With legal battles behind them and hundreds of aging barrels ready to be tapped, craft distilleries statewide are part of a growing army of whiskey businesses poised to share their liquid gold and their houses of origin.
Is it too much of a good thing or just the beginning?
The state, and primarily East and Middle Tennessee, has seen an immense increase in permitted spirits distillers and bottlers since the passage of legislation in 2009 and 2013 that allowed liquor producers to start businesses.
Since prohibition was lifted in 1939, just three distilleries had been operating in the state: Jack Daniel’s, George Dickel, and Prichard’s, and they faced strict rules and restrictions about how, where, and what they could produce.
In the early 2000s Tennessee lawmakers worked to reform the prohibition-era restrictions and remove legal obstacles for distilleries. By 2013 nearly all hurdles were cleared. The number of Tennessee distilleries that stood at three for nearly a century has grown tenfold in less than a decade. Tennessee is now home to at least 30 distilleries, according to member numbers from the Tennessee Distillers Guild.
Tim Piersant, one of the founders of Chattanooga Whiskey, was an early proponent of getting the laws changed, and he launched a grassroots effort in Hamilton County to allow distilleries to return to the city.
A “Vote Whiskey” campaign, in which he helped author both a state House and state Senate bill in 2013, proved successful.
“At one point before Prohibition, Chattanooga had 20 distilleries, then for more than 100 years it was illegal to distill spirits here,” Piersant explains. “We wanted to change that obviously, and again recognize Chattanooga’s whiskey history. We had unbelievable support.”
The sponsor of the 2009 bill, former Rep. Joe Carr of (R-Lascassas) consistently referred to the legislation as “a jobs bill,” and not a distillery bill.
He was on record as saying distilleries would create jobs and generate money for Tennessee’s agriculture industry.
Bruce Boeko, owner of Nashville Craft Distillery, which opened its doors in 2017, was intrigued by the new law. “I was not one who was waiting, but the 2009 vote unleashed pent-up demand to open new distilleries in Tennessee,” he says.
The demand led to the creation of the Distillers Guild, of which he is a member, and eventually put all members “on the map.”
For those with a sense of adventure to go with their love of distilled spirits, there is a trail map to more than two dozen distilleries across the state, from new smaller craft-style operations like Nashville Craft to the well-known legends.
The Tennessee Whiskey Trail was launched in June 2017, patterned after Kentucky’s 19-year-old Bourbon Trail. Yet, while Kentucky’s trail is a 10-stop tour, Tennessee’s is at 26 and growing.
The trail is not something to be completed quickly, but Boeko managed to roll up 1,300 miles and visit all stops over a series of weekends. Most of the distilleries are in East Tennessee and the Midstate with a few outliers in Chattanooga and Memphis, but the experience was fun and enlightening for Boeko.
“There are so many things I loved about it, even the history lessons,” Boeko says. “The trail allows you to get to know this state a little better.” For distillers, it’s a chance to find “that spark” for improving your products, he adds. “You can’t pretend you know everything.”
Blazing a trail
Getting to know the state is music to the ears of state tourism officials, and it is not surprising that the Tennessee Whiskey Trail is supported and endorsed by Tennessee departments of Agriculture, Tourism and Economic Development. Tennessee spirits surely conjure up more pleasant images for tourists than construction cranes, scooters and pedal taverns.
The Guild formed in 2014 in part to unify all the new small-batch distilleries but also to promote and market Tennessee’s new spirit-making industry, according to its director Kris Tatum, who is co-owner of Old Forge Distillery in Pigeon Forge. By 2015, state whiskey exports were valued at nearly $700 million, ranking as one of the state’s top exports.
If the Kentucky Bourbon Trail serves as its guide and has seen more than 2.5 million visitors from all 50 states and 25 countries in the last five years, according to its website, then the Guild with a 30-stop trail can draw a much larger number of visitors.
Tatum says he hopes the whiskey trail will “elevate the entire region’s tourism industry” and boost all aspects of the industry from hospitality to agriculture.
Navigating the trail starts on its website (www.tnwhiskeytrail.com) and there is no order or timetable.
The basic premise seems to be that if you are visiting the Great Smoky Mountains, stop by distilleries in Sevier or Knox counties; if you’re doing the CMAs in Nashville, swing by several places in Davidson or Williamson counties; if you’re catching the blues in Memphis or the aquarium in Chattanooga, stop at the only distillery in each city.
“I grew up in Kentucky so I’m well aware of what the trails can do and how beneficial they are to tourism and promoting your product,” comments April Weller-Cantrell on tnwhiskeytrail.com.
Weller-Cantrell is director of marketing at Leiper’s Fork Distillery in Williamson County where a 45-minute tour lets visitors view the entire whiskey-making process from a rustic cabin that’s more than a century old.
Different landscapes and landmarks are part of the trail’s charm, along with the stories and history lessons heard along the way.
The history and tradition of Tennessee whiskey will be shared with visitors who may not be aware that this state has for 200 years or more been a leader in spirits distillation– before, during, and after Prohibition.
Hundreds of thousands of people visit Jack Daniel’s Lynchburg distillery each year, but that stop was a pilgrimage unto itself. Same with Tullahoma’s George Dickel stop. Both traditional spots welcome being part of a bigger trail.
“I would love to see our tourism into Lynchburg double,” Jeff Arnett, Jack’s master distiller, recently said. He hopes the Whiskey Trail will be “a game changer for state tourism.”
