Cook: Indiana whiskey gives us hangover

Cook: Indiana whiskey gives us hangover

October 10th, 2012 by David Cook in News

Chattanooga Whiskey

Chattanooga Whiskey

Photo by Angela Lewis /Times Free Press.

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.