The Skinny on Tennessee Whiskey

Tennessee whiskeys are getting older. Its makers are young and creative.

I just finished my first column for the Whiskey Wash, All I Am Saying Is Give Tennessee Whiskeys a Chance. Turns out that 800 words is nowhere near enough to talk about all the awesomeness coming out of Tennessee. Here I will expand upon the efforts of my friends and neighbors, and hopefully earn them a space or six behind your bars.

Brown Forman, Diageo, Sazerac, and Constellation Brands all have distilleries in Tennessee. There must be something here! Right?

I’m always baffled at the way Tennessee whiskey is dismissed from any serious conversations about bourbon. (Yes, Tennessee whiskey is bourbon. Period.) Tennessee distillers may be a little late to the game- it’s only been in the last ten years that distilleries could open en masse across the state. But it’s been ten years and the whiskeys are worth revisiting.

Tennessee distillers are making waves and making moves. Jeff Arnett shocked the whiskey community by announcing his departure from Jack Daniel’s earlier this summer. He assures me that he is staying in the business and in Tennessee, although that’s as much as he’ll say on the subject of his future. I asked him to comment on Tennessee’s progress from three distilleries when he started at Jack to now almost fifty.

“My mind goes back to the multi-year fight over a state law that defined what could be called Tennessee whiskey and I still believe this legislation has been a gift to the Tennessee distilling industry,” he says. “For those who claimed it was protectionist or anti-business in nature, the number of distilleries in the state has doubled since its passing and I believe continues to elevate the status of Tennessee produced spirits by giving Tennessee whiskey a definition that builds trust and insures quality for the consumer.”

I asked distillers, blenders, and founders of Tennessee whiskey distilleries to answer a few questions. Here are some important stats:

  • The average age of the group is just under 39 years old.
  • 40% of the leadership is female.
  • Their average length of experience in the distilling industry is 11 years.

Cascade Hollow Distilling Co., Tullahoma

Nicole Austin, General Manager and Distiller

George Dickel isn’t the only brand coming out of Cascade Hollow anymore, and Nicole Austin is to credit for the distillery’s widening appeal.

What are you/ your distillery working on right now that you’re most excited about?

The Cascade Moon project. Each Edition is different and meant to be a little unusual, so lots of excitement and challenge there.

Do you have any upcoming releases that you can tell us about/vaguely describe in a way that is non descriptive yet titillating?

It is our 150th anniversary year, so would be exceptionally silly of me not to celebrate in some way. 
Bottled in Bond is definitely coming back. 
I’ve got a lot of old whiskey. 😉

How has your past experience shaped your spirit of innovation?

From my time at Kings County I definitely brought a love of blending and a recognition of how massively impactful it can be, skills at managing inconsistency, and a general spirit of irreverence that can be really fun sometimes.
From my time with Dave [Pickerell], the understanding of behavior of different grains and how craft distillation techniques can drive spirit character.
From my time at Tullamore, technical understanding of column stills and an appreciation for how chemistry drives decisions.

Do you feel that Tennessee gets its proper respect in the whiskey market?

Not at all!! But we’re all working to change that and I think real progress is being made.

Chattanooga Whiskey, Chattanooga

Head Distiller, Grant McCracken

Chattanooga Whiskey, instead of selling unaged spirits, began with a sourced bourbon while they experimented with a number of styles and mash bills. Those experiments landed on a unique high malt style and led to their core line of products on the shelves.

What are you/ your distillery working on right now that you’re most excited about?

We just released our Tennessee Rye Malt this year (a straight rye malt whiskey) which we like to call our malt forward approach to rye whiskey.  It’s made with a combination of lightly toasted and more deeply roasted rye malts, and is a much richer interpretation of rye. It’s a little harder to find, but well worth the hunt, I think. 

How are you honoring tradition while innovating? Or have you thrown tradition out the window?

Well, we make a lot of bourbon at both of our distilleries, so I suppose you could say that tradition is inherently part of most of what we do. That said, we have a saying around here: “Rules are Good, Change Them”.  It pretty much acknowledges our respect for our industry’s distilling traditions, but also speaks to our personal, obligation to our craft – to push the envelope and never settle.  But it’s definitely a balance. 

What is the weirdest thing you’ve tried at your distillery?

