Chattanooga Whiskey CompanyChattanooga Whiskey Company
“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.
This week, Chattanooga Whiskey 1816 Reserve and its pricier companion, Cask, will get it’s first test as it goes on sale in liquor stores around the city. At $27 a bottle for Reserve and $40 for the premium Cask, it’s not cheap. But cheap bourbon is neither the goal nor the target market. Ledbetter and Piersant consider themselves connossiuers with a passion for fine whiskey and Chattanooga, and they’re banking on Chattanoogans returning the love.
So far, that’s happened—at least in enthusiasm for the product online, where Chattanooga Whiskey’s Facebook page boasts almost 5,000 fans seemingly foaming at the mouth awaiting the new brand’s availability in the city. After it’s debut this week in Chattanooga, the whiskey goes on sale around the state and Ledbetter has ambitious plans, fueled by a new Kickstarter campaign, to take the product nationwide over the next few months.
Ledbetter and Piersant have invested their own money and borrowed to fund their new company, guided by an intimate group of enthusiastic mentors and financial experts who believe in the idea. They’ve created a sleek website, hired local designer Steve Hamaker to create the company’s turn-of-the-20th century logo and both are investing increasingly more time to the new venture. Ledbetter is an insurance broker recently living in Washington, D.C., and now returning to live in his hometown full-time; Piersant works for his family’s business in Dalton, Ga. Both say they are “all in” as the company grows.
Just out of the barrel and onto the shelves of local liquor stores, it will take time to determine the success of Chattanooga Whiskey’s venture, but the company has at least two crucial elements in its favor: a nostalgia for Chattanooga’s rich history amid its blossoming renaissance as a center for culture, the arts and technology, as well as its increasing attraction as a business center located in a beautiful, hospitable mid-size Southern city; and the return of American bourbon whiskey as a popular, premium liquor and cocktail ingredient, fueled by the growth of small-batch bourbons that have attracted a cult following in bars from coast to coast.
First, some nostalgia. As Ledbetter is quick to point out, Chattanooga was once a liquor-distilling mecca. From the late 19th century until the early 20th century, the city was home to dozens of distillers before Prohibition became the law of the land. Businesses such as the Chattanooga Distillery, E.R. Betterton and the Lookout Distilling Co., among many others, were distilling, bottling and selling liquor in Chattanooga and the Tennessee Valley. Many of these brands, such as Betterton’s White Oak Whiskey feature labels, packaging and bottling similar to the famed Jack Daniels Distillery in Lynchburg. It is just that look—the old-style, ornate lettering, the etched engravings of the distilleries and the era-appropriate slogans (Chattanooga Whiskey uses “The Dynamo of Dixie”)—that attracted Ledbetter to research the history of American whiskey in general and Chattanooga in particular. “We want to bring back that spirit,” he says.
Of course, Prohibition sealed the fate of all of these companies, but even after its repeal in 1933, Tennessee made it difficult for whiskey-makers to distill their product in the state. Until a few years ago, only Jack Daniels and George Dickel were the only distilleries in Tennessee. That changed in 2009 with a new law that opened up the state to distillers in any county where both retail package sales of liquor and liquor-by-the-drink sales have been locally approved. Some counties opted out, including Hamilton County, but county commissions in those counties also have a right to opt in by vote of the county commission. Ledbetter says he is gathering support to help make that happen. “It takes time, people, support—and pressure,” he says.
The other element in Chattanooga Whiskey’s favor is the rise in popularity of bourbon whiskey as a premium liquor in the United States. The center of the so-called Bourbon Boom is, of course, the South, ancestral home to Kentucky bourbon and Tennessee whiskey. As Robert Moss writes in the companion feature in this issue, not surprisingly titled “Bourbon Boom,” this was not always the case. “America’s Native Spirit,” as bourbon whiskey was christened by Congress in 1964, fell on hard times through the 1970s and ’80s, suffering an identity and ownership crisis while single-malt scotch became the coveted drink of high-brow, hip tastemakers. The younger crowd widened the divide, opting for white or clear liquor such as rum and vodka. That trend continues, especially in the vodka market, where high-end offerings are flavored with everything from chocolate to bacon and butterscotch.
Fine bourbon whiskey, of course, needs no added flavoring (and would be something akin to sacrilege amongst aficionados), although its bite—which caused many to make what is known in the industry as “the face,” a scrunching facial expression—spurred the large distilleries to trend toward blended whiskies. By the late 1980s, small-batch and special “reserve” brands came on the market, smoother, super-premium bourbon whiskies that retained the liquor’s character while largely reducing the sting.
The technique worked and bourbon whiskey has undergone a two-decade renaissance, replacing single-malts as the connoisseur’s choice, sipped straight or with only a cube of ice or splash of water to cut its sharpness. The high-end whiskey market has exploded and the South is ground zero, with brands such as Pappy Van Winkle occupying the apex in the galaxy small-batch bourbons, selling for as much as $65—a glass.
But in the world of liquor, like those of fashion, art, design and architecture, fancy is fickle and fleeting. Today’s hot small-batch bourbon may be tomorrow’s “brown water,” a swill “reserved” for gutter drunks. But it doesn’t hurt that such popular TV shows as “Mad Men” have revived a hip consciousness for an era when bourbon was the successful man’s drink of choice (Don Draper favors dark liquor, and frequently orders an Old Fashioned). It’s worth recalling that such “men’s men” as Frank Sinatra were champions of Jack Daniels, which Ol’ Blue Eyes called the “nectar of the gods” and rarely drank anything else.
All that swinging “ring-a-ding-ding” is good for boutique business. Retro-mania has sparked revivals in dozens of high-end, up-market business from cigars to motorcycles, guitars and gastronomy. Riding the coattails of a trend is easy, but in the end, however, nothing succeeds without a little savvy marketing and a skill for tapping the vein emerging markets. Ledbetter has those skills in spades.
While living in D.C., Ledbetter approached the proprietors of a favorite watering hole with the idea of launching a “whiskey society,” an exclusive club of young, upper-income men and women such as himself with a taste for fine liquor and cigars. He promised the owners he’d bring in 50 people who met those requirements—with the pre-requisite that if he did, he’d drink for free. It worked. Not long afterwards, Ledbetter typed the fateful Facebook post.