Tennessee Whiskey Trail: What to know when planning your custom trip

Mackensy Lunsford
Nashville Tennessean

Of all the spirits, American whiskey has one of the biggest stories to tell. The story of Tennessee whiskey in particular seems to have only just begun, and the rest of the country is taking notice.

That's in part because of the whiskey's allure. Immortalized in song and championed by a growing number of smart, young distillers and consumers, Tennessee whiskey is having a moment.

In 2022, the Tennessee Whiskey Trail, a collaborative effort put together by more than 30 Tennessee distillers, welcomed 7.8 million visitors into statewide distilleries. That's an increase of 1.3 million visitors over 2019. To say interest in Tennessee whiskey is on the rise is an understatement, said Whiskey Trail executive director Charity Toombs.

The first several dozen barrels of Nelson's Green Brier Tennessee Whiskey are stored at Nelson's Green Brier Distillery on Sept. 10, 2019, in Nashville.

The Tennesee Whiskey Trail links together more than two dozen distilleries in a whiskey road that runs from the mountainous eastern border to the barbecue-steeped culture of Memphis in the west. It's as much a celebration of the state itself as it is of its whiskey.

"It's an adventure, and that's what we invite guests to do, is immerse themselves in these adventures and to partake in and enjoy the spirits and the distillers who call Tennessee home," Toombs said.

Bottles of Jack Daniel's Single Barrel Select on display at the Jack Daniel Distillery, Friday, Feb. 26, 2016, in Lynchburg, Tenn.

The iconic Jack Daniel Distillery and its scenic Lynchburg environs often serve as a starting point. But Toombs said that, as visitors fan out across the state, they're often charmed by the lesser-known distilleries. The state and its diverse topography from end to end is its own draw.

Among the smaller whiskey makers on the trail is Brushy Mountain Distillery, set in a historic former state penitentiary wedged in a narrow mountain valley. Woodbury's Short Mountain Distillery, set on a 300-acre working farm, boasts nearby falls and hiking trails. And Bootleggers Distillery, situated on the North Carolina-Tennessee border, has as a backdrop Smoky Mountain ridges, which blaze with color in the fall.

Tour guide Jeff Schuler tells stories about how bootleggers made people drink at gunpoint during the cocktail making class at the Short Mountain Distillery on April 14, 2017, in Woodbury, Tenn.

Experiential distillery tours providing far more than a snifter of booze appeal to younger consumers, Toombs said.

"We're seeing that even in the distillery experiences," she said. "It's not just going to the distillery for a tasting. These distilleries are truly trying to create immersive experiences."

Tennessee Whiskey Trail organizers have seized on that thirst for more, creating trail itineraries for music lovers, holiday shoppers and outdoor enthusiasts. One popular route takes visitors close to natural waterfalls and hiking trails.

Their guides help break the trail into manageable bites. With so much ground to cover, visiting all 28 stops takes real dedication.

"We had a guest that was from the U.K. who started the trail in 2017 and completed it in 2020," Toombs said. "He took three international trips to complete the trail."

Tips for taking the Tennessee Whiskey Trail trek

Plan your trip: Consider an itinerary. Find curated trips and trail routes at tnwhiskeytrail.com/trip-planner, including Waterfalls and Whiskey, Urban Getaway and Outdoor Adventurer. Or pick your trail visit based on region.

Get your passport: The official Tennessee Whiskey Trail Passport is your guide to getting around. Download your digital passport at tnwhiskeytrail.com/passport, then collect stamps digitally by “checking in” to distilleries along the trail. Or pick up a hard copy at a Tennessee distillery. Collect stamps at each distillery visit and redeem your completed passport for a commemorative gift. 

Download your trail map: There's a handy Google Maps version of the Tennessee Whiskey Trail. Download it at tnwhiskeytrail.com/maps-downloads and hit the highway.

Study up before you go: Check out a directory of the distilleries at tnwhiskeytrail.com/distilleries. Make sure to visit each website and see what kind of arrangements you need to make before hitting the road. If you need to book tours in advance, for example, you'll want to know before your show up at the distillery's doorstep.

See what Tennessee has to offer: Mix up your Whiskey Trail experience. Try starting the day with a distillery in a rural area, such as the Jack Daniel Distillery in Lynchburg. End your day at an urban distillery, such as Corsair and Nelson's Green Brier Distillery, both located just an hour and a half from Lynchburg in downtown Nashville's growing Marathon Village.