History of the Tennessee Whiskey – Tennessee Whiskey Trail

History of the Tennessee Whiskey


Tennessee is known the world over for our music and hospitality.  And our whiskey.  Tennessee has been a leader in spirits distillation throughout our nation’s history.  That includes the time before, during, and after Prohibition.  Our pride in craftsmanship and our spirit of independence led Tennesseans to make some of the world’s finest whiskey and some of the nation’s most sought after moonshine. And it drives us to this day.   Today Tennessee distillers are crafting distilled spirits as diverse as the music born in this State. From Blues to Bluegrass and from vodka to Tennessee Whiskey, Tennessee distillers are bringing our innovative and legendary spirits to our communities and the world.

The Tennessee Whiskey Trail is made up of approximately 30 distilleries across the state.  These distilleries range from small, boutique-style operations to well-known distilleries that have been making legendary Tennessee Whiskey for generations.

On the Tennessee Whiskey Trail, you will experience the history and tradition of Tennessee Whiskey as well as the innovation Tennessee distillers are bringing to whiskey, rum, gin, vodka and even moonshine.  Along the Trail, you’ll get to know the rich landscapes, must-see landmarks, and genuine Southern hospitality that has influenced our spirits for generations and that embody the great state of Tennessee. From The Great Smokey Mountains to the rolling hills and honky-tonks of Middle Tennessee to the jazz-filled streets of Memphis beside the mighty Mississippi River, The Tennessee Whiskey Trail is an adventure across our land and our culture. So come be a part of our story and let your adventures run on Tennessee Whiskey.

Our History

Tennessee has long been a leader in producing distilled spirits. As our nations early founders moved west, they carried with them the craft of whiskey.  Fortunately for Tennessee, the land, water, and climate is nearly perfect for the production of whiskey.  So make whiskey we did.

Tennessee was a leading producer of distilled spirits even prior to the Civil War. In fact, Tennessee made so much whiskey, that the then Confederate government of Tennessee outlawed whiskey production in order to field and supply the army. This was the nation’s first act of prohibition.  Following the Civil War, Tennessee quickly rebuilt its distilled spirits industry.  In 1908 Tennessee had hundreds of registered distilleries across the state.  Unfortunately for Tennessee and enthusiasts of fine spirits everywhere, Tennessee again led the way in prohibition in 1910, banning the production of whiskey ten years ahead of the Federal ban in 1920.

Tennessee would remain dry until 1939, six years after the Federal ban was lifted.  While these laws destroyed the legal spirits trade in Tennessee, Tennesseans across the state kept making whiskey and maintained Tennessee’s reputation as a place for fine whiskey and moonshine.  The Jack Daniel Distillery reopened soon after the law allowed in 1940, and George Dickel returned in the 1950’s, and both began rebuilding our once proud legal distilled spirits industry.  In the mid-1990’s Pritchard’s distillery opened Tennessee’s first craft distillery and that is where progress stalled.  In 2009, Tennessee began reforming its prohibition-era laws and eliminated many nearly insurmountable legal barriers to entry.

Since then, the number of Tennessee distilleries has grown from three to the now thirty distilleries Tennessee host’s across the state.   These distilleries range from small, boutique-style operations making traditional and innovative spirits to well-known distilleries that have been making legendary Tennessee Whiskey for generations. The Tennessee Whiskey Trail was established in 2017 by these distilleries to bring you our State’s great spirits heritage.

Learn About the Craft of Making Spirits

All forms of alcoholic beverages—beer, wine, and spirits —are based on fermentation.  Fermentation is the natural process where yeast consumes sugar, leaving alcohol as result. With beer and wine, fermentation is the end of the alcohol production process.  Spirit production involves the extra step of distillation, which involves heating up beer, wine or sugar-based wash in order to concentrate the alcohol through evaporation.
Distilled spirits can be classified into two broad categories: brown spirits and white spirits. Brown spirits are spirits aged in wood barrels, and include aged whiskies, such as Tennessee Whiskey and bourbon, as well as aged rums and repesado tequila.  White spirits are un-aged spirits and include vodka, gin, and clear, unaged rum and tequila.

Whiskey, including Tennessee Whiskey, is any distilled spirit made from a fermented mash made of grain. Brandy, for example, is a distilled spirit made from fermented mash made of fruit, such as grapes or apples, and as such, is not whiskey.  The four primary steps to make whiskey are mashing, fermenting, distilling, and aging. Each distiller uses grain combinations chosen by that distillers to produce a specific type of whiskey.  Tennessee Whiskey, for example must be at least 51% corn.  Other common grains in Tennessee Whiskey are barley, rye, and/or wheat.

Those grains are ground into a fine meal, mixed with water, and cooked until the starches in the grain have been converted into sugars. This process creates a mash that is mixed with yeast, which then converts the sugars into alcohol. The fermented mash, also known as beer, is then pumped into a still and heated up, where evaporation and steam condensation allows the alcohol to separate from the water and grain byproducts.

Whiskey, like all spirits, is colorless when it comes off the still. The distilled spirit must be aged in an oak container to become whiskey. Tennessee Whiskey goes a step farther and requires that the spirits be first filtered through sugar maple charcoal and then aged in new, charred, white oak barrels to become Tennessee Whiskey.  The aging process refines the whiskey and gives it all of its color.  Once the whiskey is properly aged and bottled, the next – and final – step is to just sip and enjoy!