The Chattanooga Whiskey saga took another turn Thursday, as company co-founders Joe Ledbetter and Tim Piersant unveiled a $6 million plan to build the Tennessee Stillhouse in the fortresslike John Ross building.
The unveiling came after several months spent securing financing for the project, which was made possible by a yearlong legal battle to roll back the Prohibition-era laws that outlawed the distillation of spirits in Chattanooga. Ledbetter and Piersant's next battle will be against dust and decay rather than lawyers and legislators, and they hope to cut the ribbon on the refurbished Tennessee Stillhouse by fall 2014.
That 60,000-square-foot Tennessee Stillhouse will sit smack in the middle of the downtown tourist district, not on the south side of town where the company originally planned to locate. But the change was necessary to create a landmark destination that will combine with the Tennessee Aquarium and The Block climbing wall to triple the number of major downtown attractions, Piersant said.
"There are going to be people who say, 'What the hell, man, we had this big victory party, 5,000 people showed up on the Southside, what's Chattanooga Whiskey doing?'" Piersant acknowledged.
But he said locating downtown will allow them to bring more operations into a single building, rather than spreading out into several smaller buildings far from tourists, he said.
"We're maximizing our opportunity for our brand and for the city of Chattanooga. That's the way we feel about it, and we are 100 percent on this for the absolute best location for Chattanooga Whiskey as a tourist attraction and as a production facility," he said.
Today, the imposing four-story building on the corner of Fourth and Market streets takes up the whole block between Market and Broad streets. It has stood vacant for years after being used for document storage in recent decades, and a car dealership before that. But the whiskey makers plan to knock down its stern facade and replace it with a glass, steel and masonry design that will open up the area and "activate" part of the Fourth Street corridor, they say.
The block walls and tiny windows will be replaced with antique factory-style windows to mimic the old-fashioned design of the various distilleries that dotted the city before Prohibition. Part of the concrete floor will be opened to accommodate a 2,000-gallon whiskey still, and other floors will be used for barreling and aging. Visitors will be able to take a guided tour, see all the operations and exit through a gift shop.
The Stillhouse will employ 50, though that could change depending on foot traffic.
Rob Bradham, vice president of public strategies for the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce, praised the young company's decision to locate downtown.
"What this does is it takes a building that is dilapidated and vacant on a very prominent corner and makes it into something that is really attractive," Bradham said. "We think it has the potential to boost downtown development and tourism."
Architect Thomas Palmer, who designed the Flying Squirrel restaurant off Main Street and re-envisioned Vine Street for the city's Urban Design Challenge, is no stranger to the challenges of urban design. He'll have the plans done by March 1, though demolition will start sooner.
"This is exactly the kind of project we like to work on," he said.
Even after selling a minority stake in their business to a group of local investors, Ledbetter and Piersant are still firmly in control of their company, which was started with a simple question to their friends on Facebook: Would you drink a Chattanooga whiskey? By next year, their distillery could make them one of the biggest craft distillers in the world, with the capability to produce hundreds of thousands of cases per year.
"Tim and I had the idea literally two years ago this month," Ledbetter said. "You don't start what will be one of the country's largest craft distilleries in two years; that just doesn't happen."
He's set his sight on being more than just a regional distillery, hinting at multiple product and personnel announcements around the corner.
"Jack Daniel's has done a lot of good things," Ledbetter said. "We want to do that as well."
Contact staff writer Ellis Smith at email@example.com, or 423-757-6315.