By Richard Thomas
Tennessee is not just the Volunteer State, but also America’s second whiskey state. Kentucky’s sister state was one of the survivors of Prohibition and the 1970s whiskey slump, making Jack Daniels, George Dickel and the Lincoln County Process (LCP) fixtures in the story of modern American whiskey.
Yet the very fact that for decades it was just the two whiskey distilleries in Tennessee—Daniels and Dickel—left plenty of room in the sun when the craft whiskey movement came calling.There are many craft distilleries across the border in Kentucky, but these are often overshadowed by the big boys. While Tennessee hosts the biggest name in American whiskey, Jack Daniels, it’s still not as crowded with whiskey as the Bluegrass.
This open field and what it meant was best symbolized in the 1990s, when both big whiskey states got their first new distilleries in decades. In Kentucky, that came in the form of Woodford Reserve, a historic property renovated into a medium-sized producer by drinks heavyweight Brown-Forman. A year later, Tennessee saw the opening of the much more modest Prichard’s Distillery, in many ways one of the forerunners of today’s craft whiskey movement.
Once called the “Athens of the South” and now more often “Nash-vegas,” Nashville is more than just the seat of country music. The city also hosts its own sizable craft whiskey industry. Combine this with the larger region of Middle Tennessee, and you have the bulk of the state’s micro-distillery activity.
Beechtree Distillery: This outfit located on the south side of Nashville already has a high proof white whiskey, made using the LCP. In most instances, the LCP (filtration in sugar maple charcoal) is a key issue for aged whiskeys in Tennessee, separating Tennessee-made bourbons from proper or future Tennessee Whiskeys.
Collier And McKeel: One item of misinformation about Collier and McKeel is that their products are actually made at Corsair Distillery, perhaps because one of Corsair’s facilities is located less than a mile away. They are, in fact, making their own whiskey, and have been for years in fact, to a mashbill of 70% corn, 15% rye and 15% malt and using the LCP. They have a white whiskey, a cinnamon flavored whiskey, and an aged Tennessee Whiskey out.
Corsair Distillery: Corsair may have been founded across the border in Bowling Green, Kentucky, but their heart is down in Nashville. Two of the company’s three plants, and the bigger two at that, are found in the city. Indeed, Corsair has reportedly reorganized production, and the center of gravity for its whiskey has shifted firmly into Tennessee. The original Kentucky distillery is now focused on making clear spirits (and keep in mind Corsair makes plenty of gin and some rum), while aged whiskeys and hopped whiskeys are now the province of the Nashville facilities.
H. Clark Distillery: Heath Clark’s distillery is located near Spring Hill, where John Bell Hood notoriously missed his chance to destroy a whole Yankee army on the march. Clark has a white whiskey out, with rye and bourbon (i.e. no LCP) aging in the warehouse.
Nelson’s Green Brier: One staple of the craft distilling movement is the family comeback, where a lineage that left the whiskey-making business (usually because of Prohibition) gets back into it. The aforementioned Prichard’s is one such story, and the Nelson family’s revival of Green Brier Distillery is another. The new Green Brier is in Nashville, rather than its original site, but the family is the same. Right now they have an in-house white whiskey and a sourced bourbon and sherry-finished bourbon.
Prichard’s Distillery: This grandfather among Tennessee micro-distilleries had already been in the business for almost 20 years when the next small whiskey-maker came along. This is how they got an exemption in the 2013 Tennessee Whiskey Law, allowing them to call their main whiskey a Tennessee Whiskey and not a bourbon, despite not using the LCP. They also have an American malt, a rye, a white whiskey, a chocolate-flavored bourbon and a double barrel bourbon.
Tenn South Distillery: This Lynnville distillery has out Clayton James Tennessee Whiskey and Tenn South Moonshine, in both pure and flavored versions.
Elsewhere In Tennessee
Chattanooga Whiskey Company: After a length campaign to amend local laws and some internal controversies, Chattanooga Whiskey Company finally got up and running last year. It’s standard 1816 Reserve American Whiskey is a 6 1/2 year old whiskey sourced from MGP, as is the cask strength version, but the stillhouse is running and in-house products are on the horizon.
Knox Whiskey Works: This small Knoxville distillery currently has a white whiskey out.
Old Forge Distillery: Old Forge is an oddball in the respect that it’s selling bourbon—real bourbon whiskey—in the midst of Tennessee’s legal moonshining center of the Gatlinburg resort region. Old Forge is in Pigeon Forge, a community stuffed with attractions, hotels and strip malls, found just down the road from Gatlinburg proper. They have a sourced, eight year old bourbon and an in-house range of moonshine.
All you need to do is go for a drive on Tennessee’s highways to see the state is in the midst of not just a micro-distillery boom, but a legal moonshining boom as well. Indeed, Tennessee is arguably the hot spot in America’s emerging legal moonshine sector, and most of that activity is centered on the resort area of Gatlinburg, near Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Most, but not all, as legal moonshiners are sprinkled all around the state, beyond the heavy cluster found down in the southeast.
Hook and Ladder: These moonshine-makers with the fire company theme differ from most of Tennessee’s white lightning outfits in that they are found in the northeast part of the state, in Kingsport, rather than down by Gatlinburg. They have a range of standard proof, high proof and flavored moonshines.
Old Glory Distilling Co.: This distillery is found in Clarksville, on the banks of the Cumberland and northwest of Nashville, making it a moonshine-maker far, far away from southeastern Tennessee. They have an aged whisky in the works as well, due out next year.
Ole Smokey: The undisputed giant of Tennessee moonshine is this Gatlinburg-based distillery (they have a Pigeon Forge facility too). Their products are available nationwide and they are big enough to buy up other Gatlingburg area whiskey-makers. They have a plethora of moonshines available—standard proof, high proof, flavored—as well as a line of flavored whiskeys. Thanks to the acquisition of the Davy Crockett Distillery and their stock, the company should also have their own Tennessee Whiskey out eventually as well.
Popcorn Sutton: This legal moonshine outfit is named for America’s most infamous moonshiner, thanks to his appearances in a pair of documentaries that preceded the reality TV series Moonshiners. Sutton’s widow is involved in the company, and former George Dickel Master Distiller John Lunn runs the stillhouse. The distillery is in Newport, near, if not actually in, the Gatlinburg resort area.
Short Mountain Distillery: If Old Glory is west of Nashville, Short Mountain is due east of it, found out beyond the Middle Tennessee city of Murfreesboro, in Canon County. They make a full range of moonshine.
Southern Pride Distillery: This distillery is not just one of the legal ‘shiners not found in East Tennessee, but also a neighbor of Jack Daniels and actually in the county seat of Lincoln County. That puts it between Lynchburg and Alabama. Despite being found in the namesake of Tennessee Whiskey’s signature process, they are making a range of moonshines.
Sugarlands Distilling Company: Located in the heart of the Gatlinburg strip, Sugarlands has a line of moonshines and white whiskeys out, with aged whiskeys to come.
Tennessee Hills Distillery: Located deep in the mountains of East Tennessee, this micro-distillery is making a corn whiskey and a lemon-flavored corn whiskey.
Tennessee Legend: Located in Sevierville, part of the Gatlinburg resort region, this distillery is on the eastern end of the Smoky Mountains’ buzzing hive of moonshine.
Thunder Road: Named for the famous Robert Mitchum bootlegging movie, this outfit naturally makes a range of moonshine, plus corn whiskeys and a white rye. The location, Kodak, is due east of Knoxville.