By early next year, a pair of entrepreneurs will bring back a long-lost piece of Chattanooga history, 750 milliliters at a time.
Chattanooga Whiskey Co. founders Josh Ledbetter, 32, and Tim Piersant, 30, are set to deliver the company's first offering, 1816 Reserve, by mid-February.
"It really started on Facebook [in October] with a question, 'Would you drink Chattanooga whiskey?'" Ledbetter said.
The response was overwhelmingly affirmative. In less than a month, the company's profile had more than 2,000 fans. Since the company's online unveiling Nov. 11, it has added about 600 additional fans.
"We've had a crazy amount of emails," Ledbetter continued. "Everyone's question is, 'When can we get this thing? We're ready to go.' "
Although he lives in Washington, D.C., Ledbetter was born and reared in Chattanooga and attended Bryan College. A self-described "whiskey nerd," he said he became fascinated in 2010 with the idea of reviving locally made whiskey after discovering online Chattanooga's rich distilling history.
"I remember vividly sitting on the couch and typing in Chattanooga and whiskey and thinking, 'Oh my gosh, this is amazing,'" he said.
Rich whiskey history
According to records in the pre-Prohibition distillery database Pre-Pro.com, Chattanooga was home to dozens of whiskey manufacturers at the turn of the 20th century. The companies were housed primarily downtown and offered rye and corn whiskeys with colorful names such as Old Tennessee Queen, Silver Leaf, Mountain City Corn Shuck and Big Chief.
By 1915, most of these distilleries were closed, although the constitutional amendment banning the sale or consumption of alcohol nationwide wasn't ratified until 1920.
Ledbetter said he was set on bringing a high-end product to market that evoked the flavor profile of these pre-Prohibition era offerings, notably an approachable and "smooth whiskey with bourbon corn flavor."
Until recently, distillation of liquor in Tennessee remained illegal in most of the Tennessee's 95 counties, except Moore (Jack Daniel's), Coffee (George Dickel) and Lincoln (Prichard's). A bill passed by the General Assembly in 2009 overturned prohibition-era restrictions on distilling in 41 additional counties, but it remains illegal to distill spirits in Hamilton County.
"Our hope is to change that law, to patiently wait for the law to change in Hamilton County for it [the whiskey] to be a real Chattanooga product," Ledbetter said.
As a result of the legal roadblock, as well as the high initial cost of distilling equipment, The Chattanooga Whiskey Co. co-founders looked to other distilleries to find a blend that had the desired characteristics for the 1816 Reserve.
Ledbetter said they found a match in Lawrenceburg Distillers Indiana in Lawrenceburg, Ind., the maker of Templeton Rye and Bulleit Rye.
"We're not trying to pull the wool over anyone's eyes," Ledbetter said. "We went to LDI and said, 'This is what we want to do. What do you guys have?'
"We hand-selected the whiskeys we wanted from theirs. We tasted it, loved it, figured out where we wanted it to be through proofing."
The settled-on matching blend was a batch of 3-year-old whiskey with a mixture of 75 percent corn blended with rye and other grains. Ledbetter said he preferred a whiskey with a higher alcohol content than some entry-level varieties and opted to proof it at 90 proof (45 percent alcohol), rather than 80 proof.
Because bottling falls under the same legal restrictions as distilling, that process will take place at an undisclosed location in either Marion County or Sequatchie County, Ledbetter said.
Although much of the manufacturing process will take place outside Hamilton County to begin with, Ledbetter and Piersant said the goal is to begin distilling the product on their own at a location in or just outside Hamilton County as soon as possible.
Piersant, who has been friends with Ledbetter since college, said he sees the company as a sound investment and a way to promote local culture.
"Our city is already rich with history, so part of that rich history is distilling," he said. "I love that story; I'm passionate about that story, and I think it's one few people know about."
Piersant and Ledbetter said they have devoted a great deal of time to building a marketing model around 1816 Reserve that emphasizes the product's ties to local history.
Ledbetter and Piersant said that since local distillation isn't possible yet, they consider it important to use local resources to help build the foundation of the brand.
Working with graphic designer Steve Hamaker, they designed a label with visual ties to turn-of-the-century advertising. Copywriter Anthony Sims has crafted a story tying 1816 Reserve to the year John Ross established a trading post on what would eventually become the downtown waterfront.
Andrew Kean is the president of Rock City and an investor in Chattanooga Renaissance Fund, a recently launched investment group focused on local entrepreneurs.
Chattanooga Whiskey Co.'s pairing of a high-quality product with a compelling story is a can't miss, he said.
"This is a physical product you can see, smell, taste and touch," Kean said. "That adds some diversity to the success stories we're starting to see in Chattanooga.
"What Joe and Tim have done is ... provided people a new way to experience Chattanooga's history. That's where it's getting some legs. It's attached to something bigger than us."
Ledbetter said 1816 Reserve will be available in Chattanooga next year with concurrent launches in other major cities in Tennessee through at least two as-yet-unnamed distributors.
Once the product has developed a reputation locally, the long-term goal is to sell to the national market within three years. To that end, Ledbetter said he has already received inquiries from a distributor in Boston and plans to release 1816 in Washington, D.C., soon after its debut in Tennessee.
But first, Chattanoogans have to demonstrate a taste for a bit of history, Piersant said.
"We're not trying to launch this anywhere other than Tennessee," he said. "We don't want it to sit on a shelf in Georgia. We want it to move off the shelf in Tennessee."
Casey Phillips has worked as a features reporter in the Life department since May 2007. He writes about entertainment, consumer technology, animals and news of the weird. Casey hails from Knoxville and earned a bachelor of science degree in journalism and a bachelor of arts in German from Middle Tennessee State University, where he worked as the features editor for the student newspaper, Sidelines. Casey's writing has earned numerous accolades, including first and second place ...