Tennessee’s state pride has long been rooted in the whiskey industry. And yet it took a change in legislation to make a lofty endeavor—like the recently launched Tennessee Whiskey Trail—a feasible undertaking.
Up until just a few years back, only three distilleries operated in the entire state, post-Prohibition: Jack Daniel’s, George Dickel and Prichard’s. And prior to 2009, a voter referendum was required in each county on the question of whether a distillery could manufacture distilled spirits, a high barrier of entry that detoured far more than it enticed.
“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. If you were ok with drinking, you were ok with making,” explains Heath Clark, lawyer, owner of H. Clark Distillery and chair of the Tennessee Distillers Guild’s PR committee. “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.”
Clark explains that 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 in.
What happened in the years that followed was an influx of distilleries that were quick to let their home state pride show (not to mention their love of spirits be known): Tennessee went from three to more than 30 in just a handful 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 just 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. Kennedy intends to be a whiskey-only distillery using all local grains and local water and will produce around 500 barrels a year, though right now with Leiper’s Fork Distillery being so new, Old Natchez Trace white whiskey and rye white whiskey are his only products that are distilled on-site. The 5,000-square-foot distillery sits just outside of the town of Leiper’s Fork 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.
Meanwhile, the Tennessee Distillers Guild quietly assembled as more distilleries joined the mix. Suddenly, distillers weren’t competitors but rather allies—and they all realized that banding together would only increase their power as a whole. The seed of an idea to form a cohesive trail connecting the 25 members was born, and three years after the guild officially formed in 2014, 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 both the big guys (e.g. Jack and George) with the boutique distilleries and the newcomers in their fledgling years.
“The Tennessee Whiskey Trail is a joint effort … to feature Tennessee whiskey and moonshine, as well as the craftsmen and women that make them,” says Kris Tatum, president of the Tennessee Distillers Guild and manager of Old Forge Distillery. “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—the driving route crisscrosses the state, which spans more than 600 miles in length—though those with less time to spare could easily plan a weekend around the distilleries surrounding Franklin in Middle Tennessee or Gatlinburg in East.
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, as well as check in, take notes and earn stamps at distilleries via a digital passport (there’s also a paper passport available at each stop, as well).
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.