Tennessee Steps Into the Whiskey-Making Limelight
July 18, 2022 –––––– Julia Higgins
Less than a decade ago, a tour of Tennessee's whiskey distilleries would have taken you to Jack Daniel, George Dickel (now Cascade Hollow), and family-owned Prichard's, and that would have been it. Tennessee distilling remained within this small circle of three until the mid-2000s—despite the state being home to the world's biggest-selling American whiskey, Jack Daniel's, and laying claim to distilling roots dating back to 1771.
The reason for this oddity can be summed up in one word: temperance. Just prior to the Civil War, Tennessee was producing enough whiskey for the Confederate government to place a wartime ban on production in order to maintain grain supplies. In the post-war years, the temperance movement gathered steam, and by the time Prohibition was enacted in 1920, some 33 states already were enforcing their own alcohol bans. Tennessee was one of them, placing bans on consumption and production as early as 1838, but really ramping up efforts by the early 1900s. National Repeal came in 1933, but Tennessee stayed dry until 1937. Even then, distilling was allowed in just three counties: Moore, Coffee, and Lincoln. It wasn't until 2009 that the state legislature expanded legal distilling to 41 additional counties, touching off today's Tennessee whiskey renaissance.
Cascade Hollow Distilling Co. is perched upon a lush, green expanse of land in Tullahoma, little more than an hour's drive south of Nashville. Here general manager and distiller Nicole Austin is keen to honor a prolific legacy, and has been succeeding in that mission since her arrival in 2018. The Dickel name has shot to center stage during Austin's tenure, with the distillery producing a number of hotly anticipated new releases each year, and clinching the top spot on Whisky Advocate's 2019 Top 20 list with its 13 year old bottled in bond Tennessee whiskey.
New expressions have been released, like a recent collaboration with Leopold Bros. of Denver—a marriage of Leopold Bros. Three Chamber rye and the never-before-released Dickel traditional column still rye—that have offered Austin a chance to build upon the Dickel name. She has also taken Tennessee whiskey down a path even more uniquely hers with Cascade Moon, launched in 2020. “Cascade Moon is my search for something not so heavy—Dickel's an incredible brand with a ton of heritage, which is extremely exciting, but you have to be respectful of that heritage, too, which is both blessing and burden,” she says. “With Cascade Moon, I can push the boundaries and explore a little more with whiskey and what whiskey can be. What might the next 150 years of whiskey be about?”
Austin hopes that Cascade Moon will further the conversation about aging in Tennessee, and what makes Dickel's rickhouses unique, allowing for extremely slow, tempered maturation. The latest Cascade Moon expression, Edition 3, is a rye, made at MGP in 2003. Austin argues that maturation in Tennessee has made a difference in its flavor—that will very much be in the eye (or the palate) of the beholder. She also sees more rye whiskeys from Cascade Hollow in the future.
At Jack Daniel, master distiller Chris Fletcher has been busy creating new expressions.
Just 18 miles down the road from Cascade Hollow is Tennessee's star player, Jack Daniel Distillery—which is so large that 40,000-gallon fermenters are the norm, producing the formidable Old No. 7, of which some 12.3 million cases are made each year. But master distiller Chris Fletcher has also been busy lately with a host of new creations. Last year saw the introduction of Jack Daniel's 10 year old, the distillery's first age-stated bottling in more than a century, and Fletcher hints at more to come. “I'm not making any promises, but I do think it's going to be incredibly interesting to continue pushing the limit on what we think we can do with aging our whiskey here,” he says.
The 10 year old didn't just rest in its barrels for a decade; after 8 years of aging on the top floor of a rickhouse, the casks were moved to the bottom floor to slow the angel's share extraction and soften the flavors. Some of Jack's other recent releases, notably its Tennessee Tasters line, which is sold mainly at the distillery, include a variety of interesting wood-finished expressions, as well as ryes, including Barrel Reunion No.-1, finished in red wine barrels; Hickory Smoked, finished on charred hickory staves; and Barrel Proof rye.
A 30-minute drive from Lynchburg is Shelbyville and the former Sand Creek Farms—of Tennessee Walking Horse fame—which is now the home of Uncle Nearest whiskey. The 323-acre property is in the midst of a four-phase, $50 million build-out. A visitor center is up and running, surrounded by the sprawling farm's scenic pasture land and sleek, gaiting horses. While at the visitor center guests can get a crash course on the history of Tennessee whiskey, enjoy Tennessee-centric snacks, like Moon Pies and cotton candy, at the concession stand, and visit the alcohol-free speakeasy designed to educate guests on Tennessee's role in both the temperance and women's suffrage movements. Elsewhere, a barbecue restaurant, tasting room, and master blender's house make the Uncle Nearest campus a bona-fide whiskey playground.
