As the setting sun casts shades of pink and orange across the colorful fall foliage of the Smoky Mountains, white tents dot an open field at the Townsend Visitors Center as the annual Grains & Grits Festival ramps up for an evening of Southern spirits and gourmet grub.
Every autumn, the festival returns to the small mountain town of Townsend, Tennessee, where attendees discover some of the region’s legendary distillers and blenders while also partaking in delectable food from area chefs.
Now in its fifth year, the 2020 event will take place Nov. 7, offering an experience unlike any other. The distinguished festival continues to bring whiskey connoisseurs and distillers from across Tennessee together to celebrate the culture that surrounds whiskey, spirits and distilling. The festival also provides guests with an exclusive sampling event, which offers something for everyone — two-wheeled enthusiasts included.
For motorcyclists, the Grains & Grits Festival offers a prime opportunity to plan a riding trip to the breathtaking Tennessee mountains, chock-full of exciting roads, while experiencing whiskey from more than 30 different distillers including recognizable names like Jack Daniels, George Dickel, Sugarlands and Ole Smoky. After all, Townsend is home to some of the country’s best riding — all while the fall foliage hits its peak with vibrant oranges, golds and reds.
While staying in the area for the Grains & Grits Festival, ample fall leaf-looking can be had along the area’s twisty roads. Foothills Parkway, running from Sevierville and dead-ending on U.S. 129, just miles from the start of the famous Dragon with 318 curves in 11 miles, is not to miss. As the elevation climbs, riders will experience wide, breathtaking, panoramic views of the Smoky Mountains. The parkway offers many pull-offs to stop and enjoy these views.
Once reaching the U.S. 129 intersection, riders can choose to turn left and head to The Dragon. Much twistier than Foothills Parkway, The Dragon serves up a challenge with its technical corners, elevation and varying camber. During the fall, the overlook provides a perfect stop to take a break for photos or just to take in the amazing views of the mountains, lake and Calderwood Dam.
Another great ride from the Townsend area, The Sinks in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, proves one of the most picturesque spots along Little River Road. This 12-mile stretch was formed where a beautiful mountain river makes an S-turn creating natural pools outlined on both sides by large river boulders. The crystal clear water, natural pools and waterfall make for an excellent ride.
For those looking for a slow, peaceful ride to enjoy scenery and wildlife, Cades Cove offers an 11-mile loop winding through the National Park that’s dotted with historic buildings. The picturesque ride includes views of mountain peaks and the lush valley. Riders should keep an eye out for white tail deer, coyote, elk, fox and black bears.
While enjoying Cades Cove, riders will get a taste of the deep, historic roots of Tennessee whiskey. More than 200 years ago, early settlers in Smokies began distilling operations. Amongst the old cabins, visitors will see the early remains of a community with legendary connections to the moonshine trade. In the 1800s, although remote, Cades Cove provided the resources needed for settlers to survive. As moonshining grew throughout the region, it provided additional income to families and stimulated the economy. This came to a halt, however, during the prohibition of the early 1900s. This forced locals to choose between ceasing operations or becoming outlaws.
Today, changes in the Tennessee state law have made it legal to produce moonshine and whiskey. It now proves to be a thriving industry and culture. The Tennessee Whiskey Trail was founded three years ago and now includes 25 distilleries with more than 2 million annual visitors. It’s these distilleries that have their spirits on display for sampling at the Grains & Grits Festival, hosted by the Tennessee Distillers Guild and Smoky Mountain Tourism Development Authority.
While whiskey still serves as the primary focus of the Festival, riders hungry after a full day of riding are in luck — this year, Grains & Grits is ramping up the culinary aspect of the event with a new addition: the Ring of Fire. Five chefs will encircle a large fire pit where a whole pig, lamb, chickens and sausages will be roasted and served. Each chef will be paired with a distiller and will incorporate the distillery’s spirits into their dish. In addition to the Ring of Fire, about 12 top chefs from across the region will also offer samplings from their menu.
“The Ring of Fire brings something new and different to this year’s Grains & Grits event,” said Charcutier Michael Sullivan of American Butcher, a hand-crafted charcuterie and fresh sausage brand featuring heritage bred pork and locally sourced ingredients. Sullivan, known to friends and colleagues as the ‘Reverend of Fat,’ is heading up the culinary aspect of the event. “It’s a unique way for attendees to be satiated while enjoying their spirit samples, but it’s also a great opportunity for chefs and distilleries to collaborate. We’re also really thrilled to have chefs joining us from not just the local area but from Nashville and Columbia and even cities outside the state like Atlanta.”
With new additions like the Ring of Fire being added each year, the festival attendance has continued to grow and now reaches 1,000 in attendance. For the 2020 event, the health and safety of attendees is at the forefront including potentially limiting ticket sales and adhering to social distancing protocol. Tents will be spaced out and masks and hand sanitizer will be available.
“We’re excited to be able to host the much-anticipated 2020 Grains & Grits Festival,” said Blount Partnership Director of Tourism Kim Mitchell. “The festival will return with the robust whiskey tastings and culinary offerings that attendees are accustomed to, but we are also dedicated to ensuring everyone’s health and safety during the event and will have proper measures in place.”
With the peace of mind of safety, motorcyclists will enjoy imbibing in the wide variety of spirits and the chance to meet many of the renowned distillers in person, who all enthusiastically share their fervor for distilling.
“The event is a great opportunity for our Tennessee distilleries to engage with whiskey enthusiasts from all over about the products they share a passion for,” said Chris Fletcher, assistant master distiller at Jack Daniel’s.
For motorcyclists, whether a foodie, whiskey lover or history buff, the Grains & Grits Festival offers the perfect fall excursion to complement fall riding adventures in the Smokies. As the autumn days become shorter, even if you can’t find any sunshine in your day you can always find a little moonshine in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee.
To learn more, visit grainsandgrits.com