“First thing’s first,” says Joe Ledbetter, a gleam in his eye and a devilish grin on his face as he uncorks a fresh bottle of whiskey. He pours two fingers of the brown liquor into a sparkling high-ball tumbler emblazoned with the logo of the Chattanooga Whiskey Company above the slogan “The First Taste.” He studies the nectar for a moment, sips, and smiles again. “Now, where were we?” he says with a mischievious laugh.
It will be the first of many “first tastes” for Ledbetter and his partner, Tim Piersant, during the launch party last Friday at Lindsay Street Hall for the new whiskey the young entrepreneurs founded just six months ago and based largely on a Facebook post that asked, “Would you drink Chattanooga whiskey?” A flood of responses in the affirmative confirmed Ledbetter’s assumption and the fuse was lit. On Friday evening, hundreds of bottles of bourbon bearing the Chattanooga Whiskey Company brand fill tables inside the ornate hall as a small army of servers prepared to man their stations for the evening event.
“I just hope it doesn’t suck,” Ledbetter says, half serious, half joking, referring to both the event and the reaction to the fruit of his labor and passion. His whiskey—smooth and warm, with just a brief, sharp spike the liquor is known for—does not suck. Nor does the event. Hundreds are invited and hundreds turn out to sample the new whiskey, which Ledbetter proudly proclaims will both return and revive Chattanooga’s storied distilling history, an industry that has been dormant since pre-Prohibition days.
Ledbetter has reason to be excited. Thirty years ago, he might have been laughed out of town, such was the state of downtown Chattanooga (and, for that, matter the bourbon whiskey market). But these days, the Chattanooga “brand” reeks of a renewed spirit of revival, spirit and renaissance, and Ledbetter and Piersant are banking on that special brand of local pride and Tennessee’s history of fine whiskey propelling them to fame and fortune.
The only problem? The Chattanooga Whiskey Company’s 1816 Reserve is not made in Chattanooga—not even in nearby counties, where state law allows distilling and bottling of liquor. No, Chattanooga Whiskey is distilled in Indiana—Lawrenceburg, Ind., to be exact, home of Lawrenceburg Distillerers Indiana, which concocts such brands as Templeton Rye. At Lawrenceburg, Ledbetter says he found the right distillers offering the right mix (74 percent corn, 21 percent rye, 4 percent barley) at 90 proof (45 percent alcohol). “I’m the type of person who wants to know all there is about a subject when I become passionate about it,” he says. “I knew a lot about whiskey before, but I’ve learned a lot more. We had a very clear idea about the kind of whiskey we wanted to make—a pre-Prohibition mash build, something you’d find a 100 years ago—and then we found the right distiller.”
Jack Daniels might roll over in his grave, but Ledbetter’s “recipe” has less to do with the iron-free cave spring water and sugar maple charcoal Daniels favored and perfected on his Lynchburg property than reaquainting a city with it whiskey heritage. When distilling laws change in Hamilton County—something Ledbetter says he is campaigning for—he will be quick to reunite the whiskey with its city.
“We really want to make it here,” Ledbetter says. “It’s not about a person [like Jack Daniels] or even a fictional character [like Capt. Morgan]. It’s about a city with a rich history and heritage. Right now, it’s all about getting the word out and support.”
In other words, it’s a message in a bottle. Laws may change, but until they do, it makes no real difference to Ledbetter if his Chattanooga Whiskey is made in Chattanooga or Lawrenceburg. Mystique, after all, is rarely grounded in reality. And nothing sells, or indeed enhances, illusion better than liquor.