published Tuesday, October 30th, 2012

Chattanooga Whiskey makers call on Hamilton County

  • photo
    Joe Ledbetter, left, and Tim Piersant are the founders of Chattanooga Whiskey Co.
    Photo by Angela Lewis.
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IF YOU GO

Chattanooga Whiskey Co. plans to make its case for liquor distillation in Hamilton County to county commissioners on Nov. 15 at 9:30 a.m.

The company has created a Facebook event page, "Chattanooga Whiskey Meets The County Commission," to recruit people to show support during its presentation.

Learn more at the company's main page, www.facebook.com/ChattanoogaWhiskey.

Poll
Should whiskey be manufactured in Hamilton County?

Hamilton County commissioners will have whiskey brought before them next month.

The issue of whiskey manufacturing, that is.

The owners of Chattanooga Whiskey Co. hope a strong showing of supporters at a commission meeting Nov. 15 will help them make the case for liquor distillation in the county, which has not allowed whiskey to be made within its borders since Prohibition in the 1920s and early '30s.

The company leaders will have about 10 minutes to present the commission with the potential economic benefits and job growth a distillery could bring to the county. The company hopes that, if persuaded, the commission will lobby state legislators to change the law that keeps whiskey from being made locally.

But strength in numbers -- in this case, the number of backers -- also will be a key part of the company's proposal, said Joe Ledbetter, co-founder of Chattanooga Whiskey.

"Every single time we have gone directly to the people here -- whether it's asking what they think of whiskey being made here or if they can help us with some project we're working on -- people respond with overwhelming support," Ledbetter said. "I just don't think there's anything more American than going to the people, asking what they want, and moving forward with whatever that is."

So far, the company's event page on Facebook has more than 170 supporters committed to showing up at the meeting. County Clerk Bill Knowles said Monday the commission chambers technically only seat 92.

Chattanooga Whiskey, created in 2011, is made in Indiana because of laws that Hamilton County remains beholden to, despite newer laws passed at the state level that have opened doors to distilleries operating in Tennessee counties.

State legislators voted in 2009 to allow county commissions to make the decision whether to allow distilleries in their counties, as long as the county already allows liquor sales in restaurants and stores.

But Hamilton County was left off the final list of included counties, meaning Chattanoogans can buy Chattanooga Whiskey at the corner liquor store or enjoy it in a cocktail, but it can't be made here.

Ledbetter and company hope they can persuade the commission to pass a resolution to request that the Tennessee General Assembly add Hamilton to the list of counties allowed to let their commission decide about a distillery. If that happened, the company wouldn't have to resort to gathering about 15,000 signatures to get the whiskey vote on a ballot.

Supporters already have begun filling the company's Facebook page with encouragement for the next phase of their "Vote Whiskey" campaign. In an open letter to county commissioners, supporter Madonna Kemp -- who said she is not a drinker and doesn't like whiskey -- wrote:

"Obviously, Chattanooga Whiskey will be made regardless of manufacturing location. Is it truly in your best interest to allow the tax revenue produced from and jobs created by 'Chattanooga' Whiskey to fall to people who cannot vote for you?"

Commission Chairman Larry Henry said he has met with Ledbetter several times and agreed to put the issue on the commission's agenda.

"I want to know what it's going to do to benefit the county as far as the revenue," Henry said. "We already have liquor by the drink and liquor sold at stores, so it's not like it's going to add or take away that much. But it is something new for the county."

The commission has not yet discussed the whiskey question in a public meeting, but Henry, who said he wants to see the decision put to a referendum, acknowledged he has had "general conversation" with other commissioners about the issue.

"I think it's pretty well split from what I've heard," he said.

Contact staff writer Kate Harrison at kharrison@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6673.

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