It’s hard to remember a time when every corner of Tennessee didn’t have a distillery to call its own. As recently as eight years ago, in fact, Jack Daniel and George Dickel, were two of only three manufacturers allowed to legally operate beneath onerous, post-Prohibition era restrictions on the production of alcohol. Voter referendums were required in each county on the question of whether a distillery could manufacture distilled spirits; a high barrier of entry that deterred just about everyone from small-batch production.
In 2009, that all changed. What began as a grassroots effort of a few distillers and a handful of lawyers ended up on the desk of State Senator Bill Ketron, who helped usher various versions of a final compromise bill through the legislative chambers for a signature by Gov. Phil Bredesen on June 25, 2009.
“Senate Bill 1955 lifted the manufacture referendum requirement in counties that already voted in the affirmative to allow liquor by the drink and retail package sales. If you were ok with drinking, you were ok with making,” Heath Clark, also a lawyer, explained to me. “This more lenient approach meant 70 percent of the population of Tennessee would live in counties eligible to host distilleries, but it also preserved choice by not requiring dry counties to host distilleries.”
Then, the boom started: Tennessee went from three distilleries to more than 30 in a handful of years. In 2014, Billy Kaufmann, owner of Short Mountain Distillery, quietly assembled distillers old and new to form the Tennessee Distillers Guild as a way to responsibly advocate for the industry.
Tennessee’s heritage has long been rooted in its distillery culture. There is just no denying that the land itself seems to lend a helping hand in the production of what the Scots-Irish call the “water of life,” with robust soil for the growing of grains used in the fermented mash beer that makes up the base of most liquor and a strong undercurrent of pure, limestone-filtered water flowing through the bedrock of the state in easily accessible farmland, springs and rivers. In many ways, with the global demand for high quality spirits surging to all time highs, the Volunteer State was in a perfect position to capitalize on its history and make a move into the market. Which it did, big league-style.
Introducing the Tennessee Whiskey Trail
The Tennessee Distillers Guild officially debuted with more than 20 members in 2014 and quickly organized a collective to link the participating members along an officially sanctioned trail to promote the Made in Tennessee state tourism brand. The Tennessee Whiskey Trail rolled out this past summer and is already seeing explosive growth and interest among whiskey connoisseurs, tourists and the media. While many of the distillers are creating alternative products instead of whiskey—such as rum, gin and moonshine—the members are all united in the common purpose of using ancient fermentation and brewing techniques to tease out high-proof products.
“This Trail puts an international spotlight on Tennessee and its whiskey culture,” said Kris Tatum, president of the Tennessee Distillers Guild and manager of Old Forge Distillery. “We hope to see people come from all over the world to get a taste of this once-in-a-lifetime Tennessee whiskey experience.”
To travel the trail in its entirety, you’ll need to allot a good two weeks as it spans 25 stops and 600 miles, many on winding roads through the twisting highlands and plateaus of Middle and East Tennessee, home of the Great Smoky Mountains. We’re doing the trail at a bit of a slower pace over the course of six weeks but will be condensing the final product into three, easily digestible chunks that should take less than four days each on a tour that could include Civil War experiences, the local food scene and some of the greatest musicians to ever hit the stage like Cash, Presley and Parton.
The Tennessee Whiskey Trail is a highly coveted prize for booze connoisseurs, and only three people have completed it in its entirety as of publication. There are so many variants on the magic of fermentation found in the hills here, and it’s an absolutely fascinating journey to see up close and personal what these folks are producing in their labs. We’re doing it right: visiting every stop, going on a tour, watching the production process, taking the time to talk to the brains behind the stills. Southerners have a demonstrably different way of doing things, but the desire to be authentic, generous and individual links them all.
How the Tennessee Whiskey Trail Works
SVV and I are currently a third of the way through the trail—are you following along with us via social media? if not, you can do so right here—and so far have checked off eight. Many of the destinations are small operations with minimal staff while others are full-blown, multi-million dollar affairs; each one has its distinct character. You might meet the guy (or gal) that actually makes the liquor or a seasonal hire that is an expert in all of the offerings. In all cases, there has to be an educational requirement to comply with the still quirky Tennessee laws governing legal operations. Prepare for at least an hour on-site at each location.
Some of the manufacturers serve drinks made with their products while many others simply provide thimble-sized samples (albeit upward of 20 in a go). Please drink responsibly and have a designated driver if you’re planning on exploring the entire menu of options in a condensed fashion. We can tell you firsthand that several of these elixirs could be used to power a small rocket ship while some of the flavored moonshine versions are barely 40 proof, or about as strong as an aperitif. A large majority of facilities are open and serve alcohol seven days a week, a rarity in the South, while some of the smaller (or newer) operations only open their doors to the public from Thursday through Sunday, so plan ahead and do your research.
All of the distilleries will have a couple essential items for the start of any Tennessee tour: a printed map guide and passport book. Technically, you can collect stamps in the passport without sampling the product but what’s the fun in that? The TN Whiskey Trail is providing swag for anyone that officially completes the tour and files the appropriate request form. Our personal goal is to be within the first 10 people to complete the entire trail. Race you to the finish line? #braggingrights
In addition to the physical passport, the Distillers Guild created a free app available for both iOS and Android devices that allows users to read more about the history of each area as they go, as well as check in, take notes and earn stamps at distilleries via a digital passport. It’s a very well-done piece of software and worth the install, if only that it geo-locates your position on the trail and automatically pops up at the establishment for check-in.
Join in On the Fun!
In November, East Tennessee’s premier whiskey festival Grains & Grits will return for its second year in Townsend. This one-day event features every single distillery in the guild and a whole lot of locally sourced food; it also marks the official launch of the East Tennessee side of the trail. What does that mean? Food, fun, music, and lots of whiskey and spirits. In fact, you’ll find the following distilleries present:
- Old Dominick Distillery
- Corsair Distillery
- George Dickel
- Nelson’s Green Brier Distillery
- H. Clark Distillery
- Jack Daniel’s Distillery
- Jug Creek Distillery
- Leiper’s Fork Distillery
- Nashville Craft
- Old Glory Distilling Co.
- Short Mountain Distillery
- Southern Pride Distillery
- Pennington Distilling Co.
- Tenn South Distillery
- Bootlegger’s Distillery
- Chattanooga Whiskey
- Cocke County Moonshine Distillery
- Doc Collier Moonshine
- Knox Whiskey Works
- Old Forge Distillery
- Ole Smoky
- post modern spirits
- Sugarlands Distilling Company
- Tennessee Legend Distillery
- Thunder Road Distillery
Even better? We’ll actually be attending Grains & Grits this year, and we’re inviting all of you to join us. Or rather, we’re giving away three sets of tickets in hopes that you’ll head to the Smokies on Nov. 4 and toast to a perfect fall weekend in the most visited national park in the United States.
Want to come for free? All you have to do to enter is tell us either a) why you’d LOVE to join us in Townsend for Grains & Grits or b) share the above distillery you’re most eager to try. We’ll pick two winners from blog entries, each of whom will receive a pair of tickets. For a third chance to win a pair, watch my Instagram as I’ll be running a separate giveaway there this week.
Giveaway runs through midnight EST on Sunday, Oct. 15. Good luck!
This post is part of a collaboration with the Tennessee Whiskey Trail.