A Taste of Home at Prichard’s Distillery, Kelso, Tennessee

Continuing our tour of Tennessee whiskey

A visit to Prichard’s DistilleryĀ in little bitty Kelso, Tennessee, is like a visit to someone’s home. It’s a family affair. Phil Prichard, his wife Connie, his son, his friends, everyone seems to be pitching in. It’s decidedly un-corporate, and the fact that the distillery sits in the town’s old schoolhouse and community center just reinforces the feeling. The basketball goals are still up in the gym that now houses bottles and labels and empty boxes waiting to be filled with fine rum and whiskey. The disco ball still hovers in the air, calling to mind all the dances and good times that must have happened here in the heart of tiny Kelso. Prichard’s Distillery is certainly keeping the flame, as much a product of Kelso as all the kids who walked through the schoolhouse’s doors years ago.

Prichard’s has been turning out award winning rums for over ten years now, a bridge between the old stalwarts of Tennessee distilling and the new breed. While their image is not as edgy and progressive as Corsair Artisan up in Nashville, they are certainly not slackers when it comes to pushing the envelope and trying out new things. There’s a long line of rums (including a Key Lime version), an array of whiskeys (from a “single malt” to a “double barreled” to a “Lincoln County Lightning”), and experimental bottles of things like aquavit, cranberry liqueur, and chocolate-infused bourbon sit on the old school desks that sit in what is now Prichard’s office. There are even small custom barrels filled for progressive bars and liquor shops around the country (ever hear of The Violet Hour in Chicago? I happened to see a barrel with their name on it). Ā Prichard’s is a small batch craft distillery when it comes down to it, with two beautiful Vendome pot stills that do most of the heavy lifting, and that small batch mentality is a perfect precursor to trying new things.

While rum has been Prichard’s calling card for many years, the whiskey line-up is what seems to be gaining steam and is an increasing focus for the distillery. A new rye is on its way, and time in the barrel is the main thing that sits between some Prichard’s whiskey and a large number of thirsty fans. True to their roots, Prichard’s prefers to use a local white corn that has a particularly nice sugar content, ground at the historic Falls Mill down the road in Old Salem. That Lincoln County Lightning gets bottled fresh out of the still, and boasts a tremendous corn character that reflects the fine local ingredients. Phil Prichard is a storyteller at heart, and he shared a few cocktail names he has for his Lincoln County Lightning. A Bloody Mary becomes a Bloody Bubba, and his name for a white lightning-based spin on a Margarita is almost enough to make a bootlegger blush (I won’t share that one here, but would love to hear your guesses in the comment section below!).

Prichard’s is definitely worth the stop if you’re heading up to their much bigger neighbors up the road a bit. Jack Daniel’s is just a bucolic, fifteen mile jaunt, but Prichard’s is indeed a world away. Be sure to call ahead, though, if you’re interested in visiting. You wouldn’t want to make an unexpected house call, after all.

Prichard’s Distillery in images, continues below…Ā 

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

and out onto the roads of Lincoln County…

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 ā€“ 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 ā€œagingā€ makes a big difference.

The guys at Corsair also have a brewerā€™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. Ā 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 theĀ roadĀ 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, Ā 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 ourĀ Tennessee Whiskey TourĀ for more on each of these fine Tennessee distilleries. Click hereĀ to see a map showing the location of the distilleries, as close as three and a half hours from Atlanta.

 

A Visit to Wadmalaw Island: Firefly Distillery

Wadmalaw Island sits a bit south of Charleston, Ā bordered by Bohicket Creek and the North Edisto River, dotted with live oak trees dripping in Spanish moss, home to America’s only tea plantation, as well as a little distillery called Firefly.

