Chattanooga Whiskey letter gets seven signees

Chattanooga Whiskey letter gets seven signees

November 30th, 2012 by Kate Belz in Local Regional News

Tim Piersant, left, and Joe Ledbetter speak to the media and their supporters Thursday outside the Chattanooga Choo-Choo. The pair hope to drive their antique vehicle across the country for tastings.

Photo by Jake Daniels /Times Free Press.


The 10 cities across the county have different laws directing whether businesses can sell packaged liquor, liquor-by-the-drink, or both.

Chattanooga -- Both

Collegedale -- By the drink only

East Ridge -- By the drink only

Lakeside -- Both

Lookout Mountain -- Both

Red Bank -- Both

Ridgeside -- Neither

Signal Mountain -- Both

Soddy-Daisy -- By the drink only

Walden -- Retail only

Unincorporated areas -- Retail allowed, only beer and wine in restaurants except with special state permit.

Source: Hamilton County Commission Office, Hamilton County Beer Board


County leaders may present items to the local delegation of state legislators at a breakfast Dec. 13.

Chattanooga Whiskey Co. leaders took a victory lap Thursday in their newly refurbished 1913 White Depot Hack -- outfitted with whiskey casks -- after seven Hamilton County commissioners agreed to sign a letter in support of bringing liquor distilleries back to the county.

"This was the biggest hurdle," said Joe Ledbetter, co-founder of Chattanooga Whiskey, which now is distilled in Indiana. "If local leaders want it, the folks in the Legislature we've talked with are confident that they will be able to pass it."

While the formal letter changes no laws, it gives weight to a request that local state legislators modify state law to allow distilleries inside the county.

Ledbetter and his partner, Tim Piersant, say they know their task is not finished. But they're optimistic that with strong support from state House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, they will be able to see the law pass sometime early next year and start distilling in town soon after.

But county commissioners warned that the road to legal liquor-making could be long and complicated, even after state leaders take it up.

"They've still got a long way to go," said Commissioner Joe Graham, who signed the letter. "From here, it could still end up that it comes back to final approval from us, or that it even could go to referendum. No one is sure yet."

Commissioners on Thursday debated the letter's wording and the interpretation of a 2009 state law that initially paved the way for new distilleries in Tennessee.

Commissioner Jim Fields, an attorney, said he would support distilleries coming into town but took issue with what he called some vague wording in the law.

The statute says a county is eligible for distilleries if it meets population requirements and has approved retail and by-the-drink liquor sales within its borders.

The word "within" is one of Fields' key questions. Hamilton County as a whole has approved retail sales, but not liquor-by-the drink sales, said County Attorney Rheubin Taylor.

Municipalities inside the county have different rules, begging the question: Have individual cities' decisions on liquor set the standard for whether distilleries are allowed?

"I have a problem with it taking this issue out of the hands of the voters if their town hasn't already made a decision on liquor," said Fields.

Fields and Commissioner Fred Skillern both agreed to sign the letter after the commission changed the language so distilleries could come only to cities that already allow both kinds of sales.

That change, though, would have to be passed by the state Legislature to be valid.

The letter required at least six signatures to be passed on to the state. Commissioners Tim Boyd and Chester Banks abstained from signing.

Commissioner Warren Mackey said during the meeting that the parsing of all the language seemed like "much ado about nothing."

"I want the jobs in Hamilton County," he said. "I want to move the ball."

McCormick said Thursday that he supports the bill.

"If it's a request from the commission, we usually pass it," he said.