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Tennessee Whiskey, Part 2: New Players Emerge As Opportunity Grows

May 1, 2019

While Jack Daniel’s remains the standard-bearer for the Tennessee whiskey category, a host of newer contenders have emerged in recent years, aiming to capitalize on the booming market for brown spirits and the state’s rich distilling history.

Following Prohibition, Tennessee’s distilling industry was so tightly regulated that only three distilleries—Jack Daniel’s, which reopened in 1938; George Dickel, which reopened in 1958; and Prichard’s, which opened in 1997—operated in the entire state. Change didn’t come until 2009, when the laws were relaxed to allow production in 41 additional counties—and Tennessee’s whiskey culture leapt back to life. In 2014, the Tennessee Distillers Guild was formed, and today it supports a dedicated Tennessee Whiskey Trail across the state that includes roughly 30 distilleries.

Among the up and coming players is Nelson’s Green Brier, in which Constellation holds a minority stake. Nelson’s Green Brier is currently waiting for its own whiskey to mature, but the distillery’s Belle Meade Bourbon label—sourced from MGP Ingredients—has attracted a following for its high rye content and specialty cask finishes. Belle Meade Cask Strength ranked No. 10 in Whisky Advocate’s 2018 Top 20. The company is gearing up for this year’s launch of the core Nelson’s whiskey, which will have been aged for four years when bottled.

Uncle Nearest, launched in 2017, is named for an enslaved man, Nathan “Nearest” Green, who taught Jack Daniel how to make whiskey in the mid-19th century; founder Fawn Weaver heard about his story from a New York Times article that mentioned how Brown-Forman had begun telling it as part of its visitor tours at Jack Daniel’s Distillery. Touting its namesake as “the greatest whiskey maker the world never knew,” Uncle Nearest offers its core 1856 whiskey ($60 a 750-ml.) and the 1820 Single Barrel Edition whiskey ($119). The liquid is currently sourced, but the company is building a distillery in Shelbyville.

Heaven’s Door Spirits, a collaboration between music legend Bob Dylan and Spirits Investment Partnership, debuted in April 2018, and this year will open a distillery and visitor center in a 140-year-old church in downtown Nashville. The Heaven’s Door lineup currently features a 10-year-old Tennessee Straight Bourbon ($130) that was charcoal-mellowed, a Straight Tennessee Bourbon ($50) that didn’t undergo the charcoal filtration, Double Barrel whiskey ($50), and Straight Rye whiskey ($80).

Other players are also getting involved in Tennessee whiskey in a big way. In late 2016, Sazerac purchased a distillery in Newport, Tennessee, where the Popcorn Sutton brand had been produced, although it did not acquire the brand. Master distiller John Lunn and distiller Allisa Henley—both George Dickel alumni—remained onboard following the transition, helming a not-yet-named whiskey project that uses the Lincoln County Process of charcoal-mellowing. Sazerac has also purchased a new distillery site in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, outside Nashville, which is in the design phase and expected to take about 12-18 months to complete once construction begins.

Elsewhere, Chattanooga Whiskey started work on its first distillery in 2015. Today, that facility—the first in the city in more than a century—serves as an experimental distillery. In 2017, Chattanooga Whiskey opened a second, 46,000-square-foot distillery that sits on the Tennessee River and serves as its headquarters. The Riverfront distillery is now producing Chattanooga’s core 1816 label—described as a Tennessee high-malt Bourbon—as well as small-batch releases. A full feature on Tennessee whiskey appears in the May issue of Market Watch.—Kimberly Tharel

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