5 Tennessee Whiskey Destinations for Distillery Tours and Tastings

With a legacy as old as its neighbor Kentucky, the Volunteer State has heritage distilleries and exciting upstarts to please any palate.

<p>Nashville Barrel Company</p>

Nashville Barrel Company

In a nondescript commercial building a few miles from the honky tonks of Lower Broadway, Whiskey House - Nashville hides in plain sight. Through a cluttered antechamber, more than 5,500 bottles line its walls, which founder John G. Brittle, Jr., 60, claims is the largest collection of open whiskies in the U.S., and maybe the world. In grass-stained jeans and a dirty black T-shirt (he spent the morning gardening), Brittle explains that expressions are organized by origins: Kentucky and Tennessee have adjoining rooms; Indiana, home to the mass-distiller MGP Ingredients, occupies a hallway. The Chapel, complete with upholstered pews and surrounded by distilling relics, hosts industry nights and trustee meetings. And then there’s the Vault, where only the rarest whiskies are displayed: the Pappys, Wellers, the Michters. “‘The whiskey experience of a lifetime,’” he says, brandishing an engraved snifter with the motto. “People want an experience, and we’ve created one.”

Established in 2019 as a 501(c)(3) and in its current location for the past three years, WHN has harnessed America’s infatuation with its native spirit into a philanthropic tour de force. Through auctioned rare whiskey tastings, it has raised more than $1 million in the last two years for charity partners with missions ranging from the hyper-local to national in scope. “You can go to a bar and drink good whiskey,” Brittle says. “[At WHN,] you’re drinking extraordinarily rare stuff that you can’t get at a bar.”

The growth of Brittle’s nonprofit mirrors that of the Tennessee spirits industry in general: sudden and with a surprising passion. Like its neighbor Kentucky, the Volunteer State has a distilling legacy measured in centuries. But unlike its sister, Tennessee adopted prohibition early, in 1910, a full decade before the 18th amendment. And unlike Kentucky’s exceptions, the ban was a blanket on the industry. Following the country-wide repeal, it reluctantly resumed, but at a glacial pace: Jack Daniel’s restarted production in 1938, five years following the repeal of the 18th amendment, while George Dickel, the state’s other large-scale heritage producer, fired up its stills in 1964. It took special legislation in 2009 to finally usher in craft distilling, and even today, 14 of the 95 counties remain dry.

“I call it the hundred-year hangover,” says Seth Weinberg, a WHN trustee, liquor consultant, and founder of the soon-to-open Vintage Whiskey Vault in Nashville. “Tennessee still has a lot of room to grow.”

The classic Tennessee spirit will always be its namesake Tennessee whiskey. According to Weinberg, however, the definition — and the taste — is not always distinct. According to the internationally binding NAFTA, Tennessee whiskey is straight bourbon whiskey made within the state. But state code further restricts it, requiring filtration through maple charcoal before aging in a step called the Lincoln County Process with rare exception. Some say this results in a sweeter, less biting product. But some Kentucky bourbons voluntarily charcoal-filter, and the same limestone shelf that purifies Tennessee springs also runs under parts of Missouri, Kentucky, and Illinois, blurring terroir distinctions. Even experienced aficionados can struggle to identify the state of origin of higher-proof expressions in a blind taste. “I don’t necessarily differentiate Tennessee whiskey from bourbon whiskey or American whiskey in general, because there are so many different styles,” he admits.

Related: What’s the Difference Between Bourbon and Tennessee Whiskey?

Tennessee’s distilleries are legion and the whiskey is broadly distributed around the state. From Old Dominick in Memphis and Chattanooga Whiskey to Ole Smokey in Gatlinburg and Corsair in Nashville, options abound. Traditionalists will find their favorites, but the next great expression may be aging in a dusty barrel waiting for the right time to be tapped.

“There are distilleries out there with these young people who trained in the industry under the bigs. Now they’re out there on their own,” Brittle says. “That’s the future of great whiskey, and we’re looking for the next great stuff.”

Nearest Green Distillery

<p>courtesy of Uncle Nearest Distillery</p>

courtesy of Uncle Nearest Distillery

The Uncle Nearest origin story has been confirmed by historians and experts: The enslaved Nearest Green teaching a young Jack Daniel the art of distillation or perfecting the charcoal-filtering Lincoln County Process, which in part distinguishes Tennessee whiskies from other bourbons. Once a free man, Green became the first master distiller for Jack Daniel's Distillery. Now Fawn and Keith Weaver pay homage with this spirits brand, which has grown into the most successful Black-owned liquor company in the world. Visitors to its Shelbyville, Tennessee, home can sip cocktails at its Guinness-recognized bar (518 feet!) and pick up one of its distillery-exclusive expressions, including an uncut, unfiltered rye.

Nelson’s Green Brier Distillery

<p>Kelli Dirks Photo</p>

Kelli Dirks Photo

Nelson’s may tout a 150-year history in the state and a claim for the oldest recipe still in use for its Green Brier Tennessee Whiskey, but its modern roots begin with two brothers reconnecting with their family’s storied past. Andy and Charlie Nelson discovered their great-great-great grandfather’s legacy and began selling their own blend, the now-famous Belle Meade Bourbon, from their garage in East Nashville in 2009. Today, at a former auto factory near downtown Nashville, their stills again run, continuing the family tradition. Guided tours, exclusive expressions, whiskey flights, and a hot-weather favorite “cold fashioned” — a slushy take on the classic cocktail — are must-tries in the Music City.

Jack Daniels

<p>Jack Daniel's Properties, Inc.</p>

Jack Daniel's Properties, Inc.

From Sinatra and the Stones to Slash and Springsteen, the most famous Tennessee whiskey brand in the world needs no introduction. Jack Daniel’s home of Lynchburg, Tennessee, (population: 6,000) is a soft start to the distillery experience, with small-town Southern hospitality and the company’s family-style Miss Mary Bobo's Restaurant off the square. Tours of the property itself, which dates back to 1875, allow for sipping and gawking at a century and a half of memorabilia. Surrounding Moore County may be dry, but Daniel’s has a special dispensation to sell from its White Rabbit Bottle Shop.

Nashville Barrel Company

<p>Nashville Barrel Company</p>

Nashville Barrel Company

Three friends with a passion — and a palate — for whiskey began buying single barrels in 2018. Today, every upstart comes up with its own blend, but Nashville Barrel Company was ahead of the curve, and its small-run selections distinguish it from others. From its downtown Nashville tasting room and nearby distillery, it extends this tradition to visitors, who can sample individual barrels and walk out with a bottle of their favorite. Special drops, including a honey barrel-finished straight bourbon and single barrel straight rye, often dribble out from NBC's private stash, making every visit a chance to hit the lottery. After all, they've earned Double Gold Awards from the San Francisco World Spirits Competition for four years.

George Dickel Distillery

<p>courtesy of Cascade Hollow Distilling</p>

courtesy of Cascade Hollow Distilling

Tucked back in the Cascade Hollow of Tullahoma, Tennessee, Dickel has crafted its distinct sour mash Tennessee whisky (note the spelling) for almost 150 years. Following post-prohibition rebirth in 1964, it rebuilt its distillery into a robust summertime must-see. The Front Porch Friday series, which runs from May to October, features signature cocktails and Nashville songwriters in a pastoral setting far from the bustle of Lower Broadway. A bonus for pilgrims: Its visitor center is one of the few places in the world where all four Bottled in Bond series liquors are readily available.

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