New generation of distillers write next chapter for Tennessee whiskey
This story is part of Spirits of the South, a tour through some of the best bars and distilleries the South has to offer. We've also created some excellent craft cocktail recipes for you to try at home. See it all here.
Whiskey has a long history in Tennessee. But the story of Tennessee whiskey is still being written.
“We’re still in pretty early days, and it’s something I’m excited about,” said Nicole Austin, who in 2018 was appointed the head distiller at Cascade Hollow, maker of George Dickel whiskey.
Cascade Hollow has operated since 1878. And Jack Daniel’s is the most popular American whiskey brand by a large margin. But Tennessee whiskey has long been overshadowed by bourbon from Kentucky.
Tennessee whiskey is bourbon with one step added: charcoal filtering. At Jack Daniel’s, the whiskey drips through charcoal. Dickel mingles in the barrel with charcoal. (Prichard’s Tennessee whiskey does neither. The craft distillery, founded in 1997, was grandfathered in when the state officially defined the style in 2013.)
A new generation of ambitious distillers now lead the state’s two largest brands. Since arriving at Cascade Hollow, Austin released a 100-proof bottled in bond version of Dickel that was named whiskey of the year by Whisky Advocate magazine. Austin, who started her career at the craft distillery Kings County, also recently collaborated with Leopold Bros. in Colorado, combining both distilleries' ryes into a single blend.
“This is one of the only examples I know where a large, global company collaborated with a small, independent distillery and they both got equal billing on the label,” Austin said.
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Chris Fletcher, who became Jack Daniel’s master distiller in October 2020, plans to put his stamp on the iconic brand with single barrel releases and bottles that appeal to serious sippers.
New distilleries are opening across the state, like Nelson’s Green Brier, which has roots in the 19th century and was relaunched in 2014 by members of the founding family. Since Tennessee allowed distilling state-wide in 2009, dozens of small distilleries have opened, like Chattanooga, H. Clark and Nashville Craft Distillery. Not all of them are making Tennessee whiskey, but more are every year.
"I think in 10 years you’re going to see 30 Tennessee whiskeys," said Bruce Boeko of Nashville Craft Distillery.
Fawn Weaver began with the story when she founded Uncle Nearest Premium Whiskey in 2017.
“We’re a legacy cementing company,” Weaver said.
The legacy is that of Nearest Green, the once enslaved man who taught Jack Daniel how to distill. Uncle Nearest has become one of the fastest growing whiskeys in America.
“Fawn hit every note right, in terms of how she’s positioned it,” said Chuck K. Cowdery, author of “Bourbon, Straight.”
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For Weaver, Green’s story is one of overcoming struggle. She saw his story as a way to appeal to everyone, not just the white, male drinkers who were long the target market for bourbon.
“It is impossible for this category of spirit to continue to be known as ‘America’s spirit’ if we’re only talking to 30% of America,” she said.
In the end, you can’t drink a story. Weaver had to deliver a quality whiskey. She did. Uncle Nearest has won hundreds of awards in just a few years.
When Weaver launched Uncle Nearest, she played down its identity as Tennessee whiskey, even though it met all the requirements.
“Before we began, people were not speaking positively about Tennessee whiskey,” she said. “I knew we were going to have an uphill battle if we put Tennessee whiskey on the label.”
Now, she will proudly tell you that Tennessee ranks with Kentucky, Scotland and Ireland as ideal places to make world-class whiskey. It is all about the limestone water.
“At the core of any whiskey is good grain and good water,” she said.
Any classic cocktail that calls for bourbon, like a whiskey sour, an Old-Fashioned or a Manhattan, works just fine with Tennessee whiskey.
2 ounces Tennessee whiskey
1 ounce sweet vermouth
2 dashes Angostura bitters
Maraschino cherries, for garnish
In a mixing glass, combine the whiskey, vermouth and bitters. Fill with ice and stir with a cocktail spoon until chilled, about 30 seconds. Strain into a chilled coupe or other cocktail glass and garnish with the cherries. Serve.
Grown-up Jack and Coke recipe
This flavorful highball cocktail is a grown-up version of the classic southern drink, Jack and Coke. Molasses and angostura bitters hint at Coca-Cola, while your favorite Tennessee whiskey provides the oomph. Top it all off with club soda and a splash of lime. Note: This recipe makes four drinks.
8 ounces Tennessee whiskey
1 1/2 ounce molasses
1 ounce fresh lime juice, plus lime wedges, for garnish
1/2 ounce Angostura bitters
In a mixing glass, combine the whiskey, molasses, lime juice and bitters. Stir to dissolve the molasses. Fill four highball or Collins glasses with ice. Divide the whiskey mixture between the glasses and top with the soda. Garnish with a lime wedge and serve immediately.