History lessons, no chaser
To pair with the drink samples served up to visitors, trail followers also can get a few shots of Tennessee whiskey-making history.
The Distillers Guild says that as far as producing distilled spirits goes, Tennessee has been a national leader since before the Civil War. In what some say is fact and others say is lore, western expansion led pioneers to Tennessee who discovered another new world – a land where weather, water, and soil made it the perfect location for making whiskey. So, they unloaded the wagons and pitched their stills.
By 1900, there were several hundred registered distilleries in Tennessee. A decade later whiskey making was banned, years ahead of the 1920 U.S. Prohibition Act. Over the next 20 years the ban was lifted nationwide, but for most of the rest of the last century, state regulations severely limited whiskey production, with only Jack Daniel’s and George Dickel whiskeys being distilled and bottled legally. (Prichard’s Rum was produced as well, beginning in 1990.)
Before the 2009 law passed, distilled spirits could be produced legally in three counties; now nearly half of the state’s 95 counties are eligible for distilleries. Many businesses did not hesitate to launch, and many of the first barrels that were filled are now available for consumption. Any county where local legislation allows for retail or liquor-by-the-drink sales now allows the manufacturing and distributing of spirits.
Several legal challenges to the 2009 law were made but by 2013 the last of those fell. The Guild was formed in 2014, and the Whiskey Trail was established in 2017.
A whiskey renaissance
Still, entrepreneurs saw something larger. In short order, investors were pumping millions of dollars into distilleries. Folks who were leaving other careers embarked on ventures they had rudimentary knowledge about but were determined to succeed. Boeko was a forensic scientist, for example.
Despite the need for hefty start-up money – opening a distillery requires anywhere from $2 to $12 million, according Nashville developer Jim Massey – people were lining up to be first to launch craft distilleries. To start making whiskey, owners must buy equipment, barrels, and secure the space to keep the stuff.
Darek Bell and Andrew Webber, childhood friends who grew up in Nashville and now are owners of Corsair Distillery, were inspired to be among the first to open in their home state under the new state law. They had learned home-brewing here, but Bell eventually founded Corsair in Bowling Green.
Bell has said he felt he had a leg up on other local distillers because of his experiences launching the Bowling Green business, and Corsair did become the first craft distillery in Nashville since prohibition.
“We couldn’t wait to get started. Our mission from the beginning was to make a better bourbon, to push the boundaries,” says Piersant, who went out and got Grant McCracken as head distiller, who he calls “the best in the country.”
Jeff Pennington had the idea for his Davidson Reserve Rye Whiskey when he launched SPEAKeasy Spirits, (now Pennington Distilling Company) in 2011 but couldn’t tap it until last summer. Like many other craft distillers, Pennington made other spirits while signature whiskeys aged, including the best-selling Pickers Vodka.
Spirits such as vodka, rum, traditional moonshine, even cordials, are produced and sold in quick fashion while the darker bourbons need to age sometimes as much as six or seven years.
Nelson’s Green Brier Distillery, which was founded by Andy and Charlie Nelson, descendants of the founder, Charles Nelson, only last year unveiled the resurrected original Nelson whiskey recipe, calling it First 108 to reflect the number of years that had passed since it was last made and bottled.
Whether First 108 will be anything like the whiskey produced in 1909 is anyone’s guess. Most of the recipes being created by the new craft distilleries are very experimental.
“We are committed to trying new recipes all the time, but we like to think there’s a method to our madness,” Piersant adds.
The decision to be more traditional or more innovative is what gives this renaissance its appeal. Adding fruit flavors, spices and other options to the spirits is part of the creative spirit not seen in the larger distilleries, and in some ways, is why Jack and George folks don’t see this distillery business growth as threatening.
Jack Daniel’s is a national icon, one of the largest whiskey brands in the world. More than 12 million cases of its black label recipe are sold annually, according to the distillery’s public relations manager. People forget that Jack Daniel’s started as a small craft distillery “and Mr. Jack was a small entrepreneur himself,” the manager says.
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“Every time you lay down a barrel of whiskey, you’re pretty much writing a check and just putting it on the shelf for four to six years,” Pennington recently remarked. His operation is one of a few on the Whiskey Trail that wants to make the state’s signature Tennessee Whiskey.
Not all whiskeys made in the state can use the title of Tennessee Whiskey – there are myriad rules to follow to get there (see accompanying story in this edition) and be designated as such.
It’s a lot easier to update a moonshine recipe or create something new for many small-batch distillers, adds Boeko, whose business is not based on traditional distilleries.
“I guess you can say Nashville Craft is more Bauhaus than barn house,” he points out. “I was never going to open in an old tobacco barn and put on overalls.”
Despite the differences in business styles Boeko is pleased about one thing – how collegial the industry is. “Other businesses on the trail are not competitors in the traditional sense; we are all mutually supportive and open to input,” he acknowledges.
Tennessee spirits are available at many brick-and-mortar liquor retailers, some more widely available then others, and range in price from $20 to $45 a bottle. Most are available to sample and buy on site; still others can be purchased online.
Along with spirits, the landscapes and the histories, distilleries along the Whiskey Trail have begun marketing campaigns on many other aspects of their businesses. For example, you can have your wedding at a few spots, throw a concert for several hundred friends at another, or hold an event in a 300-seat venue with riverfront views.
Other contests and drawings are being added to traditional tours and tastings as well.
For most the sky’s the limit when it comes to making spirits, but for individual guests a drink limit surely will be enforced.