It is probably safe to say that, at least among drinkers, the most famous Tennessean, living or dead, is Jack Daniel. The eponymous distillery’s Tennessee whiskey is found in every duty-free shop from Reykjavik to Mumbai, and bars from Cape Town to Tokyo.
The only other producer of Tennessee sour-mash corn whiskey is George Dickel, a distiller named after the 19th-century entrepreneur. Now Jack and George are about to be joined by a new name: Benjamin Prichard.
This is the name of the grandfather of Phil Prichard, proprietor of Prichard’s Distillery, in Kelso, Tennessee (population 1,028). Prichard will shortly send two new whiskeys to market under the Benjamin Prichard name – a Tennessee corn whiskey, and an Irish-style single malt rye. They join his line of artisanal rums.
I learn about Prichard’s venture into the spirits business as we wait for fried bologna sandwiches at a diner just down the road from his tiny distillery in Kelso.
A serial entrepreneur with a family history of distilling, Prichard first began experimenting in rum using a home-made still, making the spirit from sorghum molasses, a southern delicacy that is often drizzled over hot biscuits.
At a high school reunion, Prichard ran into a classmate who now ran a liquor distribution business, and who asked for a sample of the oak-aged rum. Prichard delivered a bottle and, after a taste, his former classmate asked two questions: “When are you going into business, and how much is this [rum] going to cost me?”
By 1997, Prichard incorporated the company, and within two years had raised sufficient capital to purchase his first stills and move into an old school building in Kelso.
Prichard spent a decade – and about $2m – getting distributors in the US and Europe to add his products to their sales catalogues. No matter how good the spirits, he tells me, “a distillery without distribution will not succeed”.
He has yet to negotiate access to the UK for his rums, let alone the new whiskeys, and there may be some poetic justice in that, since the battle over taxing the raw materials for rum – sugar and molasses – was one of the struggles that torched the flame of rebellion against the Crown in North America.
But for those fortunate enough to encounter Prichard’s Crystal rum, the experience is a revelation: it’s a sophisticated, suave liquor that delivers a promise of butterscotch to the nose and keeps the promise in its finish.
I don’t consider myself a rum connoisseur, so I call an expert, writer Wayne Curtis, whose 2006 book, And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in Ten Cocktails, uses rum as a metaphor for American history. Curtis praises Crystal for its “full caramel-y flavour” and credits Prichard as a leader in the renaissance of American rum.
At the time of the American revolution, Curtis notes, there were more than 150 rum distillers in New England. But the rise of corn whiskey, then Prohibition, turned rum into a cheap spirit, mainly produced in the Caribbean.
Nowadays, most mass-market rum is made in column stills that produce a high-proof, nearly tasteless product. Prichard, like other boutique distillers, uses pot stills, to preserve the underlying flavour of the fermented molasses.
Prichard also produces flavoured white rums – cranberry, peach-mango, and key lime. I taste all three, and they deliver an intense finish of real fruit.
Then there are his two rums aged in charred oak barrels, which give both more than a hint of whiskey flavour. The company’s biggest seller, however, is a bourbon-based orange and apricot liqueur called Sweet Lucy.
For some, to use bourbon (corn whiskey strongly associated with Bourbon County, Kentucky) in this way is nothing short of heresy, but Prichard’s introduction to the whiskey business came with Benjamin Prichard’s double-barrelled bourbon. Prichard does not distil the whiskey for the double-barrelled whiskey or for Sweet Lucy, but buys high-proof whiskey from an unnamed Kentucky distiller.
For the double-barrelled bourbon, Prichard cuts the whiskey to 90 per cent proof and re-barrels it in charred-oak barrels, a process that allows the final product to overcome the effects of dilution.
His Tennessee-style corn whiskey is made with white corn, rather than the yellow corn used by the other Tennessee whiskey-makers, and will retail for about $40 a bottle. Retail prices for the Irish-style single-malt whiskey should be about $50 a bottle. He expects to produce about 300 to 500 cases a year of each whiskey.
At the end of our visit, Prichard taps out the bung in a barrel that holds one of his whiskeys. He doesn’t let on which it is. We have to cut the spirit with water due to its high proof, but the result reminds me of a fine single malt. When I tell Prichard this, he nods and smiles.
Prichard’s Distillery, 11 Smithland Road, Kelso, Tennessee, US
Tel: +1 931-433-54543, www.prichardsdistillery.com