In the tourism-centric city of Nashville, on-premise player Strategic Hospitality has been introducing its customers to Tennessee whiskey for the past decade. “People come in all the time wanting to drink local whiskey,” says Matt Tocco, beverage director for the group’s ten different concepts. “We have a lot of venues, so I can play with various ways of showcasing Tennessee whiskey.”
One concept is The Band Box, an outdoor restaurant and bar at First Tennessee Park, home of the Nashville Sounds baseball team. The Band Box menu includes a wide array of offerings suited to outdoor consumption, such as the Whiskey and Coke Icee ($11), featuring George Dickel Tennessee whiskey. The group’s Pinewood Social venue near downtown Nashville pours a broader range of local whiskeys, including Chattanooga 1816 Reserve ($11 a 2-ounce pour), George Dickel Barrel Select ($12), and Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel ($15), while the Patterson House—a speakeasy-style cocktail lounge in Nashville’s Midtown neighborhood—plays to the mixology crowd. While many visitors are interested in trying Tennessee’s local spirits, Tocco notes that there is some confusion among its clientele. “I think a lot of people still don’t understand that Tennessee whiskey is a separate category with its own defining characteristics,” he says.
Although Tennessee was a hotbed of whiskey-making historically, it was under a Prohibition law from 1909 until 1933. Even after that, the distilling industry was so tightly regulated that only three distilleries—Jack Daniel’s, which reopened in 1938; George Dickel, which reopened in 1958; and Prichard’s, which opened in 1997—operated in the entire state. Change didn’t come until 2009, when the laws were relaxed to allow production in 41 additional counties—and Tennessee’s rich whiskey culture leapt back to life. In 2014, the Tennessee Distillers Guild was formed, and today it supports a dedicated Tennessee Whiskey Trail across the state that includes roughly 30 distilleries.
In 2013, the Tennessee General Assembly passed a state law defining what could be labeled as Tennessee whiskey. In addition to requirements similar to those for Bourbon, including the mandatory use of new charred oak barrels, Tennessee whiskies must be produced in the state and filtered through maple charcoal, a step known as the Lincoln County Process.
As the U.S. market’s largest whiskey brand of any kind at 6.5 million 9-liter cases in 2018, according to Impact Databank, Jack Daniel’s has been at the forefront of the Tennessee whiskey category for decades. Today, brand owner Brown-Forman sees tremendous potential for the category to expand. Jack Daniel’s vice president and global brand director Phil Epps notes that American whiskey volumes in the 1970s were twice as large as they are today. “The values of American whiskey are resonating with consumers around the world, and we’re excited to see where that takes us,” he says.
While the core Jack Daniel’s brand posted volume of 5.25 million cases in 2018, upscale extension Gentleman Jack added just over 400,000 cases, and Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel was at 50,000 cases. In addition to Single Barrel Rye, which launched in 2016, Jack Daniel’s recently added the Tennessee Taster’s Selection series—currently exclusive to the distillery and select state retailers—which debuted with two whiskies, Hickory Smoked Finish and High Angels’ Share Barrels. Additionally, Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel Heritage Barrel ($65 a 750-ml.) finished at No.-3 in Whisky Advocate’s Top 20 rankings for 2018. The upscale side is rounded out by Jack Daniel’s Winter Jack at 42,000 cases, and Jack Daniel’s Sinatra Select at 5,000 cases.
Jack Daniel’s also continues to show progress on the flavored whiskey front. The brand’s Tennessee Honey label grew to 747,000 cases in 2018, while Tennessee Fire expanded by nearly 5% in the same period to just under 406,000 cases, according to Impact Databank.
The craft whiskey movement has had a notable impact on the revival of Tennessee’s distilling heritage. In the summer of 2006, brothers Andy and Charlie Nelson stumbled upon a historical marker in Greenbrier, Tennessee that denoted the site was formerly Nelson’s Green Brier Distillery, which their great-great-great grandfather, Charles Nelson, opened in the 1860s. Digging into state and county archives, the Nelson brothers uncovered their family’s distilling history and have since worked to resurrect the company, which was forced to close its doors after the state’s Prohibition law was enacted in 1909. In uncovering details from newspaper records, Charlie was able to recreate the original Tennessee whiskey recipe for the Nashville-based company’s flagship Nelson’s Green Brier Tennessee whiskey.