For now, Uncle Nearest sources its whiskey—mainly from Tennessee Distilling Group in Columbia, though it does have a single still in Shelbyville for small batch production and last year, the Nearest Green Still House opened its doors, meaning production will ramp up in meaningful way. Humble Baron—an entertainment venue that's home to the world's longest bar and a restaurant is also on-site.
Set right on the Tennessee River in Chattanooga, Chattanooga Whiskey makes bourbon, not Tennessee whiskey.
Every Corner of the State
The area just south of Nashville around Jack Daniel and Cascade Hollow still represents the heart of Tennessee whiskey country, but distilleries are also popping up across the state. Chattanooga, in the southernmost tip of the state near the Georgia and Alabama border, is set along the winding Tennessee River and surrounded by forests. Chattanooga Whiskey offers up a scenic setting for cask-strength and experimental releases at its two riverfront distilleries (one is purely for experimental releases and is open for visitors, while the flagship distillery is primarily responsible for production of Chattanooga's high-malt bourbon and is closed to the public). Bourbon is the name of the game here, not Tennessee whiskey, given that the distillery eschews the Lincoln County Process.
A few hours northeast of Chattanooga is Gatlinburg, a town on the edge of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park that's home to not only Dollywood, but Sugarlands Distilling as well. Sugarlands is known for its moonshines, but the distillery also has a single whiskey in its stable: Roaming Man rye. Bottled at cask strength and aged for just over 2 years, Roaming Man is produced in finite batches that consistently sell out, and it's unique from its peers just by virtue of its mashbill—Tennessee rye is on the cusp of coming into its own.
While Sugarland Distilling in Gatlinburg is known for its moonshines, the distillery also makes Roaming Man rye, a cask strength whiskey aged for just over two years that consistently sells out.
And there's more in the works: Company Distilling is the brainchild of Jeff Arnett, who worked at Jack Daniel for some 20 years before departing in 2020. Together with Heath Clark of H Clark Distillery, Company is on track to have three separate distilleries over the next few years, and the venture has already debuted its first whiskey—a wheated bourbon aged in maplewood barrels, currently exclusive to Tennessee. “One thing that separates Tennessee whiskey from bourbon is the use of maplewood, and that's typically introduced as a charcoal, but we had the chance to honor the use of maplewood by just using it for finishing purposes, not on the front end but at the back end [of production],” says Arnett. This means Company's wheated bourbon doesn't qualify as a Tennessee whiskey, but that's a boundary many of the state's distillers are willing to stretch as they strive to push the limits of creativity.
All the way at the very opposite corner of the state, blues and barbecue hub Memphis has a burgeoning distillery scene of its own, bolstered by Old Dominick Distillery downtown and B.R. Distilling Co. at the city's northern edge. When it comes to whiskey, Old Dominick is known for its Huling Station range, which includes a wheat whiskey, a blend of straight whiskeys, and a straight bourbon, all of which are made in accordance with an old family recipe—the distillery's namesake, Domenico Canale, was bottling whiskey under his name in the late 1800s. Though these whiskeys are sourced from MGP, a Tennessee whiskey made at the distillery and aged for 4 years is set to debut in the fall, pending ongoing supply chain issues. B.R., meanwhile, lays claim to being the oldest licensed distillery in the city (though that's not saying too much, given that they opened in 2013), and offers up straight bourbon and rye whiskeys, both made and aged on-site.
Another of Tennessee's new whiskey stars is Sweetens Cove, which debuted in 2020 and is owned by retired NFL star Peyton Manning and tennis legend Andy Roddick, among other partners. It's named for a picturesque local golf course along the Tennessee River about 30 miles west of Chattanooga. While Sweetens Cove's bourbon is currently sourced and confined to small batch and limited editions, its master blender Marianne Eaves sees some leeway. “Bourbon is the strongest initial play out of the gate for Tennessee, because people are desiring unique bourbons, but there's so much growth in rye, and I see major opportunity there,” she says. “Tennessee rye is still pretty new, and I'll be looking to see if the state comes together and creates its own standards for rye,” says Eaves.