Barreling Forward: The Evolution of Nashville Spirits and Brews

The road to Nashville’s booming beverage business has been a long one. Today, Music City is home to thriving distillers, a flourishing beer culture and promising cocktail movement that have redefined the city as a craft spirits hub.

If there’s any place that ought to be a whiskey town, it’s Nashville.

Given the city’s artistic penchant, with its songwriters paying earthy tributes to whiskey rivers, and its close proximity to the distillery-driven Kentucky cities of Louisville and Lexington, it seems like a no-brainer whiskey would factor into the equation. But that hadn’t been the case until very recently. Sure, Nashville had its regional imports—like Tennessee whiskeys Jack Daniel’s and George Dickel, and Kentucky bourbons from Bardstown and Louisville—but nothing to call its own. In the past decade, however, that’s changed. Now, Music City is home to thriving distillers that, combined with a flourishing craft beer culture and promising artisan cocktail movement, have refined the city’s alcoholic predilections.

But the road to Nashville’s booming beverage business has been a long one. Tennessee enacted Prohibition in 1909—a decade before the National Prohibition Act—and held on to it several years after 1933 when the 21st Amendment ended the practice. That prolonged legislation took its toll. Dozens of distilleries thrived in 19th-century Tennessee, including competitors Jack Daniel’s, George Dickel and Nelson’s Green Brier; that success vanished with Prohibition and took years to rebuild. In fact, most in the industry never recovered.

The state remained a legislative hodgepodge, with only Lincoln, Coffee and Moore counties allowing whiskey production. In 2010, a group of hopeful Nashville distillers successfully changed the state’s laws, allowing for referendums in counties interested in supporting distilleries.

Before long, new distilleries appeared in Davidson County, among them Pennington Distilling Co. (formerly known as SPEAKeasy Spirits) and Prichard’s. The next several years promise to yield new discoveries as these companies and their batches mature.

Stellar mixologist James Hensley is the general manager at Nelson’s Green Brier and former general manager at The Patterson House. According to Hensley, distillers have become household names thanks in large part to the recent rise of artisan cocktail culture.

National press has heaped well-deserved praise on restaurateurs Max and Ben Goldberg’s gorgeous Patterson House, Nashville’s first true paean to cocktail culture. The Goldberg brothers followed The Patterson House’s success with The Catbird Seat, a 36-seat celebration of micro-gastronomy that also sharply focuses on cocktail, beer and wine pairings. In February 2018, the dynamic duo known as Strategic Hospitality made headlines again following recognition from the James Beard Foundation as 2018 semifinalists for the "Outstanding Restaurateur" award.   

Other superior cocktail establishments exemplify the go-to bars that bring neighborhoods and communities together, setting standards for what cocktail culture ought to be. If you want something truly classic or stunningly innovative, skip the chains that dominated the city for so long and opt instead for No. 308, Husk, Rolf and Daughters, City House or Red Pony, as well as newcomers Black Rabbit, The Fox, Gertie's Bar—and the list goes on. In Franklin, Main Street is anticipating the opening of O' Be Joyful, a spirits bar named for the vintage slang during the American Civil War that implied an intoxicating drink—another play on making the old new again.

Hensley adds that the city’s cocktail culture has evolved in the recent years to include a growing respect for skilled bartenders. “The [bartending] community has come together,” he says. “Shocking as it is, we’ve only just gotten a [United States Bartenders Guild] chapter together in the past six months or so. For the longest time, all of us who were focused on it were running bars and no one had an extra 20 hours a week to run it, but now it’s happened. It means more communication between us and more ways we can give back to the community.”

This excites distillers, whose products are being featured in an increasing number of restaurants and bars. Green Brier’s sourced Belle Meade Bourbon makes just as good a Manhattan as it does a sipping bourbon. Pennington Distilling Co.'s Whisper Creek Tennessee Sipping Cream holds its own against any fine cream liqueur, with gorgeous Tennessee-inspired flavors defined by local chef Deb Paquette. What’s more, Pennington Distilling Co.  also launched Nashville’s first craft vodka, Pickers Vodka.

Nelson’s Green Brier was re-founded by Charlie and Andy Nelson, who are the great-great-great grandsons of original founder Charles Nelson. The Nelsons have built an exceptional distillery in Marathon Village, Nashville’s unofficial whiskey district, according to Hensley. Pennington Distilling Co. offers tours, tastings and a bottle shop at their West Nashville facility.

The always-daring Corsair Distillery is known for small-batch whiskeys made with unusual grains, smoked woods and a collection of other spirits. This creative distiller is responsible for the industry’s biggest recent expansions. Adding to their Marathon Village and Bowling Green, Kentucky, locations, Corsair purchased a farm in Bells Bend, Tennessee to grow their own ingredients and hops. Corsair also recently acquired two large buildings in the Wedgewood-Houston area with cider, apple brandy and perry production in mind—a brilliantly strategic move since Tennessee, while not an ideal wine terroir, is practically tailor-made for orchards.

Nashville’s craft beer movement is alive and well, according to Chris Chamberlain, who authored “Nashville Beer: A Heady History of Music City Brewing.” William H. Gerst dominated beer in Nashville with his eponymous brewing company from the 19th century until the 1950s, when the industry’s momentum slowed. In the late ’80s, a foursome of brewpubs opened and gave the industry a much-needed jump start. Of the four breweries, only Blackstone remains.

The seismic shift to Nashville’s beer culture came when brewmaster Linus Hall opened Yazoo Brewing Company in 2003. Yazoo—along with Blackstone Brewery, Czann's Brewing Co., Jackalope Brewing Company, Fat Bottom Brewing, and a few others—used a self-funded model that Chamberlain says has largely set the pace for the next generation. He adds that the three brewers to come on the scene—Little Harpeth Brewing, Tennessee Brew Works and The Black Abbey Brewing Company—have meanwhile benefited from investors, which allows them to focus on specializing production—lagers for Little Harpeth, for example.

Chamberlain maintains the biggest industry game changer is microbrewery Turtle Anarchy’s effort to provide canning opportunities to small breweries, picking up tanks of beer and canning and storing them at their Charlotte Avenue facility. Previously, Toucan Mobile Canning (now IronHeart Canning) provided its on-the-go services to companies like Jackalope Brewing Company.

It took Music City a while to catch on to the need for urban alcohol production. Now that it’s arrived, extraordinary things are happening everywhere you look—whether you want a stiff Tennessee whiskey, flavorful craft beer or meticulously mixed cocktail. Whereas a decade ago Nashville imported most of its whiskey and craft beers, now the city dares to take big chances to make big innovations in both industries. Perhaps before long, Nashville may be knocking on Louisville’s door, competing to be a regional whiskey powerhouse and sharing some excellent craft beer, to boot.

Stephanie Stewart-Howard
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