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Front Page - Friday, July 22, 2022

Whiskey bent and trail bound

Tennessee Whiskey Trail becomes a tourism force since launching in 2017

The foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains have long played host to distilleries, though their grand openings weren’t always accompanied by a news release.

These days, instead of being underground operators living in fear of the “Revenuers” breaking up their equipment, Tennessee’s distillers have become a cohesive group of entrepreneurs working to drive economic development and tourism across the state.

Perhaps the most visible sign of the industry’s evolution, other an ongoing, successful push beginning in 2009 to rewrite pre-Prohibition era of state laws that forbade their existence in most of the state (see sidebar) is the Tennessee Whiskey Trail, which was established in 2017 and now numbers more than 30 distillery stops across the state.

The trail’s newest location is Company Distilling, which had its grand opening in Townsend in early July. Its state roots run deep, with Jack Daniel’s former master distiller Jeff Arnett holding the same duties and title as part of the team behind the new site, which is Company’s second location since its founding in 2020.

“I had a great run at Jack Daniel’s but felt like I should take a shot at starting my own brand or I’d regret it,” Arnett says. “Even with the pandemic and now supply-chain issues, it still feels like the right thing. We have a beautiful facility in Thompson’s Station and now another in Townsend, and they are nice reflections of our brand.

“That’s one thing Jack Daniel’s does very, very well,” Arnett continues. “It’s more than a brand, it’s become a lifestyle. That draws people to it. We’re still developing that at Company, but what we hope to create is a brand that people associate with quality time spent with people they care about.”

Like many other distillers that have popped up in recent years, Company offers meeting and event space, as well as tours and other interactive events, alongside the actual distillery operations and on-site product sales. That’s how these businesses can enmesh themselves into the community as tourism and tax generators versus simply a production house manufacturing a line of spirits, Arnett says.

“What’s been fascinating to me in Townsend, even though we’re right outside the [national] park’s entrance, is that we get a lot of local support,” he says. “I’d say three out of four people coming in right now are from around the area, maybe from Knoxville, Seymour, Maryville or Oak Ridge, as opposed to an out-of-state visitor. We’re really pleased about that because we want to know our neighbors.”

That’s the kind of thing state officials want to hear, especially those charged with bringing visitors in. And if it can highlight state history and get people to shop nearby businesses while at a distillery? So much the better.

“The Tennessee Whiskey Trail drives visitors to explore the rich history, tradition and craft at nearly 30 distilleries across the state,” says Mark Ezell, commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Tourist Development. “From iconic brands like Jack Daniel’s and the immensely popular Ole Smoky Moonshine to incredible stories like Uncle Nearest in Shelbyville to Old Dominick in Memphis, the trail drives economic impact with visitors going into not just the distilleries, but also to communities to local shops, restaurants, attractions and more.

“We’re thrilled to inspire travelers to experience the culture of whiskey-making that makes Tennessee unique.”

In Chattanooga, a desire to distill turned into activism concerning the state’s old prohibition laws and, eventually, Chattanooga Whiskey, the first legal distillery within city limits for more than 100 years, says Lindsey Scott, project manager at Chattanooga Whiskey.

“Our founder, Tim Piersant, is a native who saw some breweries popping up, and it got him thinking. He created a Facebook group asking if people would drink whiskey made in Chattanooga,” Scott says. “The response was overwhelming, and so he began working with others to see what could be done about updating some of the state’s old laws around distilling.”

Once it was possible, Chattanooga Whiskey opened an experimental distillery downtown Chattanooga in 2015. It’s been producing different products in small batches ever since, and also was where the distillery’s flagship lines were created. In 2017 a larger, riverfront location was added to the business footprint, with both sites drawing steady visitor traffic.

“The experimental distillery is open to the public and has tours and tastings every day,” Scott says. “We get thousands of visitors every year because it’s a really fun place to see. And the riverfront site, which is less than a mile away, is a renovated car dealership with a former showroom that’s perfect for weddings and corporate events.

“COVID slowed a lot of things down, but we are seeing a lot of people from our local community as well as elsewhere coming back, and that’s very exciting for us.”

Nashville’s Corsair Distillery was another early entrant into the state’s new distillery pool. It was founded in 2008 and opened in downtown Bowling Green, Kentucky, to establish its brand and products while waiting for Tennessee’s laws to be updated. By 2010, Corsair was operating out of Yazoo Brewing Company’s former space in the Marathon Motor Works building, says Tyler Crowell, chief operating officer.

“We saw a growing industry that was still very traditional, with lots of bourbons and whiskeys, and so we wanted to do something different,” Crowell says. “So, we started doing single-malt whiskeys, citrusy gins and a malted rye whiskey. We also entered a lot of shows and competitions, all so we could stand out.”

The strategy worked. Corsair now operates a second, larger facility in Nashville’s Wedgewood/Houston district, and soon will bring an Ashland City production site online. By happy accident, its original Marathon home is now a major tourist destination, so in addition to small-batch production it also generates revenue through food and beverage sales, tours, tastings and facility rental.

That kind of high visibility has also been part of the business plan at PostModern Spirits, which opened in Knoxville in August 2017 and distills various product lines from its Old City location.

“We’re a fun, craft distillery focused on cocktail spirits and cocktail culture,” says Stanton Webster, one of the venture’s owners. “And we’re also highly engaged in our community. We want to be a place where people see the artistry and chemistry behind spirits happening.”

With a 6,000-square-foot site in the Jackson Terminal building, the venue can offer tastings every day, tours by appointment and leverage its patio for private events and more. Being on the Whiskey Trail is another way to boost visibility and future business goals, Webster says.

“Being a part of the state’s larger tourism community is a key ingredient to distilling becoming and remaining a successful industry in Tennessee,” he says. “It’s important to remember that 12 years ago, there was still a prohibition on us doing the jobs we’re doing now, because legally there were only two distillers in the state.

“We were embraced by Jack Daniel and George Dickel, and you can see how quickly the growth has happened since,” Webster continues. “From bigger operations to smaller distilleries in smaller counties, we are growing.

“Everyone can offer a different experience, and create their own products and flavors that are unique to their area. We’re a draw now, and I love bringing people into the state as well as all the business we get from our supportive local communities.”