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William A. Lee, president of Ridgecroft Refining, talks with others about his new distillery at the Chattanooga Choo Choo in Chattanooga, Tenn., on Wednesday, Nov. 15, 2017. The distillery is one of several new businesses that will be going into the Choo Choo over the next year.

William A. Lee, a Soddy-Daisy man who plans to open a microdistillery inside the Chattanooga Choo Choo hotel, knows a thing or two about making alcohol.

Lee was general manager of the Chippewa Valley Ethanol Co., a plant in Benson, Minn., that produced 50 million gallons of ethanol a year.

The bulk of that wound up as a gasoline additive.

But the plant, located a two-and-a-half hours' drive west of Minneapolis and cooperatively owned by 950 farmers, also produced Prairie brand organic vodka.

"It was sure sexier when you talked to be people about it," Lee said of making the award-winning vodka versus the fuel additive.

Lee hopes to get approval next week from the Chattanooga City Council to open a distillery inside the Choo Choo just past the dome lobby in what used to be the Gardens Restaurant dining room.

Called Ridgecroft Refining for the time being, the distillery will make up to 5,000 gallons a month of high-end yet "reasonably priced" vodka, gin, rum and whiskey from locally-sourced grains, when available, in stills of Lee's own designing.

"We're going to design and build [the stills] ourselves — that's unique," he said. "Our facility will offer tours and tastings during the day. In the evenings, we're going to be more of a cocktail bar."

If approved, Lee will open Chattanooga's third distillery.

The first was Chattanooga Whiskey, which has the Tennessee Stillhouse microdistillery across Market Street from the Choo Choo and a large, new distillery at M.L. King Boulevard and Riverside Drive. The second distillery in Chattanooga was Lass and Lions, which makes "handcrafted" vodka.

Adam Kinsey, the president of Choo Choo Partners, LP, which owns the Choo Choo, likes the idea of having a microdistillery inside the Choo Choo and the Tennessee Stillhouse across the street.

"We believe very heavily in the clustering effect," Kinsey said. "If someone's coming to the Tennessee Stillhouse, they'll also come to Ridgecroft, and vice versa."

No construction work has begun yet on the distillery inside the Choo Choo. Lee's waiting to see how the city council votes on his request for a special exemption to build and operate the distillery.

He declined to say how much the project will cost.

"I've got a small group of investors, including myself," Lee said. "We do not aspire to be a national brand, we want to be a high-quality regional brand."

Lee has deep family roots here.

"I go back six or seven generation in Sequatchie Valley — before there was a Chattanooga," he said.

And yes, his ancestors here made moonshine.

"Yes. Of course," he said. "That doesn't make you particularly unique. It was just part of what you brought from the old country: Scotland, Ireland, England."

Contact staff writer Tim Omarzu at tomarzu@timesfreepress.com or www.facebook.com/MeetsForBusiness or on Twitter @m'eetforbusiness or 423-757-6651.

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