This Tennessee Rye Is a Smash Hit

A distillery known for moonshine makes a rye that really rocks

Photo: Johnny Autry | Food Styling by Charlotte Autry

Roaming Man Tennessee Straight Rye Whiskey, made by Sugarlands Distilling Co. in the tourist mecca of Gatlinburg, is a diamond amid rhinestones. The distillery attracts more than a million visitors each year—chiefly tourists drawn by its moonshine variations, which include unexpected flavors such as peanut butter and jelly, blueberry muffin, and maple bacon. All are sold in mason-jar-style containers.

And then there’s the rye—beguilingly rich and complex, freighted with toffee and toasted grain notes, and sophisticated beyond its years.

“We love the moonshine, and it’s a lot of fun,” says Ned Vickers, president of Sugarlands. “But we wanted to do something more serious.”

And this is serious whiskey. The rye and corn behind it are entirely grown in Tennessee, and Sugarlands uses an old-school pot still, unlike most producers, which prefer efficient column stills. With its primitive technology, a pot still can yield dense flavors with pleasingly rough edges and burrs.

The company has also taken a unique path by employing a sort of radical openness about its entire process. “Honestly, I think many others are hiding things,” Vickers says. “We wanted to be fully transparent with everything we do with our whiskey.” Each bottle is shipped with a chart that looks like something from an advanced chemistry textbook, depicting the levels of several compounds that translate to flavors. And the label itself provides a short dissertation about that particular bottle’s production, spelling out not only the grains used in making it, but also the number and size of the barrels selected in each batch. The aging statement reports to the month (thirty-five, minimum). You’ll even learn how much evaporated from the barrel while it matured (28 percent, on average). Plans call for even more detailed information on each bottle to be published on the web. “This is really for the whiskey nerds,” Vickers admits.

Roaming Man is currently sold only in half-sized bottles, priced around $50. And that’s assuming you can find it, which you assuredly can’t at your local store. Each of the seven releases so far has been gripped by a sort of Pappy Van Winkle mania, with most bottles selling out within hours. (The last release was sixteen hundred bottles.) Your best bet is to join Sugarlands’ VIP club mailing list, which gives subscribers a head start on future releases. And stay alert: A Tennessee whiskey with more of a bourbon profile is in the pipeline. The rye is currently distributed in just a few states but may be ordered online from Bounty Hunter Rare Wine and Spirits.

If barrel proof and other distilling arcana don’t captivate you, there’s another way of analyzing this whiskey: Put it in a glass, and sip. Or make a cocktail. Because Roaming Man is bottled at stout cask strength, it stands up well in many classic drinks. This includes one of our favorites—the venerable and sturdy whiskey smash, a nineteenth-century concoction that basically marries the best of the mint julep with the best of the whiskey sour. 

How to Make a Whiskey Smash

This cross between a mint julep and a whiskey sour just might be your new favorite cocktail


    • 4 mint sprigs

    • ¼ lemon cut into 3 or 4 pieces

    • ¾ oz. simple syrup (1:1 sugar and water, heated until dissolved)

    • 2 oz. rye whiskey


  1. Save the top of one mint sprig for garnish. Place 10 to 12 mint leaves in cocktail shaker with lemon and muddle for 1 minute. Add simple syrup and rye. Fill with ice and shake for 20 to 30 seconds. Strain into old-fashioned glass filled with fresh ice. Garnish with mint sprig and serve. (Some pieces of mint will pass through a coil strainer; if desired, use a fine-mesh strainer to remove them.)