A Tradition of Sustainability: From Stone Grinding to Grits and Whiskey

The Cycle of Grains at The Old Mill

The cycle of grains that was a vital part of Appalachian life for generations continues today at The Old Mill. We still grind our flour, cornmeal, and grits the old-fashioned way: between massive millstones that are powered by the rushing current of the Little Pigeon River, just as the mill’s founders did in the 1830s.
Our cornmeal is then used a variety of ways. We use it to make the cornbread muffins that we serve in our restaurant, we package it and sell it for customers to take home, and we even incorporate it into our spirits made at the Old Forge Distillery. Their usage even continues from the distillery as the grain leftovers (or “spent mash”) from the distillation process are then utilized in making breads sold across our campus. It’s an ancient, sustainable cycle that is gaining renewed popularity today.

Corn: The Grain that Sustains

If you’ve visited us, you know our mill sits between the Old Mill Restaurant and the General Store. On most mornings, 50-pound bags of white and yellow corn arrive, along with other grains, to The Old Mill from farms in the Midwest and Southern region. Most of the corn we grind is similar to the corn used by the area’s first settlers: white dent corn that Native Americans called “maize” or what farmers today describe as “gourd seed” corn, or what the Native Americans called “maize”.
Here in our small town within sight of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the cycle of grains begins. Corn is ground between two massive 2,000-pound stones, only the second set of stones used in this mill since its beginning, turn by the power of our river. Their peaceful motion must have seemed life-sustaining in those early days.
Interestingly, these stones have enough “grit” to grind dry corn between them, creating true, stone-ground grits and cornmeal with more texture and flavor than the mass-produced products found in most supermarkets.

Sold in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park

A great deal of our white cornmeal produced at The Old Mill is shipped just up the road to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, where it is sold by the bag. According to our Head Miller Chuck Childers, the National Park is the largest customer, outside of our own restaurants and distillery, for our stone-ground whole wheat flour. Chuck knows this place backwards and forwards: he’s been milling with us for more than 10 years. “We’re honored to have our products sold in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which proudly celebrates Appalachian food, culture, and history,” says Chuck.

Stone Grinding Preserves Flavor

The Old Mill’s renowned cornmeal—whether white or yellow—is rich in flavor and a joy for bakers to utilize in any number of dishes, especially classics like Southern cornbread or fried hoe cakes.
Head Miller Chuck Childers is in charge of operating the mill daily, and also preserving it. He remains fascinated by the history of the equipment he works with every day. “I was reading an 1870s diary of this mill, and one time the water in the river was so cold, so freezing, they couldn’t even grind.” Thus, was the way of grist mills across America; however, when Spring arrived and the river thawed, grinding would resume.
Luckily these days, we’re able to grind corn all year long. Regional tastes and preferences factor into how much white or yellow corn we put out. For example, Childers says that in the North, yellow cornmeal is preferred due to its extra corn flavor. Southerners, on the other hand, appreciate the creaminess of white cornmeal for their baking.
And just like the settlers did in the early days of Pigeon Forge, grains that don’t get made into food make their way to the still and ultimately, to the glass.

From Grain to Glass: A Shot of History

Distilling spirits from crops such as corn, wheat, rye, and barley is an American tradition that can be traced back to Colonial times. Transforming grain into alcohol was an ideal way to store it in an era when pests, mold, and rot constantly put supplies of corn at risk. In fact, George Washington himself was one of America’s most successful distillers.
Early Scots-Irish settlers brought their distilling technology to this country. Many put down roots in mountainous areas, including our neck of the woods in Appalachia, and began distilling alcohol from the corn they grew.

Old World Methods Meet New World Corn

This history of distilling in America is really the story of Old-World knowledge meeting New World ingredients,” says Head Distiller Keener Shanton of the Old Forge Distillery.
“Barley, oats and rye were key ingredients in Scotch and Irish whiskies. Using corn as a primary ingredient brought us moonshine, bourbon and Tennessee Whiskey.”
Today, Tennessee is the nation’s leading producer of whiskey and other spirits. At the Old Forge Distillery, we carry on Appalachia’s historic distilling tradition, and we strive to produce the highest quality products by using wholesome ingredients and environmentally friendly, sustainable practices. We believe the use of fresh grains preserves the unique flavor characteristics, and those flavors enhance the overall taste of our products.

It’s All About the Mash 

Before you can distill whiskey, you must first make a mash- a dense “soup” made with various grains, with active yeast added to trigger fermentation. Different grains produce different characteristics in the final spirit. Distillers know that corn creates a sweetness; rye a spiciness; wheat a mellow grain smoothness; and barley a roasted cereal flavor.
Recipes for spirits are known as “mash bills” and detail the types and proportions of grains needed to produce specific spirits. A mash bill for moonshine, for instance, is usually 100 percent corn, while a mash bill for bourbon requires a minimum of 51 percent corn, typically rounded out with rye, barley, and in some cases, wheat.

Fermentation and then Distillation

At the Old Forge Distillery, mashes for our distilled spirits are created in about a day, then allowed to ferment for four days. The fermented mash, known as “distiller’s beer,” is loaded into a pot still, where it is heated to the point of generating vapor. This creates a high-alcohol liquid that serves as the basis for the final spirit before it is aged for flavor. The entire distillation process typically takes us about 12 hours.
Once we’ve distilled a mash, ten percent of it is then retained and used in a new mash, called a sour mash (this process is similar to making sourdough bread). In addition to ensuring a consistent, pH-balanced mash ideal for fermentation, sour mash also imparts unique flavors into the final product.
After we make our spirit, whatever leftover mash, or “spent” grain as it is called, is donated to local farmers for cattle feed or we take it across the street to our bakery. Our chefs can then bake bread, buns, and gourmet dog treats with it.

From Spent Grains to Hamburger Buns

The bakers call the distiller and ask what spent mash is on hand. It might be a bourbon mash or moonshine. It usually is a mixture of corn, oats, barley and rye, and they get 30 gallons of it at a time.
The mash is strained, spread out in a thin layer on sheet pans and baked at a low temperature to dry it out. They run it through a food processor to grind it into a spent grain flour for baking.
Pottery House Cafe bakers use the spent grain flour to make delicious flatbreads and hamburger buns in addition to the many loaf breads using Old Mill flours. Breads and baked goods have been made with spent grains for centuries, and we’re proud to carry on this sustainable tradition here at The Old Mill.

How the Old Mill Uses Spent Grains

  • That flour goes into the bun that holds the Old Forge Burger, slathered in bacon jam spiked with Old Forge’s coffee moonshine  and served at the Pottery House Cafe.
  • Or it is folded into the dough for our pizza-like flatbread, served with black-eyed pea hummus.
  • Or it is added to dog treats, called Pooch’s Hooch, sold at the Candy Kitchen and Old Forge Distillery. Named for the old-fashioned nickname for moonshine, those treats contain mash, cornmeal, oats, and whole wheat flour.

Grains of Truth

Of course, continuing the cycle of grains isn’t imperative for our survival like it was for our ancestors, but it’s a tradition we enjoy continuing. We understand that many of the keys to a sustainable future lie in the past. We look back to be inspired and to create authentic products that preserve the methods and flavors of those that came before us. And it is through this fascinating process that we learn something new every day.

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