On the trail of U.S. whiskey history


Special to WJW

The American whiskey industry is concerned about the effects of the potential trade war President Donald Trump is toying with. But in Lynchburg, Tenn., the Jack Daniel’s Distillery is hedging its bets.

The top-selling American whiskey globally has exported enough products to their distribution networks overseas to ride out the feared tariff battle without having to raise customer costs for some time.

That’s according to Jack Daniel’s master distiller, Jeff Arnett. Most other producers don’t wield enough market clout to do that. I spoke with Arnett during a stop on my tour last month of the American Whiskey Trail.


The trail is a tourism initiative and educational journey sponsored by the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States (DISCUS). It’s a cool and deliciously interactive way of exploring the cultural heritage and history of spirits in America.

The trail is perhaps more conceptual than strictly conventional, as there isn’t exactly a ground path taking the traveler from Point A to Point B. What largely connects the distilleries on the trail is their membership in DISCUS and the fact that they are part of the same cultural landscape of American whiskey production.

The trail highlights not just many of the most famous domestic distilleries in operation, but also some sites of historic interest that help tell the story of domestic production of distilled spirits.

My trip, sponsored by DISCUS, led from Jack Daniel’s to the comparatively tiny George Dickel Distillery in Tullahoma, Tenn. It was hot as blazes and nearly as humid as a steam room, but the tour and tasting were well worth it.

I later enjoyed a night in downtown Nashville, checking out one honky-tonk joint after another. While I have an eclectic range of musical interests, my tastes run more to Klezmer. The locals couldn’t have been nicer, yet I felt far from my native Jewish habitat. I also felt very old — Vanderbilt University is minutes away and the student vibe dominates.

From Nashville we ventured north to Kentucky, the heartland of the bourbon industry. In addition to visiting a series of distilleries, we also stopped at places that would appeal to a spirits nerd: the Brown Foreman Cooperage, where they make bourbon barrels, and Vendome Copper and Stills, the foremost domestic producer of copper and steel stills and distillation equipment. Vendome is a veritable whiskey geek’s candy-store.

Another Kentucky highlight on the American Whiskey Trail was our tour and tasting at the newly opened urban Old Forester Distillery. I can’t recall the last time I’ve experienced such a well-conceived and executed modern distillery tour for a general audience.

The new, 70,000-square-foot, $45 million distillery, occupies 117 and 119 Main Street in downtown Louisville, the same spot where the original Old Forester distillery stood from 1882 until 1919, when Prohibition shut it down. That stretch of Main Street was once home to 89 bourbon companies, though now Old Forester alone stands testament to the old “Whiskey Row” nickname.

For those who take an interest in American spirits, the American Whiskey Trail is a great place to consider for your summer vacation. It’s a chance to learn about and experience firsthand this slice of Americana. It’s fun, educational and mighty tasty. L’chaim!

Send your wine and spirits questions to Joshua E. London at [email protected].

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