whiskey business

There’s no wrong way to drink whiskey.

I’ve lived in Tennessee a long time. It drew me in when I was 18 and really never let go. By the time I was nearing 30 I lived in a little neighborhood that was the definition of Southern hospitality. At five o’clock, as everyone finished up their day, it was commonplace to grab a cocktail and your dog and mosey about the streets together, stopping on one another’s front porches to visit. I’ve always had a studio attached to the house, and by the end of the work day I‘d find myself on the quintessential front porch rocking chair with a glass of whiskey, calling hello to the passerbyers. Whiskey, to me, embodies that inviting, palpable “Southern-ness.” It feels like home.

My little house was built in 1937, just years after the Great Depression and smack dab in the middle of the prohibition. There is such an energy in that house. I think about the men who laid the wood floorboards and brick. How they must have been so grateful for work. Meticulous craftsmen who were grateful for means to provide for their families. 

If you ever find yourself bound for Kentucky, Tennessee and the Great Smoky Mountains, you’re headed deep into the historical roots of American whiskey culture. More than 200 years ago, early settlers got their start in the valleys and surrounding foothills of Appalachia. Corn grew extremely well and acted as a staple for the families and communities trying to make ends meet. Most villages had a mill to grind the corn making the crop even more versatile. It’s widely believed the Scotch and Irish immigrants were the first to experiment with corn distilling operations. 

Now, straight off the bat there’s likely some Tennessee whiskey vs Kentucky bourbon semantics that must be had. What makes whiskey bourbon? The law. All bourbon is whiskey, but not all whiskey is bourbon. By definition whiskey is a spirit distilled from fermented grain mash (wheat, rye, barley, corn) aged in wooden barrels. To be considered bourbon, it needs to be produced in America and made from 51% corn, then stored in new charred-oak barrels. It doesn’t, contrary to popular belief, have to be made in Kentucky though 95% of the world’s bourbon whiskey comes from the bluegrass state.

Tennessee whiskey is essentially made exactly like bourbon, except that it goes through a process while it is still moonshine or “white lightning.” For ten to twelve days the shine drips through homemade sugar maple charcoal. Then it heads to the barrel to age, just like bourbon. It’s a process Jack Daniels learned from the Lutheran minister Dan Call who taught Jack how to distill when he was just 6 years old. When Jack was 13, Dan Call’s wife forced him to choose between the ministry and his whiskey. So Call sold the distillery to Jack.

Then there’s moonshine - which has no legal requirements. In fact, when you get down to it, moonshine is simply illegally distilled alcohol. The term moonshine conjures up images of mountain men in overalls with jugs marked XXX. And since most moonshine in the United States was produced deep in the Appalachian mountains, it’s merited. During the late 1800’s moonshine became a staple for many corn farmers. The illegal liquor was produced without any sort of regulation and it was common for batches to be poisoned with antifreeze or gasoline from repurposed auto parts.

The geographical advantages of Kentucky and Tennessee? You need the hot summers and cold winters so that the barrels can breathe and the whiskey can move in and out of it. Tennessee and Kentucky sit on a bed of blue limestone which filters out hard iron and imparts sweet-tasting calcium and magnesium. Go to an open stream in Kentucky and it will taste better than the water anywhere else in the country.

fun fact

In rural Lynchburg, Tennessee, where Jack Daniel’s is produced, it’s actually illegal to sell or purchase alcohol of any kind—even the town’s most famous product—because Moore is a dry county. This dates back to Prohibition, which started in Tennessee in 1910 and which Lynchburg decided they’d never bother to vote down, even after Prohibition was repealed in the United States. 

The government unsuccessfully tried to sober Southerners up, and we’ve been making light of it since. For instance, Malcom Patterson, who was elected the governor of Tennessee in 1907, vetoed the return on statewide prohibition, arguing that the issue should be decided at the local level and “for a state to attempt to control what the people shall eat or drink and wear… is tyranny and not liberty.” So they named a cocktail bar after him in Nashville. 

It’d be hard to talk about Prohibition and not mention crime boss Al “Scarface” Capone who had several “distribution centers” in Printers Alley. As downtown Nashville grows and changes and construction is far more common, discovering bootlegger tunnels that run to the Cumberland River are far more common. We’re still discovering all the ways the thirst for whiskey is written into the fabric of the history of the south.

Whiskey tastes like home. There’s nothing more inviting than pouring someone a splash. It’s the epitome of southern hospitality.

I never fully grasped the role of the shape of the glassware played until I began this project. And it’s fascinating.

tulip / copita

Has become the choice of master distillers, blenders and true whisky connoisseurs around the world. It was once named the ‘dock’ glass on account of its use by merchants who used it to nose wines and spirits at docksides. Its long stem prevents the drinker’s hand (and its polluting smells) from coming too close to the nose while its bowl shape concentrates aromas through the slightly narrowed rim.  

glencairn

Similar in shape to the tulip-shaped glass, the Glencairn is considered a more robust vessel, although it’s equally suited to appreciation. It’s short, solid base makes for a stable glass popular amongst those who don’t favor stems. The glass is also somewhat thicker and this means it’s more substantial for convivial drinking. Due to its size, the Glencairn is the perfect glass for learning how to swirl whisky too, a practice commonly used to open up the aromas of whisky for full appreciation. Again, a bowl-shape channels aromas towards a narrowed rim. This one’s the modern, less ‘showy’ relative of the tulip-shaped glass, and one solely dedicated to whisky.

rocks glass

The most common of all whiskey glasses. Due to its wide rim, the tumbler isn’t ideal for nosing, but it doesn’t need to be – this one’s for filling with ice and a whisky of your choosing, or for serving up any number of classic cocktails. Its wide and robust base makes it ideal for ‘muddling’ cocktail ingredients, while its plain design lets simple drinks speak for themselves. A timeless glass, and a must have for any whisky fan open to the entire spectrum of the spirit’s enjoyment.

snifter

A glass firmly rooted in the gentlemen’s club, this one oozes class – think whisky and cigars in the smoking room after dinner. Commonly used for brandy, it’s now very much a glass for the consumption of dark, aged spirits in general. They’re often designed so that, when held partially horizontal, the spirit doesn’t spill out. But all these opulent associations don’t necessarily make for a superior drinking vessel – the snifter’s extravagantly wide body and tight rim can encourage the release of harsh ethanol vapours, overpowering other aromas.