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.


Grandpa and Tennessee Whiskey

Tennessee is where I grew up. Memphis, to be exact. It’s where my father was born and his father before him. Memphis is far from the heart of Tennessee whiskey country and, for that matter, moonshine country, too. But my grandfather was indeed a Jack Daniel’s man. He joined Jack Daniel’s early take on a super fan club, the Tennessee Squires, back in the 1960’s, which bestowed upon him a small plot of land in “The Hollow, Lynchburg” and honorary citizenship in Moore County, where Jack Daniels Distillery is situated. The language on the Deed he received is as flowery as charcoal is black, and surely, at that time, membership among the Tennessee Squires was seen as quite a big deal in Tennessee.

My grandfather grew up in the Depression, made a good living for himself and for his family as he got older, but always held on to a Depression-era mindset of spending money very carefully. In his seventies, one of his prized possessions was a bottle of Gentleman Jack. I don’t think I ever actually saw him drink it, it was simply too precious. But it was there, in the liquor cabinet, as a sign of allegiance to Tennessee.

Alas, the love of Jack Daniels was not passed down from generation to generation. My father fell for wine and hardly ever even touched whiskey, though I’ve recently introduced him to Pappy Van Winkle, and I am hopeful to knock some sense into him. As for me, I’ve never been a Jack Daniel’s man, but a love of bourbon and an eagerness to try whisk(e)y of all shapes and stripes has brought me back to Tennessee. And I’ve even been impressed by a few bottles of Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel Tennessee whiskey, which, to my surprise, competes well with many a fine bourbon as a premium sipping whiskey.

I recently spent two days driving the rolling hills of central Tennessee, visiting five of the state’s six operating distilleries (the sixth is in Gatlinburg – Ole Smoky Moonshine – which I’ve visited previously). The differences between Jack Daniel’s, the oldest registered distillery in these United States, and Collier & McKeel, one of the newest, is tremendous, but they both adhere to a noble view of what makes a whiskey a Tennessee whiskey. Between those two, George Dickel, Prichard’s, and Corsair Artisan are just as distinct, each forging a unique path in whiskey and other spirits, each making Tennessee their home and part of their story. Stay tuned for a recap and photo tour of my visits to these fine Tennessee distilleries.

(Update: and here it is – check out all the stops on our Tennessee whiskey tour.)

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


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.


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.


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.


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.


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:







If It’s Legal, Is It Still “Moonshine”??

Moonshine. What images come to mind when you hear that word? Old Chevys racing down dirt roads? Hidden shacks in the woods? Long beard hillbillies in overalls? A mason jar full of kick-your-butt in liquid form? Moonshine is basically its own brand – authentic, slightly exotic, filled with risk, worth seeking out – so it’s no wonder that distilleries, legal ones, are popping up and trying to leverage the “Moonshine brand.”

Anyone who has ever heard of Popcorn Sutton knows something of the magic of moonshine (and if you haven’t heard of Popcorn and his brilliant but tragic life, do some research and check this out and this and definitely buy a copy of Chasing the White Dog to read). And anyone who has tasted the real thing, the good stuff, not some throwaway bathtub mockery of the real thing, likely has a fondness in their heart for the magic of moonshine. These folks, I’m guessing, will not be jumping on the “legal moonshine” bandwagon. For there is no way that a mason jar bought at the local liquor store can replicate the magic of honest-to-goodness, backwoods, quality moonshine. The product may be great, the packaging may be beautiful, but the soul, the shared risk, is simply not there. And then there’s the semantics of calling a legal product “moonshine” – a moniker that has its roots in the very illegality of that product. Can a store-bought whiskey really be “moonshine”?

Despite our quibbles with the pre-empting of the moonshine brand by legal distilleries, we don’t want to disparage the products of these new distilleries that are marketing “legal moonshine.” For example, there’s no doubt that the folks behind Ole Smoky Tennessee Moonshine have a true reverence for the history of moonshine in Tennessee and will do their best to do that legacy justice. From their website…”When Tennessee state law recently changed to allow the distillation of spirits, we saw an opportunity to showcase the art of superior mountain-made moonshine. The Ole Smoky recipes are the product of the hard work and experience of local families who have made moonshine in the mountains for the last two hundred years.” They are simply working hard to take that brand, the “Moonshine brand,” and commercialize it. And it looks like they are on their way to success. The esteemed (and very expensive) Blackberry Farm in Tennessee has featured Ole Smoky’s “Moonshine” and “Moonshine Cherries” in a cocktail recipe (called The Hillbilly & Tonic) sent out to their many fans. Ole Smoky’s products are popping up in stores across the South. They may even convince some of the folks who have experienced the “real thing” to try the “legal moonshine.” Hey, we even look forward to trying them. But, in our minds, “legal moonshine” is simply an oxymoron. Call it unaged whiskey, call it white lightnin’, call it “kick ass stuff,” but, in our book, it’s not Moonshine.

Update: check out our visit to Ole Smoky and tasting notes on their moonshine.