published Friday, April 19th, 2013

Tennessee Legislature OKs distillery bill

Tim Piersant, left, and Joe Ledbetter, owners of Chattanooga Whiskey, stand inside the new Southside Chattanooga distillery in the former Turnbull Cone Baking building at 1400 Fort St. The bill allowing them to distill in Chattanooga is on its way to Gov. Bill Haslam for his signature.
Tim Piersant, left, and Joe Ledbetter, owners of Chattanooga Whiskey, stand inside the new Southside Chattanooga distillery in the former Turnbull Cone Baking building at 1400 Fort St. The bill allowing them to distill in Chattanooga is on its way to Gov. Bill Haslam for his signature.
Photo by Dan Henry.
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Joe Ledbetter and Tim Piersant, co-founders of Chattanooga Whiskey Co., didn't expect to earn a bachelor's in booze politics this year. All they wanted to do was to distill Chattanooga Whiskey — in Chattanooga.

Now, after launching their company in 2011, they're finally on their way.

The duo still is celebrating their success at modifying a controversial state liquor law to allow the construction of distilleries in any town that already allows liquor by the drink and package sales.

Ledbetter and Piersant didn't hire a lobbyist, they say. Instead, they just called politicians directly. And repeatedly. That's an unusual approach, considering that their opponents employed a number of political operatives in a failed attempt to block the change.

Since the day they learned that they'd need to change a law to make their product, Ledbetter and Piersant have seen just about every legislative trick in the book.

Bills were delayed. Flurries of amendments appeared at inopportune times. Phantom organizations run by Nashville-based political operatives appeared and then disappeared.

Full-page ads popped up in cities across the state denouncing the pair's efforts. A Chattanooga lawmaker even proposed amendments that would have helped a Gatlinburg whiskey maker -- all in the name of blocking the bill.

Unsavory businessmen could open distilleries across the street from schools and churches, some lawmakers worried. Children could gain access to free samples of booze on Sunday, they fretted. Local governments could lose the ability to regulate liquor, a few fumed.

It's enough to drive a person to drink.

"We were David playing Goliath," Ledbetter said. "It's been a real eye-opener for 33- and 31-year-old guys that have never really been involved in anything political."

Next steps

The final state Senate passage came Thursday and the would-be distillers expect Gov. Haslam to sign the bill in the next two weeks. They'll throw a block party at their planned Southside distillery on May 31, and then they'll start to make whiskey.

But it won't happen all at once, and there are still obstacles to dodge.

Local municipalities have 45 days to opt out of the bill, though Chattanooga and Hamilton County officials say they have no intention of doing that. Six of the nine Hamilton County commissioners sent a letter to state delegates supporting the bill, commission Chairman Larry Henry said.

"We've not had discussion of it, but I think six of the commissioners, along with myself, felt the way I did when we sent the letter," he said.

Lacie Stone, spokeswoman for Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke, said the city administration wasn't planning to outlaw distilleries either.

But it still could be years before Ledbetter and Piersant truly can sell Chattanooga whiskey.

They've got to bring in their barrels of aging whiskey and bottling operation from out of state, and order a custom copper still. Actual distillation could begin in January 2014 if all goes well.

"We're going to bring in the whiskey from Indiana that we own, in barrels, and they'll continue to age here in Chattanooga," Ledbetter said. "We will take special care to make sure that what we distill in Chattanooga is of the same quality, taste profile, everything that we have right now."

The trick is the transition. For the first three years they'll blend the new, Chattanooga-made whiskey with the Indiana product, until they've completely transitioned to their own locally made whiskey, Ledbetter said.

Monkey business

Ledbetter says he's not mad at opponents like Rep. Richard Floyd, R-Chattanooga, who fought tooth and nail to stop Chattanooga Whiskey's efforts, or Gatlinburg-based Ole Smoky Moonshine, which spent thousands of dollars to lobby other politicians to vote no on the distillery bill. He doesn't give another thought to Let Hamilton Distill, a faux grass-roots group operated by a Nashville lobbyist that some saw as an effort to give lawmakers an excuse to vote against the bill.

But Ledbetter says he doesn't blame his opponents. In fact, he's inviting Floyd to his block party.

"I hope that one day Richard Floyd can say, 'I didn't want this, but at least it wasn't a bad thing,'" Ledbetter said.

Ledbetter and Piersant are not, however, ruling out continued involvement in politics. Now that they've seen how things work in the back alleys of power, they wouldn't mind seeing a few reforms to help take the mystery out of the process for those who come later. That could include supporting their opponents' opponents.

"We need better leaders, and we need more people talking to our leaders," he said. "We really think this is an opportunity to continue the conversations we've started. Change, oftentimes, is a good thing."

Staff writers Andy Sher, Louie Brogdon and Cliff Hightower contributed to this report.

Contact staff writer Ellis Smith at esmith@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6315.

about Ellis Smith...

Ellis Smith joined the Chattanooga Times Free Press in January 2010 as a business reporter. His beat includes the flooring industry, Chattem, Unum, Krystal, the automobile market, real estate and technology. Ellis is from Marietta, Ga., and has a bachelor’s degree in mass communication at the University of West Georgia. He previously worked at UTV-13 News, Carrollton, Ga., as a producer; at the The West Georgian, Carrollton, Ga., as editor; and at the Times-Georgian, Carrollton, ...

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