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Old Forge Distillery

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'Tis the Season for Spirits

This is Your Invitation To Explore the (East) Tennessee Whiskey Trail

If it seems like distilleries are popping up left and right, that’s because they are. Once Prohibition-era laws lifted in 2009, and the Tennessee Distillers Guild was underway, the proverbial floodgates opened for budding distillers to reclaim a craft that dates back nearly to the inception of the state itself.

Today, locals and visitors can taste an array of spirits across East, Middle, and West Tennessee, but if you’re not in the traveling mood, no problem. The nearest distillery is probably closer than you think.  

 A Whiskey History

Throughout the 1800s, distilled spirits were Tennessee’s top-selling products. The beautiful Southern state had everything the distilling business needed – plenty of land, clean water, and an ideal climate. By 1908, Tennesseans had legal access to hundreds of distilleries across the state, and then came a state-led Prohibition in 1910, followed by a national ban in 1920.

When prohibition ended in 1933, it was another six years before Tennessee could return to distilling spirts legally. Soon, The Jack Daniel Distillery opened in Moore County, followed by George Dickel in Coffee County and Prichard’s Distillery in Lincoln County. Despite its attempts, the distilling industry couldn’t grow under the state’s Prohibition-era laws.

“The interest in distilling wasn’t lost, but Tennessee wasn’t set up to create a viable industry,” says Charity Toombs, executive director of the Tennessee Whiskey Trail. “In 2009, a bill was passed to allow distilling in more than just the three counties [where it had been allowed]. Thirteen distillers realized they needed a guild to collectively advocate for that.”

The bill allowed for distilling in 41 more counties, but there were still barriers in place that prevented the industry from thriving. In 2014, the Tennessee Distillers Guild formed with 13 members to promote responsibly distilling, to advocate for the industry, and to create a network of distillers for information and support.

“They also realized that they needed a public-facing entity to the guild, so in 2016, they received funding from the Department of Tourism. They formed the Whiskey Trail and launched it in 2017 with 22 partners,” says Charity. “Now there are 28 partners across the state, from Memphis to Bristol. Only Old Dominick is in West Tennessee, but Alex Castle is worth mentioning because she’s Tennessee’s first female master distiller. In fact, Tennessee has more female distillers than any other state currently, which we’re proud of.”

Locals and visitors have been enjoying the Whiskey Trail, especially since the pandemic.

“In 2022, we welcomed eight million visitors into Tennessee distilleries,” says Charity. “East and Middle Tennessee have major pockets for the whiskey, but even if you aren’t into whiskey and bourbon, many distilleries make a lot of different things, like vodka, rum, absinthe, gin, liquors. There’s so much to be had. PostModern Spirits is a great place to try different things. They are very much about experimental experiences.”

Distilling for a New Era  

Stanton Webster, co-owner of PostModern Spirits, got his start in hospitality while working at bars and restaurants while attending the University of Tennessee in the 1990s. Tomato Head was his first restaurant job, and he worked with Holly Hambright for years. He ran Nama for a while, and helped open Suttree’s High Gravity Tavern on Gay Street, and then, he helped open a distillery with eight partners about a decade ago. To say Stanton understands the food and drink market in Knoxville would be an understatement.

That’s why, in 2017, he and fellow co-owner/master distiller Ron Grazioso saw an opportunity to explore cocktail culture, to see what that could look like in Knoxville. They ran with this vision and opened PostModern Spirits, which boasts a solid collection of liqueurs, gins, and whiskeys.

“Ron was a scientist for 20 years, and I have a degree in animal science, so this is all chemistry. Actually, we call this the intersection of artistry and chemistry,” says Stanton. “Neither of us had grandpappies to pass down recipes to us, so we had to come up with our own.”

Located on Jackson Avenue, PostModern distills its spirits there in the old railroad freight terminal. Weekend tours of the distillery come with tastings, but the Tasting Room is open seven days a week.

“We love the history of making spirits, so our approach is bringing together modern science and tradition in a new way,” says Stanton. “The big thing for us is not getting caught up by doing the same things other people are doing. We love to riff on the classics, like an Elder Gin Fizz and New Fashioned.”

