"Pick one,” he said, pointing to a stack of barrels in the corner. The white oak barrels to which Mike Williams referred contained Tennessee Whiskey, but we weren’t in Lynchburg or Tullahoma. This was the old Yazoo Brewery building, home of the Tennessee Distilling Company, makers of Collier and McKeel Tennessee Whiskey in Nashville.
I pointed to a heavily stained barrel, and Williams set two tasting glasses on the pallet next to it, then with a small, battery-powered drill began boring into the side of the keg.
“Some day I’m gonna buy a real drill,” he said with a chuckle as his drill strained. Eventually he penetrated the oak, unleashing a steady brown stream. Williams filled both glasses, then staunched the flow with a wooden plug.
The whiskey smelled oaky and sweet, and produced a pleasing peppery burn on my tongue. “This is 120-proof,” Williams said. “Barrel strength.” He bottles his whiskey at 86-proof, but a sip of this stronger concoction led me to asking why he didn’t bottle it just like this. “I’m thinking about it,” he replied.
We poured the remnants of the cask-strength whiskey on the floor near the drain, and re-filled our glasses from a bottle. The smooth character and vanilla were still there in the 86-proof, but the complexity was slower to emerge. Down the hatch, a pleasant bitterness lingered.
As we sipped our whiskey on that drizzly Wednesday morning, I was drawn to the two giant copper stills dominating the room, but Williams was more interested in an unassuming, vertical stainless steel cylinder nearby.
Clear moonshine whiskey, straight out of the still, is pumped through sugar maple charcoal in that cylinder. The charcoal grabs fatty acids, pulling them out of the whiskey and mellowing it, a process unique to Tennessee Whiskey known as the “Lincoln County Process”.
Williams’ whiskey story begins at the end of the eighteenth century when his family moved to Tennessee just after the Whiskey Rebellion proved the government’s ability to militarily defend its whiskey taxation. The “West”, as the Tennessee frontier was known at the time, was far enough removed from New England that the Feds had a hard time collecting their taxes, making it a perfect place for folks wanting to make whiskey without interference.
The family never became big production distillers, but whiskey was clearly in Williams’ blood. When he was 16 and putting off a science project that entailed creating a water map of Middle Tennessee, Williams’ father made an announcement. The family was to visit Jack Daniel’s Distillery, and along the way they would stop at every trickle of water for young Mike to collect samples.
When he tested the sample from the cave spring in Lynchburg, Williams found it to be identical in pH and composition to the water on the family property, and an idea was formed. Some years later, when Williams turned 50, he decided the time was right. He stole the name Tennessee Distilling Company from a company that moved to Indiana after Prohibition, and borrowed the name of his whiskey from the maiden names of his paternal grandmother and great-grandmother.
When the first Collier and McKeel Tennessee Whiskey left the distillery in the spring of 2011, the whole family had a hand in bottling, corking, sealing and labeling. At the end of the line, Williams put his thumbprint on every bottle.
When I arrived at Jack Daniel’s the next morning, a small crowd was already waiting. Promptly at 9 a.m., the doors were unlocked and we streamed inside, where Randall Fanning was looking for me. He led me out back to a fancy golf cart for a ride to the Revenuer’s Office—a small building where the Master Distiller hosts tastings. According to Fanning, that office once housed five government tax collectors—“three to watch us and two to watch the other three.”