Firefly Distillery is not well marked. You’re highly unlikely to happen upon it, as it sits near the end of a long road on the way to nowhere, towards the end of Wadmalaw Island. The local authorities won’t even let Firefly put up signs to help alert some of the visitors to nearby Kiawah or Seabrook Island that a distillery is just down the road. That is often the nature of being a distillery in the South, a tug of war between being a blessing on AND a pariah to the local community at the same time. So, Firefly is a destination for seekers, those who love their sweet tea vodka, or who have heard of their delicious Sea Island rums, or, maybe, those who are simply seeking a fascinating peek into the mind of a mad scientist out in the islands of South Carolina’s low country.

Jim Irvin is the mad scientist behind Firefly. He started making muscadine wine out on Wadmalaw over a decade ago, but really found his calling when he partnered with Scott Newitt and came up with the idea of a Southern sweet tea vodka using tea from the nearby plantation – the only tea plantation in the United States. Jim is clearly a restless tinkerer – his liquor stills look like something out of a high school science project gone grand and the grounds of the distillery are dotted with experiments in the making, stevia plants and multiple hops varieties growing in the garden, barrels aging, antique machinery being tested. That experimentation is paying off in the form of some wonderful products that can be sampled at the Firefly tasting room – a bracingly tart lemonade vodka, a rich and warming coffee spiced rum, and, of course, their line of sweet tea vodkas.

Before we hit the tasting room, Jay MacMurphy, who runs the daily operations at the distillery, showed us around the grounds: the beautiful muscadine vines set amongst the oaks, the garden overflowing with stevia and hops and fruit, that science project of a still, the hand-labeling of bottles. Kids will love visiting with the animals – goats and pigs and chickens and rabbits eager for a visit.

As you head into the operations areas of the distillery, it’s clear that the actual production here in Wadmalaw is small: micro-distillery batches of up to 500 gallons at a time. The big volume stuff – the main line of sweet tea vodkas – is handled on dedicated equipment in Kentucky by the Sazerac Company. Wadmalaw takes care of the limited releases and the Sea Island rums, many of which you can only find at the distillery itself or in South Carolina. The barrel aging room is small and warm, the better to encourage the interaction of the wood and the spirits. The “lab” is a nook of equipment and test batches, notes scribbled all over the place. And those stills… they are a science lover’s take on the distillation process, no elegant copper domes in sight. It all shows that this is a place built on passion.

On to the tasting room, where $6 gets you a sampling of their products and your own Firefly shot glass. The highlight is the ability to try some things you’re not likely to find at home: the limited Sea Island sugar cane rums (which are planned to get distribution in Georgia in the near future), Firefly’s “handcrafted” vodka (no tea, just vodka), and their lemonade vodka which can only be bought at the distillery. These are all excellent products and you will likely find it hard to leave without a bottle or two (we took home a few bottles of spiced rum and Java rum).

As you happily leave the tasting rooms, the South Carolina sun soaks through the oaks and Spanish moss, and you realize again that Firefly sits in a special place. Firefly’s sweet tea vodka may be found all over the country now, but Wadmalaw Island is its home, and it’s a magical place to be, even if it’s just for an hour or two.

Enjoy…


The donkey-powered sugar cane press, chewing up sugar cane


The “science project gone grand”


The lab of the mad scientist


Barrels from Buffalo Trace for aging Sea Island rum


Sea Island Rum in the tasting room


The muscadine vines surrounded by oak and moss


Quack!

Read our tasting notes for the Sea Island Spice Rum and Java Rhum

Full Disclosure: Our tasting room visit at Firefly Distillery was complimentary.

