Reclaiming a Birthright with Lee Kennedy of Leiper's Fork Distillery

Mar 09, 2020 at 10:55 am by adminjen

Up until the last ten to fifteen years, when one thought of whiskey, four primary regions came to mind: Scotland, Ireland, Kentucky and Tennessee. For native Tennesseans, this may not have been a surprise given the cultural importance of our state’s flagship distillery down in Lynchburg. The force of that brand has made Tennessee a household name every bit as much as country music has. Because of that, one may be surprised to know that Jack actually carried the torch for a much larger industry that had been a critical part of the cultural and manufacturing heritage of this state from its birth, well into the 20th century.

Historically, most of the whiskey in this country has been made between Ohio River in north Kentucky and the Tennessee River in north Alabama. This is mainly due to a couple of reasons; access to limestone filtered water, critical to the fermentation process of making whiskey, and the heritage of the Scotch-Irish people that settled this area and began distilling Native American corn into a beverage that would become modern day Bourbon and Tennessee Whiskey.

From its earliest roots, Tennessee has had a long and rich history with the tradition of whiskey production. The earliest known distillery, located in what would become Tennessee, was Evan Shelby’s East Tennessee Distillery, which was in existence by 1771, five years before the Declaration of Independence was signed. By 1799, John Overton, one of the fathers of middle Tennessee and serving as Supervisor of Internal Revenue for District of Tennessee, reported sixty-one stills serving 4,000 settlers in Davidson County. That trend continued to grow into the 19th Century. According to the 1850 Williamson County industrial census, there were ten distilleries located within its borders. In 1886, the Nashville Union, reported that the distilling industry was the largest manufacturing industry in the state. In addition, to celebrate Tennessee’s 1896 Centennial, the Nashville American newspaper reported that, as of June 30, 1896, there were 322 registered distilleries in the state of Tennessee. Sadly, for some, this cultural and industrial heyday wasn’t to last though.

By 1910, fourteen years after the Nashville Union article was written, all distilleries in the state had shuttered and locked their doors. This wasn’t due to a catastrophic downturn in the industry. After years of clamor and struggle, prohibition had finally become a reality in the state of Tennessee. Few residents of our state realize that Tennessee enacted its own prohibition in 1910, ten years ahead of the Volstead Act, which officially marked the beginning of Federal Prohibition. Federal Prohibition permanently and drastically changed the shape and course of the alcohol industry in America. We continue to deal with its effects to this day. Much of our laws, and many of our well known alcohol brands, were propelled into prominence by Prohibition.

With the adoption of the 21st Amendment, in 1933, Federal Prohibition was repealed. At that time Kentucky, our sister state in whiskey production, reopened its doors and welcomed their distillers, and their own rich heritage, back into the state with open arms. Tennessee, for better or worse, did not do this. From 1933 to 2009, whiskey production was only legal in three counties in Tennessee. These were comprised of Lincoln, Moore and Coffee counties, where Jack Daniel’s and George Dickel reside respectively. In essence, Tennessee had a manufacturer’s prohibition of whiskey for 100 years, from 1909-2009.

Fortunately for Tennessee, in 2009, a group of forward-thinking State Representatives and ambitious distillers, including Williamson County’s own Heath Clark, came together to write and enact legislation to allow distilleries back across our state. This officially ended the state’s unofficial prohibition on the manufacture of whiskey.

Since 2009, the Volunteer State’s distillers have worked hard to reclaim the heritage of whiskey production our early settlers brought to the hills and hollows of Tennessee. Currently, there are roughly forty distilleries across the state. These distilleries range from traditional time-honored brands all the way down to a guy running a fifty gallon still to produce his great granddad’s moonshine recipe. As this rekindled spirits industry continues to grow, its economic importance continues to grow as well. The Distilled Spirits Council of the U.S. reports, as of January 2020, the combined spirits industry, in all of its forms, has contributed 21,000 jobs and $2.8 billion in GDP to the state of Tennessee. Both culturally and financially, our rich spirits industry continues to make itself known. Once again, the spirit of freedom and self-reliance, which defined our early distillers, can be reflected in a new generation in Tennessee Distillers. They’re working passionately to carry on our rich state traditions and to craft a product we can be proud of as Tennesseans. Go visit them, and whenever you raise a glass of Tennessee made whiskey, remember those early pioneer distillers and the spirit they passed to a new generation of Tennesseans that fought to reclaim their cultural birthright. For a comprehensive sampling of Tennessee Distilleries and what they have to offer, visit