Tennessee craft whiskey is going through a strong growth cycle, with a surge in new distilleries since 2010.
Tennessee craft whiskey is beginning to pop up all over the state, from the Mississippi River to the Great Smoky Mountains. Several hundred distilleries dotted Tennessee’s landscape before Prohibition, with more than 60 in Davidson County (Nashville) alone. But the state’s once booming industry was almost extinct until recently.
The “Distillery Law” that went into effect in 2010 created a swell of Tennessee applications to the Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), increasing Tennessee’s distilled spirits plants (DSPs) from three to over 40 in only six years. Tennessee’s newest generation of distillers is looking beyond whiskey, dabbling in everything from vodka and gin to moonshine, rum, brandy, and cordials. I talked to a dozen of the newest wave of distillers in Tennessee about how they define “craft” and where the category of Tennessee spirits is headed.
The American Craft Spirits Association defines “craft” as independence within a DSP and a relatively small annual production of 750,000 proof gallons or less. With these parameters in mind, almost all Tennessee distillers currently qualify as being craft producers.
Tim Piersant, owner of Chattanooga Whiskey, described craft as “establishing a niche with philosophy, ingredients, and process.” Charlie Nelson of Nelson’s Greenbrier Distillery echoed those sentiments, adding that, to him, craft is “thoughtful and intentional, with love going into it. There is an inherent craft in [making] whiskey.” Billy Kaufman of Short Mountain Distillery distinguishes that “small doesn’t equal craft.”
Heath Clark, owner of H Clark Distillery, sold his first bottle in May of 2015, and was heavily involved in the legislative efforts to pass the Distillery Law. Clark commented on the future of Tennessee’s spirits, saying “it’s in a honeymoon phase right now. Tennessee has such a great spirits tradition… I think we’re headed towards reclaiming our broad depth in this craft. This is an exciting time to be in the business.” Jeff Pennington, owner of Speakeasy Spirits and President of the Tennessee Distillers Guild, agrees. Pennington hopes to see the industry “growing nationally and internationally. We have a franchise here that gives us an advantage over other states’ craft spirits and I’m excited to see where that goes.”
While not all Tennessee distilleries have a whiskey on the market, the quiet business of filling barrels to age is in full force. Many distillers produce some type of unaged spirits to help with cash flow until the wood and whiskey have the appropriate time to mingle. In the next two to four years, expect to see the Tennessee whiskey category gain its own section in liquor store aisles as these craft distillers begin to bottle their matured spirits.