We added maple syrup and sweet potato puree to a grain fermentation and then finished it in maple syrup casks.  We’ve commingled different fruit purees and grains in fermentations.  We’ve also added chestnut & hazelnut flour to distillations.  Those were kind of weird I guess, but not crazy.  

Do you have any upcoming releases that you can tell us about?

We’ve got an amaro style bourbon liqueur coming up pretty soon, which should be cool.  We’ve also got a more widely available finishing series coming up, along with our own version of Bottled in Bond.

How has your past experience shaped your spirit of innovation?

I think I’ll speak for the whole distilling team here – If one thing has become clearer to us over time it’s that 1) there is never one right answer, and 2) you can only do the best with what you have in front of you.  Innovation isn’t easy for any of us.  It’s really hard work. 

Jack Daniel’s Distillery, Lynchburg

Chris Fletcher, newly named Master Distiller

You might think you know Jack, but the last few years have seen the historic distillery releasing a diversity of products like never before. Fletcher recently took over as the distillery’s master distiller. He is the grandson of former Jack Daniel’s master distiller Frank Bobo, making him the only true linear distiller in the state.

What are you/ your distillery working on right now that you’re most excited about?

I’m most excited about the fact that we are innovating in all areas of our process. We are growing local grain, sourcing specific oak in our stave mills, raising unique barrels at our cooperage and tracking some interesting developments in our barrel houses. I am also excited about our Distillers in Training Program – with exciting news to come. I can’t wait to see how these projects come together.  

What is the weirdest thing you’ve tried at your distillery?

Inside-out barrels!  We deconstructed freshly-emptied barrels, putting the staves in a steam chamber; we flipped them and formed a new barrel. We toasted and charred the barrels, then refilled with whiskey. It was interesting… but they leaked really bad!

How has your past experience shaped your spirit of innovation?

The great thing about our capabilities here at Jack Daniel’s is that the possibilities are almost endless. Our own whiskey makers can control every aspect of innovation. From our microbiologists to our coopers, we don’t have to rely on outsourcing to create new-to-world offerings.  

Do you feel that Tennessee gets its proper respect in the whiskey market?

Yes and no. I think as Tennessee Whiskey continues to become its own category within whiskey, our state will be known for two things – music and whiskey. 

Leiper’s Fork Distillery, Franklin

Lee Kennedy, Proprietor and Distiller

About an hour south of Nashville, the idyllic Leiper’s Fork Distillery is the brainchild of Lee Kennedy. Focusing on the history and heritage of the local area, Kennedy produces small batch spirits, and has been sourcing Tennessee bourbon while their own products age.

What are you/ your distillery working on right now that you’re most excited about?

We are most excited about our Tennessee Whiskey coming out this November. It is finally over four years old and 100% distilled, aged and bottled by us. Our bourbon will come out June of 2021.

How are you honoring tradition while innovating?

We honor tradition with our core distillates of TN Whiskey, Bourbon and Rye, although we use one non-traditional grain in the mash bill. Twice a year we run experimental distillates for our gift shop exclusives. These include; 100% wheat whiskey, 100% malted corn whiskey, single malt, brandy, etc.

Do you have any upcoming releases that you can tell us about/vaguely describe in a way that is non descriptive yet titillating?

If anyone likes Irish whiskey, its American brother may interest you.

Do you feel that Tennessee gets its proper respect in the whiskey market?

Until two decades ago the four primary whiskey making regions of the world were Ireland, Scotland, Tennessee and Kentucky. Tennessee has a long rich history with whiskey production, which we preach here at LFD. In 1895, Tennessee had 322 legally registered distilleries. That impressive industry was stifled between 1909 and 2009. Currently there is a renaissance in Tennessee distilling and I have no doubt the state will reclaim its former glory as the industry matures once again.

Nearest Green Distillery, Shelbyville

Co-Founder Fawn Weaver

Fawn Weaver has been making headlines left and right since she began to tell the story of Nearest Green and his relationship to Jack Daniel. In the midst of a distillery build, Weaver is leaning on industry veterans for their expertise while she changes everything we know about the history of Tennessee whiskey.

What are you/ your distillery working on right now that you’re most excited about?

Building out the world’s longest bar, which doubles as a concert pavilion, allowing us to complete what we set out to do when we broke ground on Nearest Green Distillery. We are bringing together the three things Tennessee is most known for: Tennessee whiskey, Tennessee Walking Horses and Tennessee music (country, bluegrass, Memphis Blues).