Nelson’s Green Brier is currently waiting for its own whiskey to mature, but the distillery’s Belle Meade Bourbon label— which is sourced from MGP Ingredients and has attracted a following for its high rye content and specialty cask finishes—was introduced in 2013. In addition to its Cognac Cask Finish, Madeira Cask Finish, and Sherry Cask Finish Bourbons, the Belle Meade line includes the Classic, Single Barrel, and Cask Strength Reserve Bourbons. Belle Made Cask Strength ranked No. 10 in Whisky Advocate’s 2018 Top 20.
Belle Meade, which is available in 23 states, serves as a bridge to the forthcoming Nelson’s Green Brier brand. After a limited release of Nelson’s First 108 Tennessee whiskey in 2017, the company is gearing up for this year’s launch of the core Nelson’s whiskey, which will have been aged for four years when bottled. With an eventual eye toward national distribution, the launch will start in Nashville and then expand to the rest of Tennessee and other markets. Constellation Brands acquired a minority stake in Nelson’s Green Brier Distillery in early 2016 through its Constellation Ventures incubator.
While Nelson’s Green Brier is still in its infancy, the company says the key differentiator separating it from other craft whiskies lies in its roots. “The history of our brand, our company, and our family is the reason we’re doing all of this,” says Andy Nelson. “We’re trying to shine a light on this history and keep our company in line with the original.” Key to honoring that tradition has been embracing the Lincoln County Process of charcoal filtering for the flagship brand. When the debate over whether to include that process in the definition of Tennessee whiskey was occurring in the statehouse in 2013, Charlie Nelson testified before lawmakers in favor of its inclusion, citing old newspaper articles in which his great-great-great grandfather Charles Nelson described its usage.
Like Nelson’s Green Brier Distillery, Uncle Nearest—created in 2017 by author and entrepreneur Fawn Weaver—is drawing on history for its core identity. The brand is named for an enslaved man, Nathan “Nearest” Green, who taught Jack Daniel how to make whiskey in the mid-19th century; Weaver heard about his story from a New York Times article that mentioned how Brown-Forman had begun telling it as part of its visitor tours at Jack Daniel’s Distillery. Touting its namesake as “the greatest whiskey maker the world never knew,” Uncle Nearest offers two products—the core 1856 whiskey ($60 a 750-ml.) and 1820 Single Barrel Edition whiskey ($119). Uncle Nearest is currently available in 47 states, though the Single Barrel whiskies are limited expressions that tend to sell out quickly. The liquid is currently sourced, but the company is building a distillery in Shelbyville, about an hour’s drive south of Nashville, and contract-distilling with other Tennessee producers in the meantime.
“We specifically looked for a premium whiskey that used the same process as Nearest, which was to proof down to 55% abv before putting it in the barrel,” Weaver says. “We know that information not because it was written down for Nearest, but because it was written down for Jack Daniel. What Jack was doing when he was alive was Nearest’s process.” In addition to the distillery, facilities on the Shelbyville property will include rickhouses, a bottling facility, a historic heritage center, a concert venue, and more. Weaver is also planning a host of other projects, including a memorial park in honor of Green in Lynchburg.
New Tennessee whiskey brands entering the market often like to tout the charcoal mellowing process as a point of differentiation from whiskies made elsewhere. Heaven’s Door Spirits, a collaboration between music legend Bob Dylan and Spirits Investment Partnership, debuted in April 2018, and this year will open a distillery and visitor center in a 140-year-old church in downtown Nashville. The Heaven’s Door lineup currently features a 10-year-old Tennessee Straight Bourbon ($130 a 750-ml.) that was charcoal-mellowed, a Straight Tennessee Bourbon ($50) that didn’t undergo the charcoal filtration, Double Barrel whiskey ($50), and Straight Rye whiskey ($80). “We set out to make a lineup of whiskies that are unique,” says Ryan Perry, managing partner and COO of Spirits Investment Partnership. “Every one of our whiskies is tied to Tennessee, either through distillation, aging, or barrel finishing.”
