Corsair Artisan, Tenn-tucky’s Crazy Craft Distilling Kids

Continuing our tour of Tennessee whiskey country, we head on to the distillery that is the polar opposite of Jack Daniel’s monolithic magnificence…

Andrew Webber at Corsair Artisan Distillery is like a kid in a candy shop amidst his stills and barrels and grains. Five gallon barrels contain all kinds of experimental concoctions. Bottles line the shelves, filled with all manners of strange things. Lagered quinoa? Why not? Their biggest hits to date include a cocktail-friendly unaged rye whiskey and an American “single malt” featuring three varieties of smoked barley – one smoked with American cherry wood, one with Scottish peat, and one with German beachwood. A recent experimental batch steeped cacao hulls (not the bean, but the shell) in bourbon for an intensely nutty, dark chocolatey depth.

Corsair Artisan was basically the first micro-distillery to pop up once Tennessee’s distillery laws opened up, and they split up their operations between Nashville, Tennessee, and Bowling Green, Kentucky. It’s yet another untraditional choice that shows these guys aren’t afraid of doing things differently. The Nashville distillery and taproom sits in a gorgeously revitalized old Marathon Motorworks auto factory on the rough edges of downtown, industrial chic at its best. Old brick, doors large enough to fit a semi through, ghosts of production lines long gone.

Inside, the science lab mentality is in full effect. The beautiful old copper stills are tricked out with modern gadgets, mechanical eyes and agitators, to help manage the distillation. Even the barrels themselves are part of the experimentation – small barrels from Black Swan Cooperage feature staves with grooves and honeycomb shapes carved into them (inside the barrel) to allow for greater interaction between the spirit and the wood. Supposedly, 10 months in one of the 5 gallon barrels gives you a similar level of interaction as 15 years in a 52 gallon barrel. And for a nimble little distillery that likes to play with lots of things, that fast “aging” makes a big difference.

The guys at Corsair also have a brewer’s approach to the craft… they like playing with the mash, sourcing unusual grains, trying different roasts and smokes. There’s cherry-smoked barley, chocolate-roasted rye, red winter wheat, oatmeal, quinoa. It sounds like the bulk isle at a progressive natural foods store. But Corsair has proven they can make great things out of unusual grains.

There’s no “tour” per se at Corsair, but if you call them up and they have some free time, they’re more than happy to share the ins and outs of the distillery with interested fans. And the taproom, formerly occupied by Nashville’s Yazoo Brewing Company, is still a great place to grab a beer at the end of the day. Meanwhile, outside Nashville, you can find Corsair Artisan’s lineup of regular and seasonal craft products (there are lots of interesting rotating options, like Pumpkin Spice Moonshine!) at bars and liquor stores alike. Just call up your favorite place to see what they have in stock.

Corsair Artisan in images, continues below…

And while you’re here, also check out all the stops on our Tennessee whiskey tour.

Touring Tennessee Whiskey Country

In the hills and hollows around Lynchburg and Lincoln County, Tennessee, clear spring water and corn come together with sugar maple charcoal and charred white oak barrels to make some of the world’s most famous whiskies. Tennessee is a state rich in whiskey history, a pioneering state, a moonshining state, and, until a few years ago, a state with some of the most absurd laws possible regulating the opening and operation of distilleries.

The big boys – Jack Daniel’s and George Dickel – have been around since 1866 and 1870, respectively, though have both been through some twists and turns along the way, most prominently Prohibition (which started ten years early in Tennessee, in 1910) and mandatory shutdowns during World War II.  Jack and Dickel are about 15 miles away from each other as the crow flies, one in Lynchburg and the other in Cascade Hollow outside Tullahoma. They share rich histories, locations based on access to good water and corn, and similar charcoal mellowing techniques – “the Lincoln County process.” They also managed to get in early enough to have favorable consideration in Tennessee’s distillery laws, which made it near impossible for any new distilleries to open in the state in the twentieth century. Prichard’s, who opened up about 20 miles down the road from Lynchburg in Lincoln County about a decade ago, was the lone exception. Those laws were finally changed about two years ago, and we’re now seeing the results of that change – with Corsair Artisan jumping to a quick start in Nashville after being founded in Kentucky, Ole Smoky setting up in Gatlinburg, Collier & McKeel joining the Nashville scene, and more distilleries in the ramping up phase across the state.

We recently visited the distilleries that make their home in the state’s capital or in the nearby green rolling hills of central Tennessee. The differences among these are dramatic, from the nonstop small-batch experimentation in a converted old auto factory at Corsair Artisan, to the steady voluminous flow of whiskey over charcoal at Jack Daniel’s and their touring hordes of visitors from around the world. What all these distilleries share is a passion for making something great in the state of Tennessee. Today, we’ll give you the (very) short version on visiting them; and, in the next two weeks, we’ll follow up with individual features on each distillery. Enjoy the trip:

If you like the idea of a Whiskey Disney, with guides who are straight out of central casting delivering polished storytelling and a cute little town that was literally built on whiskey, go to Jack Daniel’s in Lynchburg. No tasting allowed in this dry county, unless you’re buying a full single barrel, which runs about $10,000.

If you like a humble sense of history, tranquil beauty, and a refreshing dose of honesty served up in an out-of-the-way honest-to-goodness Tennessee country hollow, go spend some time at George Dickel & Co. in Cascade Hollow outside Tullahoma. No tasting available with the tour or at the distillery, either.

If you want to visit a small family of dedicated distillers making the most of a country garage (actually school and community center) turned small batch distillery, and to taste a range of fine rums and whiskies that will expand your appreciation for Tennessee spirits, go to Prichard’s Distillery in Kelso. Call ahead.

If you favor madcap experimentation and geeky enthusiasm in a beautifully restored and converted old auto factory turned “creative community” on the fringe of downtown Nashville,  stop by Corsair Artisan’s taproom and distillery. Please call ahead, distillery visits by appointment only.

Finally, if you want to see firsthand a brand new take on traditional small batch Tennessee whiskey, which happens to be right next door to Corsair Artisan in that wonderful old building in Nashville, check out Collier & McKeel. Also by appointment only.

Check out our Tennessee Whiskey Tour for more on each of these fine Tennessee distilleries. Click here to see a map showing the location of the distilleries, as close as three and a half hours from Atlanta.