- 2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh cilantro
- Juice of one lime
- 1 tablespoon Ole Smoky Mango Habanero Whiskey
- Tortilla chips, for serving
Mix all ingredients together in a bowl. Chill for 30 minutes before serving to let the flavors meld. Serve with tortilla chips, or maybe even over a block of softened cream cheese if you need to cut down the heat a bit.
Photo credit for images goes to Angie Mosier.