“Not all those who wander are lost.” – J. R. R. Tolkien

"Everybody dies. Not everybody really lives."

The saddest sound in the world is a man saying, "I wish I'd have done that."

Friday, October 2, 2009

Tennessee Spirits & Wine Trail

The top dog of Tennessee whiskey making, Jack Daniel Distillery, couldn’t be more picturesque. Snuggled in the lap of a broad valley, the visitor center is a grand introduction to the scenic beauty of south central Tennessee and to the 150 year old tradition of Tennessee whiskey making.

This largest and best known of Tennessee’s spirits making companies anchors the Tennessee Spirits & Wine Trail, a collection of five very different and unique wineries and distilleries within a 45 mile radius of one another. In addition to Jack Daniel Distillery, the trail includes the George Dickel Distillery, Prichard’s Distillery, Beans Creek Winery and Tri-Star Vineyards and Winery. Hitting each venue on the trail makes for an appealing day’s trek through some of the most striking scenery in the area highlighted by friendly and interesting proprietors and employees eager to share their stories and—in most cases--let you taste their finest concoctions.

Our first stop on the trial is Prichard’s Distillery just east of Fayetteville in Kelso. As we pull up to the distillery building we think we are lost. Surely this seen-better-days brick building—a former school and former community center--can’t be the place. But we are beckoned in by Connie Prichard, who along with her husband Phil, own the distillery. The building’s appearance is deceiving. Inside the old building the Prichards have developed a modern distillery with gleaming stainless steel tanks and copper pot stills and the clash between the old-fashioned structure and the contemporary workings inside are a captivating contrast. In the midst of renovations that are slowly turning the building into an inviting tourist stop, the Prichards are running Tennessee’s only rum distillery. There are only five rum distilleries in the United States and this is the second oldest (the oldest is in New Orleans). Connie and Phil have been making rum since 1999 and in that time their rum has matured into one of the finest on the market and an array of medals and awards honoring their rums lines the walls of the tasting room.

The distillery tour follows the rum making process from raw sweet Louisiana molasses to the sweet almost brandy-like end result. After the tour you can get a taste of the product (unlike the other two distilleries on the Trail which are located in a dry county) and the tasting proves that the Prichards produce a world class rum—a fact driven home when Connie says that her husband Phil is in Germany on a marketing trip. They produce a variety of flavored rums but my favorite is their straight rum. They also produce a bourbon based liqueur called Sweet Lucy that is exceptionally sweet and smooth. Be sure to ask Connie and Phil how it got its name.

We’d like to linger over a glass of Prichard’s finest but we head up the road to our next stop, Jack Daniel Distillery. The distillery tour introduces you to the modern world of high tech, large volume whiskey making in a state of the art facility that still follows the original recipe that Mr. Jack Daniel conjured up over one hundred years ago. This is the oldest distillery in the country and produces the top selling whiskey in the world.

Everything about Jack Daniel is professional, including the tour that starts with the production of the charcoal that is used in the mellowing process that gives the whiskey its unique taste. About an hour later at your final stop on the tour you see the golden liquid that results from the multi-step process. Walking through the distillery is a sensory overload of warm malty aromas and rich colors. Everything in the brick and wood visitor center and the factory seems to gleam—the stainless vats, copper pipes, brass railings, even the wooden floors have a welcoming sheen. It is somehow comforting to know that this spot has been producing the same product, in the same way, for a century and an half. That history is source of pride for Lynchburg, especially today when so many companies are going under.

The drive from the Jack Daniel parking lot to the George Dickel Distillery in the tiny town of Normandy is backroads Tennessee at its finest. The winding country roads follow valleys and fields past fenced farms and grand old houses. At Normandy, a narrow two lane road meanders over rolling hills and borders a sparkling creek up into the gentle hills of Cascade Hollow. Turns out the creek is the reason George Dickel was attracted to this area. And it’s the same reason Jack Daniel was: the pure iron-free water here is the key to good tasting whisky.

George Dickel Distillery may be smaller but they don’t give up a thing in pride to Jack Daniel. Our tour guide Lou was quick to point out that the differences in the process George Dickel follow results in a much different taste between the two products. Revealing a friendly rivalry with their larger neighbor, Lou swears that the double distilling and cold chilling of the George Dickel whisky results in a much smoother and more mellow sippin’ whisky. He claims he’s a former moonshiner so he ought to know. In contrast to the Jack Daniel Distillery, this operation still uses the old-fashioned handcrafting methods of the mid-nineteenth century. I don’t think there is a computer to be found in the building.

If you’re paying attention, you’ll notice that George Dickel spells whisky without the “e”. That is another story you’ll want to ask your tour guide about.

The next stop on the Trail shifts the offerings from distilled spirits to wine. Tri-Star Winery is well hidden on a narrow country road near Shelbyville. This tiny vintner is run by Perry and Elaine Casteel, a husband and wife team that cultivates the five acre vineyard next to their small winery. The couple prune, harvest and crush the grapes by themselves—and then ferment and bottle the wine on the premises. “A thirteen month a year job,” Perry says.

Tri-Star uses their own locally grown grapes to make over a dozen varieties of wines, ranging from a very dry Catawba to Cayuga and Muscadine to sweet fruit and berry wines. We sampled their offerings and we liked the wines here, they were surprisingly restrained and avoided the unfinished taste that plagues many small wineries.

Our final stop on the Trail takes us to Manchester and Beans Creek Winery. This winery represents the other end of the wine making business. In contrast to the small two-person Tri-Star operation, Beans Creek is the vision of a cooperative of eight wine growers in middle Tennessee. Using grapes grown in eight counties throughout Tennessee, Tom and Becky Brown and their crew at Beans Creek produce a variety of white and red wines, ranging from very dry to sweet. The tasting room is awash with medals that the winery has garnered from various competitions throughout the country.

Once again we enjoyed a tasting of the winery’s products. My tastes tend to the dry end of the spectrum where the Beans Creek wines had a subtle and engaging taste. My companion likes semi-sweet and sweet wines and she found those varieties to be full bodied and bold.

The Tennessee Wine & Spirits Trail is a good day’s run through the beauty of rural Tennessee spiced with two of the state’s historic distilleries, a rising newcomer, and two examples of the state’s nascent wine industry.

(This Article originally appeared in the Huntsville Times)