Between the Mountains and the Masses: Tennessee’s Ole Smoky Distillery

sign

Gatlinburg, Tennessee, is a town best known for its fudge shoppes, pancake houses, ski slopes, wax museums, and hillbilly golf. Oh, and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park just down the road, a true national treasure. But somewhere between the beauty of those Smoky Mountains and the tourist wasteland that is Pigeon Forge (just down the road in the OTHER direction), glimpses of the rural roots of eastern Tennessee can be found. The misty hills of eastern Tennessee have produced such wondrous yet disparate things as Benton’s bacon and Dollywood, Blackberry Farm and Fannie Farkle’s Family Fun Parlor. No matter how you look at it, each of these things somehow point to the genius and ingenuity of the Tennessee mountain spirit. And no product better symbolizes that mountain spirit than the legendary moonshine that sprang forth from these mountains and the foothills of the Smokies. And so it seems rather perfect that smack dab in the middle of Gatlinburg, settled not among the trees but among the wax museums and pancake houses, sits a fully functioning moonshine still. A “legal moonshine” distillery – the Ole Smoky Distillery, home of Ole Smoky Tennessee Moonshine. Now, “legal moonshine” is indeed a bit of an oxymoron, but let’s forgive the name and take a closer look at Ole Smoky.

distiller

Ole Smoky Distillery has been around only since July (2010), but they’ve managed to capture the spirit that has imbued this region for centuries. From the “100 year old family recipe” that is the basis for their unaged corn whiskey, to the simple but gorgeous mason jars and 1900-era letterpress labels that hold their products, to the way that they manage to fit in on the Gatlinburg strip while still somehow maintaining an air of unblemished authenticity, Ole Smoky is doing things right. Every jar of their moonshine is every bit as much a product of local culture and spirit as it is a 100 proof spirit.

jars

On a recent trip through the mountains, we stopped in at Ole Smoky and chatted with one of their proprietors, Tony Breeden, and one of the distillers, Jason King. Their distillery and tasting room (and gift shop and liquor store all in one) is indeed smack dab in the middle of Gatlinburg, and everything is out in the open – the whiskey is fermented and distilled right there before your very eyes, with descriptive signs to help explain what’s going on and how they do it. The in-your-face openness is just about as far away as you can get from that other stuff known as moonshine that has been hidden away and whispered about for centuries. But they clearly aim to capture that spirit, as Tony said, “we set out for authenticity, let’s do this as authentic as possible so people around here will be proud of it.”

Their still is a souped up version of a backyard moonshiner’s still, custom built by Kentucky’s Vendome Copper & Brass Works, the revered engine that helps most of bourbon’s great distilleries run. Each batch starts with locally grown and milled corn, which turns into 400 gallons of mash, which then produces about 40 gallons of corn whiskey. All right in front of your very eyes. Jason gave us a brief walk through their process, which is clearly a mixture of local tradition and contemporary know-how. Likewise, that 100 year old family recipe works at this scale thanks in part to the advice of Dave Pickerell, former master distiller at Maker’s Mark, who consulted on scaling up the Ole Smoky recipe to fit their new equipment and batch size.

After viewing the corn whiskey being made, visitors can move on to a free sampling of Ole Smoky’s products – right now, they have a 100-proof “White Lightnin” that is distilled six times to reach a near-vodka character, the 100-proof “Original Unaged Corn Whiskey” which is their true take on moonshine, and jars of beautiful moonshine-soaked maraschino cherries. They also hand out a recipe for “Apple Pie moonshine” with each jar of White Lightnin’, and sampled a batch of that as well at the distillery.

corn

For us, the star of the show was clearly the unaged corn whiskey, crystal clear, full of fresh corn notes, a pleasant slightly-syrupy mouthfeel, some crisp floral notes and hints of butter throughout. (Full tasting notes here) The White Lightnin’ may be good for mixing, but the multiple distillings take away the corn character, the moonshine-iness of it. And those cherries – delicious, beautiful, a great gift or cocktail garnish.

cherry

So what’s ahead for Ole Smoky? As of this week, they’ve reach seven states, including Georgia (which is literally hitting the shelves right now). They should be in 15 states within three months, plan on doubling their space in Gatlinburg next year and possibly milling corn on site, and continue to play with new products, both food and spirits, that reflect the local culture. They’ll surely be walking that line between the mountains and the masses, the authentic and the commercial, the “legal” and the “moonshine.”

Please check out our visits to the other great Tennessee distilleries. And we’ll leave you with a few more photos of Ole Smoky, smack dab in the middle of Gatlinbug, Tennessee:

gatlinburg

openjar

vendome

works

fermentation

lightnin