How are you honoring tradition while innovating?

We are actually embracing tradition 100%. As we are representing the legacy of the first known African-American master distiller, a legacy largely unknown until most recently, it doesn’t seem authentic to use any process he did not use. So, we have no flavored whiskey or barrel finishes in the works. That said, there is one product we’ve been working on for nearly 4 years now and still have not been able to perfect, so it may never make it to market. But if we ever get it perfect, it’ll be tradition…remixed.

Do you have any upcoming releases that you can tell us about?

Our Master Blender is taking her all-time favorite barrels and doing a special release with them in 2021.

How has your past experience shaped your spirit of innovation?

In an industry being flooded with seltzers, cannabis-infused spirits, artificially flavored products and RTDs, it seems like the most innovative thing we could do at this moment is remain true to our Tennessee roots. When Nearest Green was alive, his straight Tennessee Whiskey was known to be the best of the best. We’re just trying to get back to that place of excellence and to live in that space for as long as possible.

Do you feel that Tennessee gets its proper respect in the whiskey market?

I believe it is beginning to gain a lot more notoriety and respect as brands like Uncle Nearest and George Dickel SiB sweep all the awards, in every whiskey category, around the world. When Uncle Nearest launched, one of our greatest challenges was convincing the premium bourbon consumer that our premium whiskeys from Tennessee were just as great, and in many cases, even better. People laughed and/or rolled their eyes when we said it back in 2016. But with Uncle Nearest becoming the most awarded American whiskey for the second year in a row (first time that distinction has gone to a brand outside of Kentucky…and we’ve now done it twice) and Nicole Austin’s BiB from Dickel winning “Whisky of the Year” from Whisky Advocate and being the top-rated American Whiskey of 2019 by Wine Enthusiast, it’s becoming impossible to underestimate our great state.

Another industry titan, Sherrie Moore, reflected on her time spent at Jack Daniel’s as well as her involvement with the Nearest Green Distillery as Director of Whiskey Operations. “I think the past experience with barrel experiments, participating in studies at the [Jack Daniel’s] distillery and cooperage, mistakes!, etc. make the spirit of innovation even more fun. Plus the experience of setting up a controlled experiment/test so you have sound data for your innovation …vs half-ass attempt and no consistency with your innovation. Love the traditional methods and the fun of trying the new!”

Nelson’s Green Brier Distillery, Nashville

Andy and Charlie Nelson, Co-Founders

The Nelson brothers had quite a generational gap to fill in order to resurrect their family distillery. Nelson’s Green Brier was founded in the 1800s by their great-great-great grandfather Charles Nelson and did not survive after Prohibition. The brothers realized their dream of bringing back the brand’s Tennessee whiskey last year. Andy, in the distiller role, answers my questions here.

What are you/ your distillery working on right now that you’re most excited about?

We always have some interesting and unique ideas running through our heads, but right now I’m excited about the variety of special cask finishes we have in the hopper. I can’t spill the beans just yet but there are some really cool finishes we’ve been working on.

How are you honoring tradition while innovating?

Part of our mantra as a company is to honor the traditions and the past while embracing the change that the future brings. Our company was founded in the 1860s and was a pioneering force in the world of Tennessee Whiskey in particular, so we strive to respect that and keep it alive. However, we resurrected the company around 2006 and the world is a much different place. We try to maintain the spirit of our family business that allowed it to thrive so long ago while bringing a certain creative and innovative spirit that is more reflective of the modern day.

If you’ve sourced product, how are you making that product your own?

We started our business by sourcing and we continue to do so today. We’ve used our blending skills to differentiate our products from others and made a name for ourselves by doing a lot of interesting special cask finishes, which has been a very successful endeavor for us.

What is the weirdest thing you’ve tried at your distillery?

We’ve made a few one-off honey distillates and played around with them. Nothing we’ve ever done on a large enough scale to sell any bottles, but it’s kept our creative juices flowing pretty well.

Do you feel that Tennessee gets its proper respect in the whiskey market?

It’s clear that the world knows about Tennessee Whiskey, which is part of Tennessee getting its due respect. However, I don’t think the average person realizes what a rich and vibrant distilling community there is across the entire state, and they certainly are aware of what a range of spirits products exist within the state’s borders. We’re on the right path, but there’s still a ways to go in that respect.

