published Wednesday, October 10th, 2012

Cook: Indiana whiskey gives us hangover

Since the first batch was uncorked six months ago, Chattanooga Whiskey Co. has sold roughly 3,000 cases of whiskey. That's more than 18,000 bottles. Depending on the pour, that's 270,000 shots.

Out of all that whiskey, know how much was made and produced right here? In the city that bears its name?

"The box," said Joe Ledbetter. "And the label."

That's it. The box. A label. (Eliot Ness would be so proud.)

But the whiskey?

"Lawrenceburg, Ind.," said Ledbetter.

One year ago this Sunday, Ledbetter and co-founder Tim Piersant sent out a Facebook question: Would you drink Chattanooga Whiskey? Within days, hundreds of responses. Not yes, but absolutely-without-question-it-feels-so-good-when-it-hits-your-lips-yes.

Chattanooga Whiskey has become the people's drink of our city, born of a Facebook campaign and fueled by Kickstarter funds. It's going to take that same populist energy in order to overturn legislation so dusty I can't believe I'm even writing the following sentence.

It's illegal to distill spirits in Hamilton County.

Just like Prohibition days, it's been illegal in all state counties except three. In 2009, state lawmakers undid the restrictions and allowed 41 additional counties to begin distilling. Why?

Because Tennessee whiskey is about to white-lightning-explode onto the national and international alcohol scene. Some experts are saying Tennessee whiskey will be the biggest product the alcohol industry's seen in 50 years.

"No one ever says, 'I wish I had some Colorado whiskey,'" Ledbetter said.

Last Wednesday, Ledbetter got a call from the largest distributor in the U.S. (he's already talking with the second-largest distributor) who wants to put Chattanooga Whiskey on shelves across the country.

No other homegrown product sold all over the U.S. would carry the name of our city in such a bold way. Not Coke. Not Little Debbie. Not don't-let-the-door-hit-you-on-the-way-out-Krystal.

But despite a large number of pre-Prohibition distilleries, Hamilton County remains Billy Sunday, can't-distill-dry. When given the chance, our legislative delegation somehow, mysteriously opted Hamilton County out of the 2009 law, able to roadblock like Buford T. Justice our ability to distill whiskey.

Like goats and clotheslines, whiskey takes a bad rap. It's an object of stereotypes and prejudice. The brown bag equivalent of sin. The juice behind countless acts of rural aggression. And countless country music songs.

Think Willie Nelson sings about a soft chardonnay or "Merlot River Take My Mind"?

"We'd sell our souls to the devil for money," state Sen. Richard Floyd, R-Chattanooga, said Monday, declaring he'd vote not once but twice against local distilleries.

No one said a word when the beer craft-brewing market exploded in Chattanooga, and now you can't swing a copy of the 21st Amendment without hitting a local brewer. We have vineyards, wineries. By my sober count, there are 41 liquor stores in the local Yellow Pages.

So it's not like folks aren't already drinking.

When -- not if -- Chattanooga Whiskey becomes so popular it's sold in 40 states across the U.S., do we really want the hangover of knowing all those jobs, tax dollars and tourism are being sent ... to Lawrence-wherever, Indiana?

So now, Ledbetter and Piersant have started a petition and plan on taking it to Track 29 concerts, the Chattanooga Market and a street-corner near you. Roughly 15,000 signatures would force members of the Hamilton County Commission -- recently told by the state attorney general they can't legislate this on their own -- to either hold a special election (I predict record turnout) or include the measure on the next major ballot.

"The people are so powerful," Ledbetter said. "If we get behind something, it's amazing what we can do."

Man, I'll drink to that. A good sip of Indiana -- I mean, Chattanooga -- whiskey.

about David Cook...

David Cook is the award-winning city columnist for the Times Free Press, working in the same building where he began his post-college career as a sportswriter for the Chattanooga Free Press. Cook, who graduated from Red Bank High, holds a master's degree in Peace and Justice Studies from Prescott College and an English degree from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. For 12 years, he was a teacher at the middle, high school and university ...

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daytonsdarwin said...

""We'd sell our souls to the devil for money," state Sen. Richard Floyd, R-Chattanooga, said Monday."

Being a member of the Tennessee legislature I'm sure Floyd has first-hand experience.

There's nothing like a Christian hypocrite in politics to make asinine religious proclamations about imaginary devils. Thanks for the laugh Senator.

October 10, 2012 at 3:42 a.m.
gjuster said...

Whiskey is a legal product - should be OK to make here. Richard - you are wrong to fight it

October 10, 2012 at 8:29 a.m.
dao1980 said...

