published Thursday, June 7th, 2012

Chattanooga Whiskey eyes area facilities

Tim Piersant, left, and Joe Ledbetter recently founded the Chattanooga Whiskey Co.
Tim Piersant, left, and Joe Ledbetter recently founded the Chattanooga Whiskey Co.
Photo by Alex Washburn /Chattanooga Times Free Press.
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The brains behind Chattanooga Whiskey's launch misfired in one crucial area. Underestimating the thirst of southern throats parched by summer heat, they sold their entire first shipment of 919 cases almost immediately.

Sales accelerated beyond their expectations, and now the whiskey makers are looking to relocate production to Chattanooga from Indiana -- as soon as they can alter a 1930s-era law that prohibits it.

Already, Chattanooga Whiskey Co. is ramping up its production to launch the product in 15 states by this fall, and throughout Tennessee in the next few weeks., said co-founder Joe Ledbetter.

Another 900 cases are on the way here, and Ledbetter just inked a deal with National Distributing Co., the second-largest liquor distributor in the U.S., he said.

"The only drawback that stinks is we were prepared to roll into the entire state and we couldn't because Chattanooga and Knoxville gobbled up our entire product," said Joe Ledbetter, co-founder of the fledgling startup.

Company officials currently import the final product from Indiana because it's against the law to produce it here.

A Kickstarter campaign to promote Chattanooga Whiskey raised more than $11,000, which Ledbetter said would go toward legalizing its production in Chattanooga.

"Any manufacturing -- bottling, distilling, even aging whiskey -- is still illegal in Hamilton County," he said.

The law that prohibits making whiskey dates back to the prohibition era, Ledbetter said, and killed what was then one of the leading centers of liquor production in the U.S.

In 2009, Tennessee loosened its grip on the production of spirits by allowing counties to decide for themselves whether to allow production. More than 40 counties elected to allow local liquormakers more leeway, but Hamilton County was not one of them, he said.

Ledbetter says moving production here would pump an initial $3 million in the local economy when the group opens its facility on the Southside, would create jobs and attract tourists.

Best of all for county officials, Ledbetter estimates that revenues could bring in more than $50,000 in taxes every month.

Ledbetter's partner, Tim Piersant, said the group is planning to bring the issue before the Hamilton County Commission in time for the group's next session.

"We're beginning to actively work on changing the law," Piersant said. "The story is not complete until we are making it in Chattanooga."

The partners are already looking at six potential sites on the Southside, and estimate that the process of rolling back Prohibition in the county could take one to two months, if successful.

"Everybody needs to know that Joe and I, though we love to make money, this isn't just about capitalizing on the name 'Chattanooga,'" Piersant said. "If the law does get changed, we are going to build a distillery downtown."

Larry Henry, chairman of the Hamilton County Commission, said he was open to changing what could be an "antiquated" law.

"Sounds like we might have something on the books that might be a little outdated," Henry said. "Realistically if people want to buy alcohol, they're going to buy it."

Though he acknowledged that there could be opposition from some groups, he likes the idea of new jobs and investment in the county.

"There's probably a lot worse and damageing businesses that are operating already, so I'd give them a fair shake," Henry said.

Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger said he is enthusiastic about the possibly of adding jobs in the area.

"We always encourage economic development," Coppinger said.

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about Ellis Smith...

Ellis Smith joined the Chattanooga Times Free Press in January 2010 as a business reporter. His beat includes the flooring industry, Chattem, Unum, Krystal, the automobile market, real estate and technology. Ellis is from Marietta, Ga., and has a bachelor’s degree in mass communication at the University of West Georgia. He previously worked at UTV-13 News, Carrollton, Ga., as a producer; at the The West Georgian, Carrollton, Ga., as editor; and at the Times-Georgian, Carrollton, ...

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