Tennessee whiskey may always be known for Jack Daniel’s, but a new era is beginning

Visitors walk past a statue of Jack Daniel in Lynchburg, Tenn., July 20, 2007. Jack Daniel's Distillery, which is the first registered whiskey distillery in the United States, offers free tours 360 days of the year.
Todd A. Price
Nashville Tennessean

The bourbon critic Fred Minnick remembers traveling to Argentina a dozen years ago and Jack Daniel’s was the only American whiskey he saw. That’s pretty much what he found back then wherever he traveled in the world.

“Jack Daniel’s is the absolute most important whiskey in the world. It opens the door for every bourbon brand,” Minnick said.

Kentucky has more distilleries. And the state produces bottles, like the cult coveted Pappy Van Winkle, that sell for astronomical prices. But Tennessee makes the American whiskey that most Americans drink.

Jack Daniel’s did not always dominate Tennessee whiskey. Before prohibition, it was a well-regarded regional whiskey, one of the many that were distilled and sold across the state. And today, since distilling was legalized in 2009 beyond the three Tennessee counties that are home to Jack Daniel’s, George Dickel and craft distillery Prichard’s, distilleries big and small have launched.

“We’re seeing new ones come online on a monthly basis,” said Alex Castle, master distiller at Memphis’ Old Dominick, which launched in 2017, and current president of the Tennessee Distillers Guild.

Master distiller Alex Castle at Old Dominick Distillery in downtown Memphis on Jan. 9, 2020.

Some of those distillers are making moonshine in East Tennessee. Some are experimenting with absinthe or gin. But many are making classic Tennessee whiskey, a bourbon that by state law must be filtered through charcoal. 

“Tennessee whiskey is always going to be driven by Jack Daniel’s,” Minnick said. “But they want Tennessee to grow. They want smaller distillers to get in.”

Something in the water

Kentucky has always been a land of whiskey makers. But in the 19th century, Tennessee was not far behind.

“At the end of the 1800s, there’s 700 distilleries in the state of Tennessee,” said Nelson Eddy, historian for Jack Daniel’s.

This is the view of Lynchburg, Tenn. from one of the whisky warehouses of the Jack DanielÕs Old Time Distillery July 3, 1965.

The two states had the critical elements for good whiskey: abundant corn, the main ingredient in bourbon; limestone that leaches minerals into the water; and cold winters and hot summers that push aging whiskey in and out of a barrel’s wood staves.

Kentucky, with access to the Ohio River that flowed from Pennsylvania to New Orleans, had an edge in the days when water was the best way to move barrels of whiskey. Most distilleries at the time, however, were making whiskey to be sold closer to home.

“It starts out in Tennessee and Kentucky as a cottage industry,” Eddy said. “A great way to keep your corn if you’re a farmer is to put it in a bottle. It becomes even more valuable when you put it in a barrel to get some age on it.”

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Many of the men distilling Tennessee whiskey before prohibition were Black. Prior to emancipation, they were often enslaved.

“I’ve found slave auction records that stated if somebody was a distiller from the Caribbean they would go for more,” Minnick said. “It’s something the distilling industry has always been hush hush about. Historians like myself would write about it, but no one talked about it on tours.”

That silence was broken in 2017 when Fawn Weaver launched Uncle Nearest whiskey, dedicated to the man who taught Jack Daniel how to distill.

Victoria Eady Butler, the master blender for Uncle Nearest Premium Whiskey and the great-great-granddaughter of the namesake of the company, poses at the master blender's house on the property of the distillery in Shelbyville, Tenn., Aug. 23, 2022.

“It was about showing the story of a white man and a Black man in the Deep South in the 1800s and early 1900s, really bringing a story of love, honor and respect to the world," said Katharine Jerkens, chief business officer for Uncle Nearest.

Today Uncle Nearest distills its award winning whiskeys in Shelbyville. And today when you tour Jack Daniel’s distillery, the guide will likely talk about Green’s role in creating the famous whiskey.

The lasting impact of Prohibition

Prohibition came early to Tennessee. The state had been working to oust John Barleycorn since the 19th century, long before the U.S. enacted a national ban in 1920.

In 1829, three years after the American Temperance Society was founded in Massachusetts, Tennessee chapters opened in Kingsport and Nashville. In 1909, liquor sales were banned within four miles of any schools and manufacturing “intoxicating beverages” was outlawed in the state. The new laws were largely ignored in Nashville and Memphis.

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In 1933, the 21st Amendment finally ended America’s experiment with Prohibition.

“At the end of Prohibition, Kentucky opened itself up to an industry that was consolidated and just needed a home,” said Clay Risen, New York Times reporter and author of “American Rye: A Guide to the Nation’s Original Spirit.”

Tennessee was slow to embrace both distilling and the sale of alcohol.

“Even in 1938, when Jack Daniel’s starts putting whiskey up in barrel houses, it can’t be sold in the state. Nashville wasn’t ‘liquor by the drink’ until 1967,” said Eddy, the historian for Jack Daniel’s.

Cascade Hollow, which makes George Dickel, did not start distilling again in Tennessee until 1958.

Kyle Pyrdom leads a tour of Cascade Hollow Distilling Co., formerly the George Dickel Distillery, on March 30, 2018, in Tullahoma, Tenn.

“Tennessee could have gone the way of Pennsylvania or Maryland, where the distilling industry completely disappeared,” Risen said. “It’s in some ways a testament to Jack Daniel’s and Cascade Hollow that they kept the lights on for the category. Otherwise, we might not be talking about it today.”

In 1997, Prichard’s Distillery, the first new Tennessee distillery to open since Prohibition, launched in Lincoln County, one of only three counties in the state that allowed liquor production at the time.

A new era of Tennessee whiskey

By the time the Tennessee legislature finally opened up most of the state to distilling in 2009, craft distillers were already common across the country. And craft brewers were operating throughout Tennessee.

“I think a lot of people definitely felt it was about parity. If you’re able to brew in these counties, why can’t you distill in these counties?” said Castle of the Tennessee Distillers Guild.

At first, many of the new distilleries that opened in Tennessee were more interested in experiments than classic Tennessee whiskey. Nashville-based Corsair, one of the first of the new distilleries to get national attention, made oddities like red absinthe and aged gin.

Prichard's Distillery owner and master distiller Phil Prichard, left, offers a taste his products to visitors at the distillery Feb. 27, 2023 in Kelso, Tenn.

“It’s really been in the last five or six years that the distillers that emerged as the new leaders are putting their weight behind Tennessee whiskey,” Risen said.

Those new leaders include Uncle Nearest and Nelson’s Green Brier. Sazerac Co., which makes Blanton’s, Weller, George T. Stagg, Buffalo Trace and Pappy Van Winkle in Kentucky, is building a distillery and visitors center in Murfreesboro, conveniently located midway between Nashville and Lynchburg, the home of Jack Daniel’s.

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The yet-to-be-named Tennessee whiskey from Sazerac is currently aging in barrels and will not be released for at least another year and a half.

“I think Tennessee whiskey is still evolving. It’s still showing what its identity really is,” Castle said.

Todd A. Price writes about food and culture in the South. He can be reached at taprice@gannett.com.