It’s not easy going head to head with Jack Daniel’s and George Dickel. But that’s essentially what any product that calls itself Tennessee whiskey has to do, no matter how different the process, the batch size, the target audience, or the ratio of “done by hand” to “running on automatic.” The final stop on this year’s Thirsty South tour of the Tennessee whiskey trail was the newest distillery in the state (at least for the time being – there’s at least one more on the way next year), little Collier and McKeel. Collier and McKeel introduced their first products this year, and their flagship is a Tennessee whiskey. They also have a white dog, a cinnamon whiskey, and a vodka, but let’s focus on that Tennessee whiskey for now. Collier and McKeel is situated next to Corsair Artisan in Nashville’s Marathon Motor Works building, their startup home. They use a 570 gallon copper pot still made by Vendome, and just about everything (down to a thumbprint on each bottle) is done by hand. Given the small batch nature of their production, Collier and McKeel has been experimenting with the optimal barrel size and aging time to deliver the profile they’re looking for – a throwback to Tennessee whiskey of old. The barrels thus far have been tiny compared to what the big boys down in Lynchburg and Tullahoma are using, starting with 5 gallons and moving on up to 15 gallons. The smaller barrels provide a greater degree of interaction between the oak and the whiskey, given the greater ratio of barrel surface to whiskey volume. Now, as for being a “Tennessee whiskey,” Collier and McKeel does use sugar maple charcoal mellowing, just like the big boys. And they make their own charcoal, too. However, Collier and McKeel’s approach is a bit different, as they pump the new make whiskey up slowly through the charcoal, a few times, rather than using a gravity-driven drip process. The mash bill is a mix of corn, barley and rye, on the order of 70/15/15. And they use limestone filtered water, straight from the “family farm on Big Richland Creek,” making for a nice story of earth-to-bottle (not unlike the stories told by Jack Daniel’s and George Dickel, by the way). Collier and McKeel’s whiskey is available in Tennessee for now, but they hope to expand distribution in 2012, including Atlanta. If you happen upon a bottle, be sure to check it out and contrast it to the more commonly found Tennessee whiskeys. This little distillery certainly has the gumption to take on the establishment, and now it’s up to the whiskey to do the walking. Note: The Collier & McKeel distillery is not typically open for public tours, but send them a note to see if a private visit can be set up.
While you’re here, check out all the stops on our Tennessee whiskey tour.