Remember when you couldn’t find hand sanitizer on the shelf anywhere? While many of us struggled to find some, members of the Tennessee Distiller’s Guild did something about it. Twenty of their members, from the big guys to small boutique distillers, converted their production from bottles of Tennessee Whiskey and bourbon to making hand sanitizer for police departments, hospitals, CSX, and almost every post office in the state.
“Twenty distilleries pivoted from bottling whiskey for consumption to hand sanitizer almost overnight,” said Sara Beth Urban, Executive Director of the Tennessee Distiller’s Guild. “Some went to producing it twenty-four hours a day. Lots donated it to first responders and front-line personnel.”
Now that manufacturers of hand sanitizer are getting caught up to production demands, the distillers are going back to what they do best. Making Tennessee Whiskey, as well as small batch moonshine, vodka, rum, gin, and even tequila!
“There are more than 50 distillers in the state,” said Urban. “Thirty-two are members of the guild, and 26 are on the Tennessee Whiskey Trail. Which is kind of like the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, but different. Prohibition hit Tennessee a lot harder than Kentucky. Most of our distillers have opened since 2009 when the laws changed. Before that, there were only three distilleries in the state, Jack Daniel, George Dickel, and Prichard’s.”
As a matter of fact, Tennessee had one of the longest stretches of prohibition of any state in the union. The state banned liquor production before the country did, killing the supplemental income of many farmers, especially in the middle and east part of the state.
Over 100 years ago Tennessee was the number four exporter of liquor in the United States. Small farmers supplemented their income making moonshine and whiskey. Prohibition changed all of that…almost killing the industry in the state. Until 2009, when a small passionate group of whiskey enthusiasts started working towards changing these laws so small batch distilleries could rise again.
“I traveled to all of our member distilleries when I first started this job,” said Urban. “Each one makes great liquor, but they also each have their own story. Many have been re-started by members of families whose great-great grandfather had a recipe, like Nelson’s Green Briar in Nashville or Old Dominick in Memphis.”
Playing as a child around the Jack Daniels Distillery where his father worked, Heath Clark – owner of H Clark Distillery in Thompson’s Station — fell in love with the smell and the process of making whiskey. While he grew up to become a lawyer, he never lost his love of making fine whiskey.
“Eventually challenged to go ahead and do something about it,” said Heath Clark, “I was part of the group that drafted the legislation to change the laws allowing for the creation of small batch distilleries in wet counties.” And the rest, he says is history.
Another new distillery that has a story to tell and a distinct tie to Jack Daniel is Uncle Nearest. Fawn Weaver reached out to the Green family to see if she could open a distillery and tell their family’s story.
“Nearest Green was a slave for Jack Daniel, or maybe it was one of his neighbors,” said Urban. “At any rate, he taught Daniel how to distill liquor…Jack Daniel and Uncle Nearest distilleries are currently working together on a diversity initiative to get more people of color involved in the industry.”
Weaver bought an old horse farm in Shelbyville, Tennessee, and she is slowly turning it into a show place to tell the story of “Uncle” Nearest Green. Her master distiller is a woman, and a descendant of Green. While they are offering several products, their whiskey is still aging.
Murfreesboro is set to join the whiskey craze that hit the country about ten years ago and has not slowed down any. They will have new distillery in the near future owned by Sazerac Company. It is a privately held American company that was started by Thomas H. Handy in 1850 in New Orleans, Louisiana, where it is still headquartered.
Nearby is Short Mountain Distillery. They make moonshine, bourbon, and rye from recipes handed down through generations of bootleggers on the mountains.
To learn more about the Tennessee Whiskey Trail and the Guild, go to their website at tnwhiskeytrail.com. The best way to pay these distilleries back for their help keeping people safe during this world-wide pandemic is to visit them and support them as they re-open to the public.
All 26 distilleries listed on the whiskey trail are normally open to the public. Some have chosen to close public tours during the pandemic, others are making reservations mandatory to ensure the ability to social distance. Of those mentioned in this story, Uncle Nearest is the only one that is currently completely closed to the public. The rest have re-opened various parts of their businesses. As the situation with re-opening is constantly changing, each of the distilleries suggest checking their website for the latest information.