T here’s nothing quite like Tennessee whiskey. Not only is the flavor in general unbeatable (okay, so I’m biased), but it’s also an important part of our economy. In fact, whiskey is one of Tennessee’s top 10 exports. The revenues from export alone exceed $1 billion a year and the total revenue exceeds $2.4 billion (which means that Tennesseans drink a fair amount of what’s being produced, as it should be).
Of course, there are the big guys, Jack Daniel’s and George Dickel, and we love them, but some new players are starting to creep into (or at least back into) the market. The newer folks aren’t really trying to compete with Jack Daniel’s, in truth. Instead, they’re focused on the artistry and history of Tennessee distilling, quality over quantity (and that’s not an indictment on the major distilleries—different people serve different markets, and that’s a beautiful thing).
Smaller producers hone their craft and specialize. In our post-Prohibition world, people are free to pursue different aspects of distilling, and these folks are popping up throughout Middle Tennessee, each with something unique to offer, without the pressure of endless growth and conformity. Some use warehouse space in urban centers, while others make their homes in more rustic, rural counties. It’s not just about taste anymore, but about the overall experience. To truly appreciate these new or returning whiskeys to the maximum level, it helps to immerse yourself in their space, surrounded by the smells, the charred barrels and the people who make the product with care.
Take, for example, Nelson’s Greenbrier Distillery in Nashville, maker of the famed Belle Meade Bourbon. Despite reappearing relatively recently on the liquor scene, Nelson’s has a rich history in Tennessee. Charles Nelson immigrated with his family to the United States from Northern Germany when he was 15. His father, Joseph, unfortunately drowned in transit, and Charles became the primary provider for his family.
Charles quickly learned new trades and skills, and eventually bought a distillery in Greenbrier, Tennessee. After Charles died and his wife became one of the only women to run a distillery, Tennessee passed a prohibition law and Greenbrier had to close its doors. Nearly 100 years later, Charles’s descendants, Andy and Charlie, visited Greenbrier to find the warehouse standing and the spring still running. They’d discovered their destiny, and resolved to breathe new life into the forgotten family business.
Three years later, exactly 100 years after Greenbrier closed its doors, Andy and Charlie reopened in Nashville, offering excellent tours with generous pours, as well as bottling some of the best bourbon in the state. Nelson’s is where old meets new, where history meets the future. It’s a quintessential 20th and 21st century Tennessee story.
Leaving Nashville and escaping to the country, you’ll find Short Mountain Distillery, another newer distillery on the scene. Run by the Kaufman brothers—Billy, David, Ben and Darian—Short Mountain makes craft, small-batch, authentic Tennessee Moonshine, organic Tennessee whiskey, bourbon whiskey and more.
Actually, Short Mountain is only Tennessee’s sixth distillery since Prohibition, opening up in 2010. The catch was that Billy wanted to open the distillery in Cannon County, which was dry at the time. Billy initiated a movement, built support, and got his neighbors to vote on a referendum to allow the distillation of spirits, and shortly thereafter opened Short Mountain Distillery.
Billy has adapted to the changing spirits market in Tennessee by focusing on excellence rather than expansion. “Being one of the original distilleries, I saw an opportunity, and I thought it was a great idea,” Billy says. “Since then, there’s quite a bit more competition, but for me, it’s not about selling more and more. It’s about getting better and better.”
It’s fair to say, though, that Short Mountain is growing—perhaps not in the amount of spirits it’s producing, but in how those spirits are made, and in how the distillery is improving the experience for everyone who comes through its door.
“We’re using better ingredients, refining what we’re doing, and making the journey to Short Mountain as fine of an experience as possible,” Billy says. “We opened up a restaurant, and we do special tours and cocktail classes, and give people a lot of one-on-one attention. So it’s not about getting millions of people to drink my product. It’s more about being innovative and exceptional.”
Billy is committed to the enterprise and advancement of spirits production outside of his own operation, too. He was the founder of the Tennessee Distillers Guild, which comprises nearly every distillery in Tennessee. Its mission is to responsibly promote and advocate for the distilling industry in Tennessee.
“We’ve had to fight for parity with beer and wine in the eyes of the state, and that’s what we’re doing,” Billy says. The guild has also come together to create the Tennessee Whiskey Trail.