Old Dominick Distillery, Memphis

Old Dominick Distillery - Master Distiller and Senior Vice President Alex Castle
Master Distiller Alex Castle

Another distillery brought back by family from a pre-prohibition brand is Old Dominick. Fifth-generation founders Chris and Alex Canale restarted the distillery originally established in 1866 by Domenico Canale. Alex Castle joined the team as their distiller.

What are you/ your distillery working on right now that you’re most excited about?

Our estate produced whiskeys, which should start releasing in 2022! (Packaging design takes time!)

If you’ve sourced product, how are you making that product your own?

We had custom mash bills made at MGP, so they’re our own right out of the gate, but then we used the name and packaging to honor our founder and the original building where Old Dominick Whiskey was bottled before Prohibition (Huling Station).

What is the weirdest thing you’ve tried at your distillery?

 I re-distilled an Oktoberfest beer from a local brewery once. It was really trip because it tasted exactly like the beer, but was colorless. Unfortunately it wasn’t good enough for full production.

How has your past experience shaped your spirit of innovation?

I couldn’t really be creative in my past jobs because I worked for larger corporations and well established brands, so now I am probably pushing the envelope a bit more than I normally would because I am trying to make up for lost time. But also, coming from the Kentucky bourbon world, I am trying to balance that creativity with tradition.

Do you feel that Tennessee gets its proper respect in the whiskey market?

 I really think Tennessee is starting to come to the forefront of the whiskey world. With the exception of a few distilleries, the spirits industry is still relatively young in Tennessee, so you’re just now really getting the opportunity to see what Tennessee distilleries are producing from a  whiskey standpoint. In the next year or two, Tennessee will be recognized for so many more names than just Jack and George.

Pennington Distilling Company, Nashville

Jeff Pennington, Founder and CEO
What are you/ your distillery working on right now that you’re most excited about?

We are doing our first blends of our wheated bourbon that are turning 6 this year! We are continuing to focus on building our other core items of Tennessee Whiskey and Tennessee Rye as the blends are now over 5 year old averages (with goals to get it to 6).
We just started playing with the ideas of cask finishing our own whiskeys and have recently been playing around with distilling malts this past year or two!

How are you honoring tradition while innovating?

We honor a lot of tradition with our standard products using 53 gallon barrels and charcoal mellowing our Tennessee Whiskey and really letting age do its job. We have thrown some tradition out in some barrel tests we are doing with different oaks, different stave sizes and cuts. We also have been growing and using different heirloom grains to play around with. 

What is the weirdest thing you’ve tried at your distillery?

We tried to ferment and distill off a bunch of left over blood orange pulp (from our Pickers Blood Orange vodka). It might have been the worst thing ever made in a still.

Do you feel that Tennessee gets its proper respect in the whiskey market?

Not at all. It’s amazing how many people assume that all Tennessee Whiskey will taste the same, but don’t think that about bourbon. We’re excited to see the rising tide effect of all of the statewide whiskey products showcasing how diverse and great our state can be. 

Sazerac Tennessee, Smyrna

Master Distiller John Lunn, me, and Distiller Allisa Henley at the Newport distillery

The yet-to-be-named Tennessee distillery by Sazerac Co. grabbed not one, but two industry veterans from George Dickel to produce their Tennessee whiskey. The distillery started in Newport, is in the process of relocating to Smyrna, and has plans to put down long term roots in Murfreesboro. Allisa joins in this conversation.

What are you/ your distillery working on right now that you’re most excited about?

 John & I are busy creating Sazerac’s first Tennessee whiskey. Our oldest product is about 3 years old.  As of now we do not plan to release anything under 6 years of age.

How are you honoring tradition while innovating?

 John & I grew up in the industry learning from people with 20+ years experience.  We want to make sure everything we do respects the memories of the people that taught us.  We actually keep a team picture of them to help remind us how important tradition is in making whiskey.  While that tradition remains important to us today, we are never satisfied with where are and are constantly striving to make things better.  Sazerac shares that belief and is giving us the freedom to do just that.

Do you feel that Tennessee gets its proper respect in the whiskey market?

No, but we do believe the future is bright. Sazerac bourbons are some of the most sought after in the world; we plan on adding a premium Tennessee whiskey to that family.