Tennessee Whiskey: Distilling the history of the state’s most popular spirit

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A 'neat' look at Tennessee whiskey, from prohibition to worldwide popularity

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) — For most whiskey drinkers, Tennessee is synonymous with the distilled alcoholic drink.

Records dating back to the year of statehood prove how long Tennesseans have been making and selling whiskey.

“Tennessee and Tennesseans have had a long intimate history with whiskey and distilled spirits in general,” said Chuck Sherrill, State Librarian and Archivist. “Many families operated their own stills for their for their own use, as well as for sale, and it was a big part of the economy, especially in rural areas.”

In 1790, the Whiskey Tax was enacted by the federal government. “John Overton was the tax collector here in the Nashville area. And we have on display here, his record book. One of the people who was distilling whiskey and paying that tax at that time was young Andrew Jackson,” Sherrill pointed at a collection inside the Tennessee State Library and Archives building in Nashville.

In the earliest records for the whiskey tax it shows Jackson paid taxes from 1796 to 1801 for the Hunter’s Hill whiskey still he operated near Nashville.

That was before he bought the Hermitage property and before he became the Seventh President of the United States.

The Whiskey Tax sparked the Whiskey Rebellion in Pennsylvania. While there wasn’t a rebellion to that scale in Tennessee  – it was certainly not liked.

“Whiskey drinking, especially if you go back further in history, was just a normal part of a farmer’s daily life. It was one of the few things that you could drink that had been distilled and didn’t have germs in it,” explained Sherrill.

The Whiskey Tax was repealed in 1802.

“The original [Tennessee] laws and the petitions from abstinence groups started as early as the 1820s,” said Sherrill.

Tennessee became the first state to pass a prohibition law in 1838 that prevented taverns and stores from selling alcohol.

The temperance movement continued to gain popularity over the decades.

In 1909, wider prohibition laws were enacted in the state. One banned the sale of liquor near schools and the other prohibited the manufacturing of it.

However, those laws were loosely enforced. Distillers continued to make the substance and saloons continued to sale it.

The temperance movement rapidly grew over the next decade. There was even a national political Prohibition Party.

“When prohibition happened, it was a huge change for many Tennesseans,” Sherrill continued, “We had a lot of independent mountaineer families who were operating their own stills and making whiskey for their own use and communities. So, stopping all of that business was both in economic and social hardship on many families.”

Congress ratified the 18th Amendment in 1919, that stopped the manufacturing, distribution, and sale of alcoholic beverages. Tennessee adopted the law that went into effect in 1920.

The law didn’t prohibit folks from drinking liquor. But, they still found a way to avoid prohibition laws. Sherrill said, “Because it’s such a rural state, there were many stills back in hollers and in the middle of farms where nobody would think to look. And, there was a lot of bootlegging activity going on.”

TSLA houses a collection of Tennessee Supreme Court files that shows an influx of cases against people who were breaking prohibition laws.  

“Immediately after the prohibition laws were passed, revenue agents began scouting for illegal stills and distributors of illegal liquor in Tennessee,” said Sherrill.

Sherill held up two photographs that illustrated the hard stance law enforcement took on prohibition. “This one shows men breaking up a still in Rockdale, Tennessee. You can see the revenue officer in his uniform with his badge back here. And, the other man with the axe who’s breaking open the barrels is probably the sheriff of of that county.”

The second photograph Sherill believed was staged in Clay County. “My guess looking at this photograph is his still had already been torn apart by the revenuers, because it looks like it’s lying in pieces at his feet. But, he’s standing there holding his revolver. I think as a warning to anybody else who might want to come in interfere with his business operations.”

Sherrill also pulled up two cases that came up in Middle Tennessee where people were imprisoned for distilling liquor. In Houston County, Ed Winters and John Hughes were arrested for operating an illegal still. The other case was out of Lincoln County. Sherrill said two men were jailed for operating the Wildcat still in Flintville. Then a third man ended up being tried in the same case “because he had gotten a saw to them, and they had had sawed their way out of jail.”

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The prohibition law was finally repealed nationally in 1933, by the 21st Amendment. However it stayed in effect until May 21, 1937, in Tennessee.

Even though the ban was lifted for all 95 counties, only Lincoln, Moore and Coffee counties were allowed to bring back distilling operations.

One of the most famous of those operations was Jack Daniel’s. Jack Daniel started the still when he was 20-years-old in 1866. According to TSLA, during prohibition, Daniel moved his operations from Tennessee to Missouri and Alabama. Daniel passed away before prohibition was lifted. His son returned the operations to Lynchburg in 1937.

Another famous whiskey distillery impacted by prohibition was George Dickel Tennessee Whisky in Coffee County. TSLA said it it was first known as the Cascade Hollow before Dickel bought the operation in 1884. Because of Tennessee’s 1909 ban, the business was moved to Kentucky. It was shutdown completely during the nationwide prohibition. But, it finally reopened in Tennessee in 1958.

Distilleries were finally allowed to expand in the next century. In 2009, the General Assembly added 41 more counties to the list of areas allowed to distill alcohol.

2009 is also when Green Brier Distillery was resurrected by two of Charles Nelson’s great-great-great-grandsons, according to the TSLA. Green Brier was one of the state’s largest distilleries before the alcohol ban.

May 5, 2021, the General Assembly declared May 21, 2021, as “International Tennessee Whiskey Day” to marks the 84th anniversary of the state’s repeal of the prohibition laws.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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