A politician delivering melodramatic and erroneous proclamations about compromising scruples for monetary gain??

What hilarity! What pompous, arrogant, hypocritical, blind vanity! What a comedic and useless windbag this Dick Floyd must be!

Sounds like a good southpark episode to me..

October 10, 2012 at 9:05 a.m.
tifosi said...

I have been looking into opening a distillery for some time. I loved the idea of opening in Hamilton County. But, as I looked into the law and what it would take to change the legislation, I decided to go to more friendly territory. The counties of all the major cities in Tennessee opted in for distilleries, except one... Hamilton County.

Tennessee's history in manufacturing liquor goes back to the Whiskey Rebellion. Independent, poor farmers left Pennsylvania and migrated into what is now Tennessee and Kentucky so that they could clothe and feed their families by growing corn and making liquor without taxation by Washington D.C.

Before prohibition, the liquor industry in Tennessee was the #1 employer. Distilleries in Tennessee consumed so much corn that farmers could not grow it fast enough and corn was being brought in from other states. Like it or not Mr. Floyd, this state owes it its existence to liquor. It is part of our heritage and always will be. For every distillery job, seven more are created to support it - mostly farmers.

I think Chattanoogans should be asking their representatives why we were excluded. Andy Berke's excuse that "it was confusing" was kind of sad. I have read the Tennessee Code regarding distilleries and fully understand it and I am not a leqislator. Forty-one other county representatives understood it too. I'm not too sure Andy Berke will be capable of someday possibly managing the great City of Chattanooga.

I do want to wish Chattanooga Whiskey all the luck in changing this law. They have a great product and two incredible visionaries. My hat is off to them and some day I hope to have a toast with our products.

October 10, 2012 at 10:20 a.m.
moon4kat said...

The TN legislature has some very backward and stupid ideas about alcohol control.
It's way past time to legalize distilling Chattanooga Whiskey in Chattanooga.
It's also past time to legalize the sale of wine in grocery stores. Many of people -- especially gourmet cooks -- use wine in cooking, and like a glass with the evening meal.
Which lobbyists are controlling the state legislators who vote to keep the screwy, self-defeating system we have?
Would Costco have located in Hamilton County if wine could be sold in a TN grocery store? I think the prohibition was a factor in sending them to Georgia, which now reaps sales taxes that could have come to TN.

October 10, 2012 at 10:35 a.m.
stevedj_98 said...

I suppose Chattanooga won't be getting a riverboat casino anytime soon, either.

October 10, 2012 at 11:18 a.m.
Rickaroo said...

It's not the Indiana whiskey that's giving us the hangover; it's too many people here in the Bible Belt who still drink the kool-aid of that ol' time hell-fire and brimstone religion. This is just another example of self-righteous Bible thumpers sticking their noses where they don't belong and having way too much influence in our government. It amazes me how these bassackward Christians are constanlty trying to insert their Old Testament notions of sin and damnation into governing when it comes to restrictive laws, but they complain that it's not government's role to show compassion for the poor and needy, as demonstrated by their Jesus in the New Testament. I don't know what process these cherry-picking Christians use to decide which laws and moral edicts in the Bible they deem worth upholding and which they choose to ignore, but it seems they always tend to favor those that suit their own personal biases. Funny how it works out that way for them.

Regarding the idea of building local distilleries to make, bottle, and distribute our own unique blend of whiskey that would undoubtedly create jobs, grow our economy, and add immeasurably to the good name of Chattanooga, Richard Floyd says, "We'd sell our souls to the devil for money," and he would vote "not once but twice" against local distilleries? Really?? What planet does this guy live on??

It's embarrassing that we have cretins like this in office representing our city and state, and even more embarrassing to think that we have that many people who are dense enough to elect them. Ah, the good ol' Bible Belt. Don't ya just love it.

October 11, 2012 at 2:23 a.m.
jesse said...

Ya know that "kool aid"analogy is startin to indicate a lack of smarts! Like if you ain't real bright just throw out somethin like "drink the kool aid"! might have been edgy 3 years ago ,now it just shows ignorance!

October 13, 2012 at 11:06 a.m.
Rickaroo said...

Well, ain't you the bright one! Thank you for your consructive criticism, oh sage. It certainly behooves me to take to heart the opinion of jesse, the perfect poster who is so full of "smarts" and always on the cutting edge of edgy. Yessir, if there's anybody who's unignorant it's you, and I sure do 'preciate your pointing out my own ignorance. Thankee, thankee, thankee!

October 13, 2012 at 2:29 p.m.
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