This October, Darek Bell’s Corsair Artisan Distillery has already been featured in three national publications: Whiskey Magazine for winning “Innovator of the Year” for the second year straight, AFAR Magazine-The Experiential Travel Guide noted it became the first (legal) whiskey producer in Nashville since Prohibition and USA TODAY in a feature with others on the Tennessee Whiskey Trail.
USA TODAY/October 2013
Tour Tennessee distilleries for moonshine and whiskey
Fred Minnick, Special for USA TODAY
Tennessee moonshiners once scurried the hills, the thickets and streams to hide copper pot stills and moonshine jugs from the Revenue agents and sheriffs.
Skirmishes between the law and illegal Tennessee whiskey makers regularly occurred after the Civil War, when the government increased tax collection efforts, but became an everyday event during Prohibition.
With the federal government forcing legal distilleries to close, moonshiners suddenly had more demand than they could imagine. Unfortunately, this demand led to many cutting distilled product with paint thinner, kerosene and bleach to make the spirit last longer and more profitable. Drinkers went blind and died, and moonshiners were sometimes charged with murder for selling bad moonshine. This became such an epidemic that when they were caught, moonshiners often begged the courts to recognize they made the "good stuff" versus "rotgut 'shine." After all, a good moonshine-making reputation kept the customers thirsty.
Fortunately, the Tennessee moonshine in your local liquor store won't make you blind, but it's moonshine only on the label. Real moonshine, a generic term used for high-proof illicit spirits, is still made illegally in the hills of Tennessee. The U.S. Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) approves moonshine products under the classifications of grain neutral spirit or corn whiskey. The government has no legitimate moonshine classification, but allows the term under a brand's name.
Nonetheless, the legitimate, unaged spirits can be smooth and tasty and discovering them makes for fun travel.
The Tennessee Whiskey Trail takes you to distilleries of all shape and sizes. Some are newly opened, but come from rich-distilling families such as the Nelson's Green Brier in Nashville. Others, like Ole Smoky, are set near the mountains giving the austere feeling Revenue agents could arrest you at any moment. Then, there's Jack Daniel's, the world's No. 1-selling whiskey, with a logo and name as recognizable as Coca-Cola or Disney. Tennessee is full of whiskey and moonshine travel, so tighten up those flasks and get ready for a smooth ride.
Folks in eastern Tennessee are known for moonshining. The Smoky Mountains provide great cover and the limestone-filtered water gives a nice base for distillation. But the legends and lore also offer a marketing backdrop for a new distillery. In 2010, the Ole Smoky Distillery, Gatlinburg, became the first federally licensed distillery in eastern Tennessee.
Ole Smoky's Justin King says his family's been making booze for more than a century. "I'm just the first one to do it legally," King says. King says the Original Moonshine is made from eastern Tennessee corn that is twice distilled on site. Ole Smoky bottles its five mainstay products in mason jars that range from the earthy and peppery "Original Moonshine" to the liquid blackberry-jelly bomb in "Blackberry Moonshine."
The new distillery offers fresh and fun tours with free samples. olesmokymoonshine.com
The Big Two: No Tennessee whiskey travel adventure could be complete without a visit to the Jack Daniel's Distillery in Lynchburg, and to George Dickel in Tullahoma, TN.
The rustic campus requires at least three to six hours, so you can tour the distillery, visit the Lynchburg Hardware & General Store and chow down on country cooking at Miss Mary Bobo's Boarding House.
On tours, you learn the fascinating process of making Tennessee whiskey. Jack Daniel's distills a fermented mash and slowly drips the distillate over sugar maple charcoal in what's known as the "Lincoln County Process," named after Jack Daniel's Distillery's original location before the borders were moved. After four to six days, the distilled spirit is filtered, stripping oils and bitterness, and is then placed in new charred oak barrels. JackDaniels.com
This Lincoln County Process is also used by the second largest Tennessee whiskey maker — George Dickel. Just 18 miles from Jack Daniel's, the George Dickel Distillery employs 27 people and still does not use a computer in its production facilities. In fact, not much has changed since 1950. George A. Dickel started a wholesale liquor business in 1861 and later purchased shares of the Cascade Distillery. His whisky was listed in mail order catalogues as "mellow as moonlight" and spelled "whisky" without an "e," the Scotch style, because he believed his products were as smooth as Scotch.
In his will, Dickel instructed his wife to sell the distillery. Augusta Dickel didn't listen and kept the shares, but handed over operations to V.E. Shwab.Today, the George Dickel Distillery is truly a scene straight out of a western: A quant bridge leads you over a small stream, trees flutter, and barrels and buggies are stationed throughout. As for the whiskey, well, it's rich and layered with flavors. Caramel, vanilla and spice are ever-present in all the George Dickel whiskies, but especially lovely in the hard-to-find 14-year-old. Dickel.com
When tired of honky-tonking, discover that Nashville's burgeoning craft spirits scene offers a nice tune.
Leading this movement is Corsair. Founded in 2010, Corsair Distillery is a national leader in the growing craft spirits movement, especially for whiskey. In a short timeframe, Corsair has created more than a dozen experimental products, ranging from Oak Smoked Wheat Whiskey to Triticale Whiskey, which uses the cross species of wheat and rye. The Nashville distiller is mostly known for its Triple Smoke, a Gold medal winner at the 2010 San Francisco World Spirits Competition. To produce Triple Smoke, Corsair uses three fractions of malted barley smoked by different fuels — cherry wood, peat and beech wood. corsairartisan.com
Nelson's Green Brier Distillery
Even younger than Corsair is the not-yet-opened Nelson's Green Brier Distillery, which plans to open by the end of 2013. Currently, Nelson's Green Brier is purchasing bulk bourbon from MGP Ingredients' distillery in Lawrenceburg, Ind., and bottling as Belle Mead Bourbon. Once Nelson's Green Brier Distillery opens, the distillery will resurrect a distilling heritage that was as big as Jack Daniel's. In the late 1800s, Charlie Nelson's Green Brier Distillery sold 380,000 gallons of Tennessee whiskey all over the country and to Paris, France. But Prohibition destroyed this family name as it did so many other whiskey legends.The Nelsons hope to slowly bring back their place in whiskey history. greenbrierdistillery.com