Other players are also getting involved in Tennessee whiskey in a big way. In late 2016, Sazerac purchased a distillery in Newport, Tennessee, where the Popcorn Sutton brand had been produced, although it did not acquire the brand. Master distiller John Lunn and distiller Allisa Henley—both George Dickel alumni—remained on board following the transition, helming a not-yet-named whiskey project that uses the Lincoln County Process. Sazerac has also purchased a new distillery site in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, outside Nashville, which is in the design phase and expected to take about 12-18 months to complete once construction begins. The company has big plans for its future Tennessee whiskey brand. “Sazerac is known for its experimentation, and we have the freedom to conduct a few experiments if we like,” says Henley.
Experimentation is afoot for other new Tennessee whiskey producers as well. Building on the distilling history of its hometown, Chattanooga Whiskey is taking a different approach to crafting innovative whiskies from its distillery in southeastern Tennessee. While the company’s 1816 Cask and 1816 Reserve whiskies don’t undergo the Lincoln County Process, the brand is still steeped in Tennessee tradition, paving its own path forward. “Everything we’ve done has been inspired in one way or another by the past,” says Chattanooga Whiskey co-founder and owner Tim Piersant. “If it weren’t for the history of making whiskey in Chattanooga, we wouldn’t be here today.”
After working to overturn state laws that still limit whiskey production through its Vote Whiskey campaign, Chattanooga Whiskey started work on its first distillery in 2015. Today, that facility—the first in the city in more than a century—serves as an experimental distillery, and it’s where Piersant’s team created the brand’s unique style, which the company calls Tennessee high-malt Bourbon. In 2017, Chattanooga Whiskey opened a second, 46,000-square-foot distillery that sits on the Tennessee River and serves as its headquarters. The Chattanooga Whiskey Riverfront Distillery is where the flagship whiskies and small-batch releases are produced. Currently available in four states, Chattanooga Whiskey has grown at approximately 40% annually for the past five years, according to Piersant. “We’re a young, vibrant whiskey company, and we’re pushing the envelope with both of our distilleries,” he says. A variety of toasts and chars on the barrels, as well as specialty grains, such as honey and caramel malts, have helped Chattanooga Whiskey distinguish itself in a crowded market.
Plenty More To Come
After Jack Daniel’s, Tennessee’s most high-profile brand is George Dickel. Tracing its roots to the late 1800s, Dickel has been a key player in Tennessee whiskey for generations. While it follows the mandated charcoal mellowing process for Tennessee whiskey, Dickel has branched out in recent years with some bold innovations. Last May, for example, saw the release of George Dickel Tabasco Brand Barrel Finish in partnership with McIlhenny Co. Tabasco hot sauce. At 35% abv, this line extension doesn’t qualify as a whiskey, but instead seeks to replicate the success of spicy flavored whiskies like Fireball.
In March 2018, Dickel parent company Diageo changed the name of the Dickel’s distillery to Cascade Hollow Distilling Co. While Cascade Hollow remains the home of George Dickel, Diageo felt the name change would give a better opportunity to pursue innovation with no overlap on the Dickel brand. “With George Dickel serving as the flagship, Cascade Hollow represents a new business model for North American whiskey for Diageo,” says Nicole Austin, general manager and distiller at Cascade Hollow. “We continually have our eye on making award-wining whiskies for our new and existing fan base.” The first new label from Cascade Hollow is slated for release this spring.
Despite the upside the overall whiskey category anticipates, some say the Tennessee whiskey sector needs extensive marketing to raise awareness of its more unique attributes. Strategic Hospitality’s Tocco believes that with enough tourism and outreach from distillers in Tennessee, smaller brands can start gaining traction in other markets, furthering the category overall. “I see the brands in Tennessee growing outside of the state, but I don’t know if I see Tennessee whiskey and the Lincoln County Process growing the same way,” he explains. But as an on-premise operator, he says there’s a lot of work that can be done with helping consumers understand the flavor profiles of Tennessee whiskey. “I’ve had a lot of success turning Crown Royal drinkers on to things like Gentleman Jack,” he says.
Tourism has played a big role in Chattanooga Whiskey’s success, with the company saying it sees about 40,000 visitors a year. “They come from all over the country and the world,” Piersant says. “The Tennessee Whiskey Trail is providing a level of education and will continue to help.” He sees whiskey made in Tennessee fitting into the larger picture of American whiskey, alongside Bourbon. “If you’re producing whiskey in Tennessee, then you have history on your side. There will always be a spot on the shelf for that.”