Tennessee’s state pride has long been rooted in the whiskey industry; but it took a change in legislation to make the Tennessee Whiskey Trail a reality.
A few years ago, only three distilleries operated in the entire state, post-Prohibition: Jack Daniel in Lynchburg, The Cascade Hollow Distilling Co. in Tullahoma and Prichard’s in Kelso. Prior to 2009, a voter referendum was required in each county on the question of whether a distillery could manufacture distilled spirits.
“Senate Bill 1955 lifted the manufacture referendum requirement in counties that already voted in the affirmative to allow liquor by the drink and retail package sales," said Heath Clark, lawyer, owner of H. Clark Distillery as well as chair of the Tennessee Distillers Guild’s PR committee. "If you were okay with drinking, you were okay with making. This more lenient approach meant 70 percent of the population of Tennessee would live in counties eligible to host distilleries, but it also preserved choice by not requiring dry counties to host distilleries.”
In 2009, 29 of Tennessee’s 95 counties were dry and several eligible counties declined that eligibility by "taking themselves out of the bill." The regret was near immediate and, in 2013, additional legislation let those counties back into the bill.
What happened in the years that followed was an influx of distilleries that were quick to let their home state pride show and their love of spirits be known. Tennessee went from three to more than 30 in a couple of years.
The bill allowed people like Clark to stake claim to their own plots of land and start to create a history of their own. H. Clark Distillery‘s tasting bar and retail store operate out of a century-old, 1,200-square-foot granary in Thompson’s Station that doubles as his law practice. Though he opened his eponymous distillery in 2014, Clark is already busy filling the shelves of local liquor stores with a dry gin and his popular Black & Tan whiskey.
On the other side of the county in Leiper’s Fork, Lee Kennedy became the second distillery in Williamson County since Prohibition when he opened his doors in 2016. Leiper's Fork Distillery has made a name for itself in the rural area, producing five varieties of whiskey for visitors to taste. A $10 tour ticket gets you behind the curtain of this small-batch whiskey operation and taste the craftsmanship in each glass. The 5,000-square-foot distillery sits on 27 lush acres, and all its tastings and special events are conducted out of a 2,500-square-foot log cabin that doubles as a tasting room.
The Tennessee Distillers Guild quietly assembled as more distilleries joined the mix. Distillers weren’t competitors, but rather allies, banding together to increase their power as a whole. The seed of an idea to form a cohesive trail connecting the 25 members was born, and in 2017, it became a reality.
Once the Tennessee Whiskey Trail finally came to fruition, it made soaking up the culture of homegrown distilleries like Leiper’s Fork and H. Clark that much easier for residents and visitors alike by linking the world-famous whiskeys with the boutique distilleries.
“The Tennessee Whiskey Trail is a joint effort … to feature Tennessee whiskey and moonshine, as well as the craftsmen and women that make them,” said Kris Tatum, president of the Tennessee Distillers Guild and manager of Old Forge Distillery in Pigeon Forge. “On the Trail, visitors can learn about the art of distilling and about the history and the culture of whiskey-making that is legendary in our state. This Trail puts an international spotlight on Tennessee and its whiskey culture. We hope to see people come from all over the world to get a taste of this once-in-a-lifetime Tennessee whiskey experience.”
To travel the trail in its entirety, you’ll need to allot a solid 10 days as the driving route crisscrosses the state, which spans more than 600 miles in length. If you're on a time-crunch, you can easily plan a weekend around the distilleries surrounding Franklin in Middle Tennessee or Gatlinburg in East Tennessee.
To make the trail even more navigable, the Distillers Guild created a free app available for both iOS and Android devices that allows users to read more about the history of each area as they go, check in to each distillery, take notes and earn stamps via a digital passport. There’s also a printed passport available at each stop.
We at TNVacation.com ask that you drink responsibly. If you plan to consume alcohol and don’t have a designated driver as you head out on the Tennessee Whiskey Trail, there are a number of charter options like Signature Transportation Services that can transport you from distillery to distillery.