This article is from Tennessee/Lookout
Bill Lee stands beside an old boxcar parked off to one side of a lot at The Chattanooga Choo Choo – quite a fitting place for an old railroad car to spend its days. But it’s not sitting empty.
As Lee pulls the massive iron door open, its contents are revealed: Wooden barrels filled with aging spirits.
“That’s gin,” he says, pointing to one barrel after another. “That’s whiskey. That’s vodka. That one’s whiskey, too.”
Lee — not to be confused with Tennessee’s governor, but rather the owner of Gate 11 Distillery in Chattanooga — is one of more than 40 distillers in Tennessee who are members of the Tennessee Distillers Guild, 30-plus of whom are members of the Tennessee Whiskey Trail, a route that showcases their distilleries and stretches across Tennessee — east and west, north and south — attracting more than 8 million visitors annually.
“When people think of Tennessee, I think they think of two things. They think of music No. 1 because of our rich, musical heritage and contributions to American and world music, “ Lee says. “And the second thing they think of is whiskey.“
The Whiskey Trail, he says, is a bit of an adventure.
“People get a sense of accomplishment when they travel it,” he says. “We get people who’ve already done the Bourbon Trail in Kentucky or the Whisky Trail in Scotland, and now they’re doing the Whiskey Trail in Tennessee, so it’s their next accomplishment.”
And you get a twofer when you visit Gate 11. It’s located at the Chattanooga Choo Choo, and right across the street you’ll find Chattanooga Whiskey, another stop on the Tennessee Whiskey Trail.
Whiskey’s economic impact
Whiskey is a strong driver of tourism and economic growth in Tennessee, making a $3.45 billion impact on the state economy through sales, overnight lodging, food, and beverage, according to a study commissioned by the Tennessee Whiskey Trail. In addition, whiskey tourism and sales supported 30,000 jobs in the state and created tax revenues of $441.1 million.
“Visitors from around the world make the pilgrimage each year to explore the time-honored craft of Tennessee Whiskey,” said Mark Ezell, commissioner for the Tennessee Department of Tourist Development. “It’s an important driver of tourism, which creates revenue and jobs for many Tennesseans.”
Nearest Green Distillery, located in Lincoln County, is just six years old but has already become the seventh-most visited distillery in the world, says Brielle Caruso, chief marketing officer at Nearest Green.
“The state is a true destination for whiskey drinkers and Nearest Green Distillery certainly benefits from being part of this iconic trail,: she says, adding that she predicts the economic boom generated by Tennessee whiskey to continue as the tourism forecast predicts more than 8 million visitors to the state’s distillery when the final numbers come in for 2023.
And it’s not just the tourism industry that benefits from whiskey. Tennessee agriculture does, as well.
Many of the craft distilleries, such as Gate 11, purchase grain for their products from Tennessee farmers. In return, the farms dip into the spirit world as distilleries’ spent grains return to nearby farms to feed livestock. It’s a circle of life that goes from field to farm.
Of all the bourbon whiskeys and Scotch whiskys brewed worldwide, Tennessee whiskey has its own story to tell.
A little history lesson: Whiskey-making in Tennessee predates the Civil War. In fact, it’s the Scots-Irish, known for their prowess in making whisky, who brought the art of whiskey-making to the Volunteer State. In fact, they were so prolific and skilled in their craft, Tennessee’s Confederate government outlawed the production of spirits. But once the ban was lifted, distilling began again in earnest and within four decades, there were hundreds of distilleries across the state registered and bottling their hooch.
No two distilleries are the same. Each offers a different history, tasting experience and scenery. Some, such as Jack Daniel, George Dickel and Nearest Green, are located in small, scenic areas of the state. Others, like Gate 11 in Chattanooga, Old Dominick in Memphis and Nashville Barrel Co. are located in downtown urban areas.
Nearest Green Distillery is located on 432 prime acres in the heart of Middle Tennessee and distinguishes itself from other whiskey makers as the first to honor the first-known American-African master distiller, Nearest Green.
But that’s not the only distinction for this Shelbyville distillery, it’s also credited with helping perfect the Lincoln County Process, a method known as charcoal mellowing that sends newly made spirits through a pile of charcoal before it becomes whiskey. And that, you may have wondered, is what makes Tennessee whiskey different from Kentucky bourbon. All bourbons are whiskey, but not all whiskeys are bourbon.
Nearest Green is not only a stop on the Tennessee Whiskey Trail, its location is one that brings visitors by the carload to Shelbyville, generating thousands of dollars annually for the Lincoln County community where Green, known as the Godfather of Tennessee Whiskey, plied his trade.
Lee, too, is seeing an uptick in visitors to his distillery since the Tennessee Whiskey Trial was established, he says. They’re not only tasting and buying the three whiskeys made at Gate 11, they’re tasting his award-winning gin, vodka, agave, rum, and absinthe, too. The number of spirits distilled at the Chattanooga distillery sets it apart from others in the state.
Charity Toombs, executive director of the Tennessee Whiskey Trail and the Tennessee Distillers Guild, says the economic impact that whiskey, particularly the newer craft distilleries, has made in Tennessee is a multi-faceted one.
“Consumer appetite and interest has spurred off of whiskey and the fact that our [newer craft] distilleries are finally old enough to put out a well-fed product has timed perfectly with that interest. The interest in Tennessee has led to a natural interest in Tennessee whiskey, further establishing our state as a travel destination.”
According to figures from the Tennessee Department of Tourist Development, the Volunteer State saw 141 million visitors in 2022, up 10.5% year after year. And winery/brewery/distillery tours are among the top-10 activities in which travelers are most interested.
The first bottles of Jack Daniel were released in 1866. Nearly 100 years later, George Dickle introduced its whiskey. It took another 40 years before the first craft distillery, Prichard Distillery, opened in Kelso, Tennessee. Then, a reversal of laws set forth during Prohibition enabled craft distilleries to begin operation across the state.
“Tennessee is easily a generation behind in terms of spirit production coming out of Prohibition later than others,” Toombs says. “It wasn’t even legal to distill outside of the three counties that housed Jack Daniel, George Dickel, and Prichard before 2009. Today, Tennessee distillers are crafting spirits as diverse as the music born in this state. From blues to bluegrass and from vodka to Tennessee whiskey, distillers are bringing our innovative and legendary spirits to our communities and across the world.”
_ Anne Braly