Sometimes embracing the history means going all-in. Such is the case at Historic Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary. Nestled in a valley surrounded by kudzu-covered hills and old coal mines is Tennessee’s first maximum security prison. Opened in 1896 and closed in 2009, Brushy’s legacy is fraught with violence, deadly mining accidents, dire health conditions, and a roster of savage and even infamous inmates, such as James Earl Ray. For decades, Brushy Mtn. was known as the “end of the line” for the worst of the worst.

Then in 2013, only four years after the prison closed, a group of entrepreneurs saw potential in the weathered, cement walls, the chipped paint and weeds growing through the broken windows. In 2018, the property reopened as a historical landmark, suitable for tours, private and public events, and now, a distillery. Using local grains and water from the mountain’s natural springs, the Brushy Mountain Distillery is home to eight flavors of End of the Line Moonshine, Frozen Head Vodka, Struggle Buss Bloody Mary Mix, and more. Five dollars gets you five tastings and five dollars off any bottle you want to take home. (While you’re there, grab a bite at the Warden’s Table Restaurant. We recommend the Killer Potato.)

Whether you tour the old penitentiary or not, a stop at Brushy Mountain offers a unique Whiskey Trail experience, the kind you simply won’t find elsewhere.

Make It Personal

To enjoy a day trip suited to your interests, visit TNWhiskeyTrail.com/trip-planner and peruse the pre-planned, mini-excursions. If it’s a day in the outdoors you fancy, consider the Waterfalls & Whiskey or Adventure Quencher options. If you want an outstanding dining experience where locally distilled spirits are served, look at Just for Foodies, a compilation of both fine dining and down-home restaurants from across the state.

As you visit each distiller, be sure to get your souvenir passport stamped. A paper booklet is available at each distillery, but there’s a mobile version too.

“Distillers stamp your passport and you get a commemorative poker chip. If you visit all 28 distilleries, we send you a poker set,” says Charity. “A lot of guests do it both ways so they have the souvenirs. We’ve had guests display their poker chips and send us photos. It’s a fun way to do it. You could carve out a full week to do it, but we’ve seen guests take two years to complete the trail. There’s no right or wrong way.”

The Tennessee Whiskey Trail also hosts signature events throughout the year, which are great ways for guests to get small, abbreviated experiences with the distillers and their crafted spirits. For example, the Grains & Grits Spirits and Food Festival happens each November in Townsend.  

“We are constantly being connected with new distillers just getting started or expanding their operation. It’s all an opportunity to help form what will be coming down the pike. We have members who aren’t ready yet to be on the Whiskey Trail, so they’re still working on their craft and perfecting it,” says Charity. “In Chattanooga, Dam Whiskey Company opened an abandoned dam. You can see their distilling process and be in a historic dam at the same time. The distilleries today are defining themselves by where they’re choosing to operate. The story of Brushy Mountain – we want to see more brands do what they’re doing, embracing where they are, expanding the visitor experience, and creating tasting rooms. 

“There’s a lot of comparison to the bourbon trail, but we're a generation behind,” adds Charity. “We’re excited to develop the landscape. We’re young, it’s fresh, and it’s new.”

Learn more at TNWhiskeyTrail.com.

  • Old Forge Distillery
  • Knox Whiskey Works
  • Old Forge Distillery
  • Junction 35
  • Sugarlands Distillery
  • Sugarlands Distillery
  • Brushy Mtn. Distillery
  • Brushy Mtn. Distillery
  • Historic Brushy Mtn. State Penitentiary
  • Brushy Mtn. Distillery Spirits
  • Tennessee Whiskey Trail Passport
  • Warden's Table Restaurant at Brushy Mtn.
  • Tasting at Sugarlands Distillery
  • New Fashioned at PostModern Spirits
  • New Fashioned at PostModern Spirits
  • PostModern Spirits
  • PostModern Spirits
  • Stanton Webster, co-owner of PostModern Spirits
  • Stanton Webster, co-owner of PostModern Spirits
  • Stanton Webster, co-owner of PostModern Spirits