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VOL. 46 | NO. 29 | Friday, July 22, 2022

Whiskey bent and trail bound

Tennessee Whiskey Trail becomes a tourism force since launching in 2017

By Joe Morris

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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.

What is Tennessee Whiskey?

• A spirit manufactured in Tennessee
• Filtered through maple charcoal prior to aging, also known as the Lincoln County Process
• Made from grain that consists of at least 51% corn
• Distilled to no more than 160 proof (80% alcohol by volume)
• Aged in new charred oak barrels
• Placed in the barrel at no more than 125 proof (62.5% a.b.v.)
• Bottled at not less than 80 proof (40% a.b.v.)

Whiskey, including Tennessee whiskey, is any distilled spirit made from a fermented mash made of grain. The four primary steps to make whiskey are mashing, fermenting, distilling and aging. Each distiller uses grain combinations chosen by that distillery to produce a specific type of whiskey. Other common grains in Tennessee whiskey are barley, rye and/or wheat.

Source: Tennessee Distillers Guild, Tennessee Whiskey Trail

“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.

Company Distilling beverage manager Cory Minzyk mixes a concoction in the distillery’s tasting room and production building in Townsend during the grand opening.

-- Photo By Michael Patrick |The Ledger

“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.”

Whiskey Dates To Remember

Tennessee was a leading producer of distilled spirits even before the Civil War. In fact, Tennessee made so much whiskey the then-Confederate government of Tennessee outlawed whiskey production to field and supply the army. This was the nation’s first act of prohibition.

• In 1908, Tennessee had hundreds of registered distilleries across the state.
• Tennessee again led the way in prohibition in 1910, banning the production of whiskey 10 years ahead of the federal ban in 1920.
• Tennessee would remain dry until 1939, six years after the national ban was lifted.
• The Jack Daniel Distillery reopened soon after the law allowed it in 1940, and George Dickel returned in the 1950s.
• In the mid-1990s, Pritchard’s distillery became Tennessee’s first craft distillery.
• From 1937 to 2009, only three Tennessee counties (Moore, Coffee and Lincoln) allowed distilling.
• In 2009, legislation was passed to allow distilling in 41 additional counties. Later legislation boosted that number to at least 75 counties having the option to opt-in for distilling within their borders.

Source: Tennessee Whiskey Trail; Tennessee Distillers Guild

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.

Whiskey Trail By The Numbers

• Length: 830 miles
• Annual visits: 2 million
• Counties crossed: 36
• Barrels produced: 250 million
• Number of distilleries: 30+
• Employees: 500-plus since 2009
• Investment: $290 million (since 2009)
• Inventory value: $5 billion

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.

Company Distilling founder and president Kris Tatum, left, and master distiller Jeff Arnett pose in the tasting room and production building in Townsend during grand opening weekend.

-- Photo By Michael Patrick |The Ledger

“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.”

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