Tennessee whiskey is bourbon. Let’s just get that part out of the way. This is not my opinion, but a statement of fact. The persistence of this argument intrigues me, however. The question comes up time and again in bourbon groups. Mostly it feels like it’s done as a way of discrediting Tennessee whiskey, of creating a ‘less than’ statement.
Tennessee just doesn’t get a fair shake in the world of whiskey enthusiasts. So, when Nino asked if I’d come back to The Whiskey Wash to write a monthly column, there was little question of what I’d first address. The only question was how. Luckily, a big announcement from Jack Daniel’s helped me find my way.
Lightbulb moment: The two oldest, most well-known distilleries in Tennessee are both being run by distillers under 40. And, in general, whiskey coming out of Tennessee is getting older and the distillers, blenders, and founders are getting younger. Women are running the show in increasing numbers. Across the state, Tennessee whiskey makers are mastering the blend of tradition and innovation. So where’s the respect?
Claims that Tennessee whiskey isn’t “really” bourbon is about as much conversation as we can muster. Tennessee distillers and distilleries and the whiskeys coming from them tend to get shrugged off. Largely ignored, Tennessee distillers have been putting away their liquid without much fanfare or media attention. Now that those products are reaching respectable ages and getting bottled, it’s time for Tennessee to have its day in the sun.
Chris Fletcher and Nicole Austin are the leaders behind our heritage distillers, Jack Daniel’s and George Dickel, respectively. Tradition is paramount to these iconic Tennessee Whiskey brands, the only distilleries revived from the state’s prolonged prohibition. For decades, not much changed with Jack & George, but the old boys are finding new life under fresh leadership.
Fletcher, 39, recently assumed the title of Master Distiller at Jack Daniel’s, making him only the 8th person ever in that role. “Our distillery operates in the most traditional method I’ve seen,” he says, discussing their ability to control every component from grain to barrel. “The possibilities are almost endless,” he continues, “we don’t have to rely on outsourcing to create new-to-world offerings.” On exciting upcoming releases, he teases, “Our newest Single Barrel Special Release is a barrel proof rye whiskey – I think that says it all.”
Austin, 36, made an immediate splash at Dickel. She charged out of the gate, introducing herself to the world with Whisky of the Year for her first Bottled In Bond expression. “The Dickel innovations are very much about honoring tradition,” Austin explains, “especially Bottled in Bond.” Coming soon from Austin are two more nods to the past: a 150 Year Anniversary bottling and a 15 year old single barrel line extension. But her creative juices are flowing into the future as well, in the form of the new Cascade Moon brand. “Each Edition [of Cascade Moon] is different and meant to be a little unusual, so lots of excitement and challenge there,” she says.
But wait. There’s more.
Beverage giants Sazerac and Constellation also have stakes in Tennessee. Sazerac is in the process of moving their Tennessee distilling operations from Newport to Smyrna, one step closer to their anticipated home in Murfreesboro. Allisa Henley and long time distilling partner John Lunn look forward at least three years before their products go to market. Henley, 43, believes Sazerac’s celebrity might help to bolster the Tennessee reputation. “Sazerac bourbons are some of the most sought after in the world; we plan on adding a premium Tennessee Whiskey to that family.”
Constellation’s investment into Nelson’s Green Brier distillery brought capital, focus and distribution. Andy and Charlie Nelson, 37 and 36, resurrected this family company that was founded in the 1860s. While aging their signature Tennessee Whiskey, the brothers and co-founders sourced bourbon. Their unique cask finishes quickly became highly sought after, with distillery releases seeing lines around the block. Now distributed in 46 states, Andy Nelson says, “We try to maintain the spirit of our family business that allowed it to thrive so long ago while bringing a certain creative and innovative spirit that is more reflective of the modern day.” New finishes are on the horizon, but details are hushed.
Tennessee is no exception when it comes to a boom of craft distilleries. Of course, many started with moonshines and unaged spirits and really young whiskeys. But now those awkward days are behind us and the whiskeys are making their proper debuts. Sure, maybe you had a corn bomb a few years ago that turned your nose up to the category, but come back. Try us again. You probably didn’t like asparagus the first time you had it, either. We all grow up.
I can keep talking about Tennessee and all the cool stuff our distillers are up to, but I promised Nino I’d stick to 800(ish) words… Visit me over at Straight Up 615 for the Skinny on Tennessee Whiskey– upcoming releases, failed experiments, and weird projects revealed.
Cary Ann Fuller
Cary Ann is an Army Brat with Southern tendencies. Born in Washington State to parents from Florida, she lived many points in between before settling in Nashville, TN (again). Cary Ann developed a passion for brown water early in life, and has translated that into a whiskey-centric life. Under Straight...