On the last day of our recent trip to Nashville, my husband and I decided to drive south for a bit before heading home to visit Tenn South Distillery. The drive to Lynnville, Tennessee was out of our way but my good friend and whiskey blogger, Cary Ann Fuller of Straight Up 615, is the sales rep for Tenn South. Cary Ann knows her whiskey, and I knew that if she was willing to put her name behind a new distillery that they had to be doing something right. What I discovered was a small distillery that is committed to hand-crafted spirits that reflect this history of the region, but is also not afraid to rethink the whole process to make the best product possible.
Tenn South was founded by Clayton Cutler and Blair Butler, an engineer, and a doctor respectively. While they had long talked about the idea of opening a distillery one day, the change in Tennessee laws that allowed distilleries in 41 new counties spurred them into action in 2011 after several years of research. They purchased 28 acres and a pot still, spent two years learning everything they could about distilling, and finally began production in 2013. Tenn South currently makes Clayton James Tennessee Whiskey, All Purpose Moonshine, Abernathy Gin, Black Mule Vodka, and a variety of flavors of moonshine.
As Clayton Cutler showed us around his distillery, I was fascinated by the mix of traditional methods and a willingness try new things. One example of tradition is their method of making moonshine. As Cutler explained, traditional moonshiners did not cook their mash to avoid setting new fires that might give them away to the authorities. To make their moonshine Tenn South does not cook their mash either. Instead the water, corn, and sugar ferment over the course of 3-7 days in the Tennessee sun. I had no idea that this was a traditional method of making moonshine, and I’ve never heard of another distillery using this method. Tenn South uses locally grown white corn for all of their products and is clearly committed to their local community.
On the other hand, some of their methods reflect some pretty outside of the box thinking. They are experimenting with making their 53 gallon barrels that are cylindrical so that they can maximize their storage space in their two bonded storage locations on their property. Their Tennessee whiskey is a pot stilled wheated whiskey, aged in a combination of 53, 25, and 15-gallon barrels and then blended. Tenn South has also developed their version of the Lincoln County process that allows the charcoal to add to the flavor rather than subtract from it. A container of the week’s new make trickles through a small hole into a container with bean-sized sugar maple charcoal. This way the whiskey picks up the flavor of the charcoal instead of the charcoal taking away flavor from the whiskey.
So the ultimate question is, do these methods pay off? How does the product taste? The bottle of Clayton James Tennessee Whiskey that I bought is very good at 24 months old. The pot still has been very well run, and there is no harshness or acetone in the flavors. It does indeed have a smoky sweetness, as well as a lot more flavor in general than most Tennessee Whiskey. Give it another couple years of age and I think it will be remarkable. I also want to give a shout out to their Blackberry Shine, which I also picked up a bottle of while I was there. It is made with real blackberry juice, and you can taste it. I’ve never bought a bottle of flavored moonshine in my life, so you know it had to be something really good to win me over. Right now they are only being distributed in Tennessee, but I do recommend picking up some of their products if you are in the state. And by all means, head to the distillery if you can. Clayton was one of the kindest and gentlemanly distillers I have ever meet. He was so reluctant to speak ill of any other distillery that it was almost amusing. If you want to hear the full interview you can check out Episode #236 of the Charlie Tonic Hour. In it, Clayton goes into a lot more detail about his process, and we try a lot more of their products.