I love a good distillery tour. Even if I don’t learn anything necessarily new, it’s still fun to get a glimpse behind the scenes. Plus, it gives more meaning to the tasting at the end. I have traveled to Chattanooga, TN a couple times a year for the past six years. In that time, I hadn’t made it to Chattanooga Whiskey until my most recent trip in September 2021. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the tour was both interesting and well delivered (thanks, Hailey!). Perhaps best of all, the whiskey was darn good. Without further delay, let’s take a tour so you know what to expect when you visit.
The History of Chattanooga Whiskey
The distillery’s slogan comes from the mission to bring back whiskey distilling to Chattanooga. Prior to Prohibition, Chattanooga was a river-front distilling hub. It was home to more than 30 distilleries and nearly 100 liquor dealers. Tennessee enacted Prohibition ten years before the Federal Act, and ceased legal production of spirits in 1909. By 1917 enough laws had been passed in the state that possession and distribution were nearly impossible. Even a Police Commissioner was caught trying to smuggle whiskey in coffins being shipped by train.
While the distillery was founded in 2011, it wasn’t yet legal to distill the spirit in Chattanooga. Three counties in the state of Tennessee had been allowed to distill spirits since 1938 when the state ban ended. However, it was still prohibited in the remaining 92 counties. When the nationwide recession hit the United States, following the subprime mortgage crisis, Tennessee needed money. The state voted to allow 41 additional counties to distill spirits in 2009. Hamilton County (Chattanooga, TN) was still left out. This didn’t deter Tim Piersant and Joe Ledbetter from moving forward.
Through a social media campaign they determined that there was interest in local whiskey. They created a first run of imported Indiana whiskey finished in Chattanooga. When people questioned why the label said ‘Indiana’ the distillery was able to educate the public on the continuation of Prohibition in their county. The laws were changed in 2013 through a “Vote Whiskey” campaign. Chattanooga Whiskey was then able to start building their distillery.
The Experimental Distillery
By March 2015, Chattanooga Whiskey had hired a head distiller and opened a micro-distillery. Located across the street from the Chattanooga Choo Choo, the Experimental Distillery produces up to a barrel a week. They released their first product, Chattanooga Whiskey “100” in November of 2015. It’s the first whiskey you’ll try in their tasting room. The micro-distillery allows the distillers to experiment with a wide variety of malted grains. Over the years, they have released everything from barrel-aged gins to infused amaro, in addition to whiskey and bourbon.
In 2017 they released a “Tennessee High Malt” bourbon–their version of a Straight Bourbon Whiskey–which was the first aged whiskey released in Chattanooga in 102 years. That same year, they opened the Riverfront Distillery which can produce 25 barrels a week. They use the larger distillery to scale up recipes perfected in the Experimental Distillery. The Riverfront Distillery occupies a former Chevrolet dealership and primarily produces the Tennessee Hight Malt.
Tasting the Whiskey
Once the tour concludes, you’ll have a chance to sit in the Whiskey Cocktail Lounge for a tasting. You can also enjoy a flight without taking the tour. The lounge is a beautiful space with a bar that displays bottles of significance for the distillery. If you look closely, you can see the “Vote Whiskey” bottles (upper left) from the 2013 campaign. The lounge also serves cocktails that feature Chattanooga Whiskey spirits. Our flight included a mini Old Fashioned (see below).
The distillery produces a wide variety of spirits. They make a collection of Experimental Single Barrels and Batches, along with their Signature High Malt. In all of their products they use a wide variety of grains, barrels, techniques, and interesting ingredients to create whiskeys that are unique. You’re likely to get a new flight every time you visit. On my visit, I enjoyed the Chatt Whiskey 91, the Cask 111, the Silver, the 99 Rye, and the Bottled in Bond (Fall 2017). They were all outstanding but I really enjoyed the Rye and the Bottled in Bond. We also tried several of the unreleased experimental batches. The tasting was top-notch.
More Whiskey From Chattanooga
Want to try more whiskey from Chattanooga? Just walk across the street from the Experimental Distillery to the train station. Inside the Chattanooga Choo Choo Terminal Building and you’ll find Gate 11 Distillery. They also offer tours six days a week. You can also taste their spirits, which includes whiskey, gin, vodka, rum, and absinthe. Cocktails are also available.