This is the picture of a craft distillery. The barn-like exterior isn’t meant to fool you into thinking that Tenn South is a small distillery. Tenn South is a small distillery. Tiny, even. About an hour’s drive south of Nashville, one arrives at Tenn South purposefully; it’s not on the way to anywhere. Less than 10 miles off I-65 in Giles County, you’ll go through “downtown” Lynnville before arriving at the distillery. This sleeper town occupies a whopping .3 square miles and is home to about 350 people. Lynnville is also home to other regionally famous artisans Colonel Littleton and The Lynnville Pie Company.
Not an uncommon aspiration to Tennesseans, brothers-in-law Blair Butler and Clayton Cutler dreamed of making Tennessee Whiskey. Dr. Butler, a radiologist in nearby Columbia and Cutler, a technical process engineering guy with a long history in inkjet manufacturing, may not seem to be your likely suspects for following through on such a dream. But June 25, 2009 turned that dream into a plan when Governor Phil Bredesen signed off on a law allowing for the “manufacturing of intoxicating liquors” in counties that had approved retail package sales and liquor-by-the-drink sales. The distillery bill, SB1955/HB1720, exponentially increased the number of counties where dreamers like Butler & Cutler could open their own distilleries. Where once there were only three, now dozens of counties were eligible.
Enter Tenn South Distillery.
The pair jumped into action, purchasing a 28 acre site in Giles County in 2011. Construction quickly began, licensing and equipment were obtained and their first distilled spirit, All Purpose Shine, hit the shelves in August of 2013. Using only Giles County corn (the same corn used for Southern favorites like Martha White corn meal and Cracker Barrel grits) and pure cane sugar, this uncooked mash mimics the recipes of the legendary moonshiners who lowered their risk of detection by avoiding a second fire. Black Mule Vodka, Abernathy Gin and several flavors of the Shine followed shortly after, but the manifestation of the dream of making a Tennessee Whiskey wasn’t dead. It was resting… in oak barrels.
Recently, with the influx of dozens of new Tennessee distilleries, much ado has been made over the legal definition of Tennessee Whiskey. Chief Distiller Clayton Cutler is a proponent of respecting the heritage and history of the Lincoln County Process and doesn’t find the guidelines to be at all restrictive, stating that anyone who finds the charcoal mellowing process to be limiting their options “lacks imagination.” At once, Cutler shows himself to not be lacking in that department, not even a little.
He reveals that he is not an engineer by degree, but by on-the-job necessity. His previous work experience led him to create mechanical systems so specific to his niche industry that he traveled the world training the workforce on their use and implementation. What he’s done at Tenn South is no different; Clay’s ingenuity is evident everywhere you look at the distillery, from the one of a kind Vendome system to the home made barrels to the gravity drip system that is his version of maple charcoal filtering.
Unlike any other Tennessee Whiskey being made, Tenn South’s Clayton James Tennessee Whiskey is actually infused by the charcoal it runs through rather than filtered by it. The result is a “unique, sweet maple smokiness” and certainly leaves no lingering doubts that all Tennessee Whiskey must taste the same. The innovative spirit doesn’t stop there. A sudden shortage in new, charred oak barrels could have been a game stopper but, again, necessity proves to be the Mother of invention with these guys. They’ve fashioned their own barrels, are having them made locally and are looking into building a full-blown cooperage right on site.
Clayton James Tennessee Whiskey, the distillery’s signature brand named after Cutler & Butler, started coming out of the barrels and into bottles in late 2014. Old King Corn Whiskey, a tribute to the king of grains, is aged in used barrels and is also now available. Tenn South is a member of the Tennessee Distillers Guild and is currently distributed all across Tennessee. Tours, tastings and bottle sales are available Monday – Saturday, 9am – 5pm.