A Tasting Down South

By Clifford Roberts

“We’re real safe in the area I live in,” says the roly-poly gift store manager at the Coca Cola factory. “Our neighbours are two churches and a youth camp.” As an afterthought she adds: “Oh yes! And then there’s the gunsmith. Every now and then you’ll hear him testing an AK47 or something...”

I’ve set out to visit ten Tennessee and Kentucky distilleries in two weeks, the idea being to learn about America’s grand whiskey heritage. I get far more than I bargained for. 

At first, it is all guns and Bibles to me. Watching from the car as I trundle through the landscape, I see countless chain restaurants, houses with American flags slung on porches, sprawling lawns and ride-on mowers, and big cars on big highways.

“You’ve heard of the Bible belt? Well, this here’s the buckle,” declares our Nashville tour guide—a former comedian with a sense of humour as dry as Prohibition. “In this city’s big business stakes, Bible printing outranks pharmaceuticals and even country music.” 

Our excursion takes us past the elaborate gates of Dolly Parton’s driveway (the plantation-style house is mostly hidden from view), the apartment building where country star Taylor Swift has her penthouse (curtains drawn), and a branch of the Federal Reserve. Our guide points to the ‘For Sale’ sign pegged in the squat government building’s front lawn, and mutters into the bus intercom, “Now you know the economy’s really in the toilet…”

It might be so, but it doesn’t keep the punters from coming out later that night, when downtown Nashville comes alive. Choked sidewalks, bathed in the hue of neon light, overflow into the street, and music spills out through open windows of restaurants such as BB King’s, Coyote Ugly and Margaritaville, where young, unknown musicians play and dream of making it big—just like the buskers outside. 

As for whiskey, I have to venture into the barbwire-lined backstreets of a grimy industrial area for my first real local experience. The Corsair Craft Distillery  is situated in an old red-brick factory building, having opened after an easing of Prohibition-era regulations in the city. Many counties in this part of the Land of the Free—including the home of Jack Daniels—remain ‘dry’. But more about that later. In the distinctive former factory of Marathon Motors—using a bulbous 1 300-litre copper still that looks like something out of a Jules Verne novel—Corsair makes whiskey. And for the real local experience I am looking for, the pulse of hard rock draws me outside, to a derelict courtyard of the building, where a game of corn haul is underway. Players in wraparound sunglasses and long, wispy beards glug on craft beer (also sold on the premises) while tossing beanbags into a hole across the yard.

The Southern vibe starts to take hold the next day as our rented Dodge rolls down the four-lane interstate towards Lynchburg. I catch myself tapping along to a tune called Hillbilly Bone by country singer Blake Shelton. 

The road into Moore County narrows. A trio of Harley Davidsons leads the way, glistening in the sunlight as they mosey ahead of the car, like dolphins at the bow. Ironically, Lynchburg is just like the advertising: small and slow. The CBD would fit into a single rugby field. There’s a tidy cemetery covered in bright flowers; a bridge dedicated to POWs and dead soldiers. The centre of town is a square that fills up with Harleys over the weekends. There’s an abundance of trinket shops, but a few are boarded up. “Competition is tough,” a receptionist at one of the stores tells us.

Most people who live here, though, work at Jack Daniels Distillery.  From a window seat at the Iron Kettle diner—“a proud distributor of US farm-raised catfish”—I watch a rust-coloured dog snoozing on the back of an old Ford bakkie. Noting my interest, a man in gumboots and jeans remarks: “That dog belonged to a good man who died a few years ago—Jimmy Bedford.” I’m surprised at the mention of the iconic former Jack Daniels master distiller. “He used to travel around, all over the country, the world,” says the stranger. “Ever since Jimmy’s death a few years ago, a friend still takes Zimmer there for a ride on his departed owner’s truck.”

At the distillery, a gum-chewing man in teardrop sunglasses conducts the tour. He walks backwards as he takes us past the heaps of sugar maple soon to be charcoal for filtering, the limestone cave that’s the source for spring water, and, through the mash house that smells like ProNutro. Most of the operation is invisible, hidden among the forests, with the whiskey-maturing rick houses along surrounding hilltops offering the only clues to scale. 

My next stop is Tullahoma—the rather unattractive town closest to the Diageo-owned George Dickel Distillery , and home to a three-screen drive-in. I decide to check out. It’s a quiet night, and the Dodge is surrounded by vacant bays. Hoping to spice things up, I order something unfamiliar in the cheerful canteen, and the manager invites me past the “Employees Only” sign into the kitchen to see how ‘funnel cake’ is made. Minutes later I abandon the foil-wrapped, deep-fried doughy mass in the darkness of the parking lot.

The distillery proves a better bet the next day, where our guide attempts an explanation of liquor legislation and the difference between dry (no alcohol sales allowed), moist (limited sales of alcohol) and wet counties. Each county—the size of a large municipality—decides for itself, but the rules are generally applied with more rigidity the further you move from the cities. At the end of the tour, you know what’s coming, but you still feel cheated when they point out no tasting is allowed. Of course, everybody buys a bottle. After that abrupt conclusion and the lemonade served at Jack Daniels, I was glad to be finally heading north.

In the chocolate-box village of Bardstown, I make a base. It’s a central point from which to explore the whiskey route, but also an attractive place to stay. My own estimations are confirmed by the owner of a coffee shop, who says business is good, thanks to a resurgence of interest in bourbon, and Bardstown’s location on a popular transcontinental biker route.

This revival is evident in the furious construction underway at Jim Beam  and Maker's Mark , and the recently completed new exhibition centre at Heaven Hill. Apparently preparations are being made for a massive new bottling facility at Wild Turkey, and a new bourbon museum is scheduled to open in 2013 in Louisville.

Not everyone feels the uptick. At my motel I ask the owner—who emigrated from India with her family 40 years ago—about life in America. “It used to be the land of opportunity,” she says. “Not so much now.” She’d go back, but her children have established lives here and she prefers to be near them.

This weekend, however, the trials of daily life (and my visits to the region’s distilleries) are temporarily suspended. It’s Kentucky Derby time, and hordes have descended on Louisville for the races at Churchill Downs. There’s no room for miles around. 

I pack the Dodge and aim it down one last byway through green farmland, horse paddocks and hills, before finding the four-lane highway that accompanies me on the journey back towards home. 

What’s Up With Whiskey?

The spiritual home of the whiskey industry, and particularly bourbon, is Kentucky. Bourbon whiskey is different in that its production must satisfy certain legislated rules: it must be made in the US, with more than half its mash comprised of corn, free of additives, and matured in charred, new American white oak barrels for at least two years.

Jack Daniels Tennessee Whiskey, for example, is not bourbon, because it makes use of additional processes such as charcoal filtration. 

A major promoter of the industry is the Bourbon Experience, a route linking six major brands and distillers—Jim Beam (which has 1,8 million 200-litre barrels maturing at any one time); Woodford Reserve; Makers Mark (whose shipment of 300 000 cases in 2000 had grown to 1,2 million last year); Japanese-owned Four Roses (which bottles some of its whiskeys exclusively for the Japanese market); Heaven Hill (the largest family-owned distillery in the world); and Campari-owned Wild Turkey (producer of between 19 and 42 million litres per year). 

There are, however, a number of additional distilleries that can be visited, including Frankfort’s Buffalo Trace (one of the very few that remained open through Prohibition, making whiskey for medicinal purposes) and Barton 1792, in Bardstown.