published Sunday, March 10th, 2013

Distillery ready for Southside: Chattanooga Whiskey entrepreneurs unveil plan as they hope for bill to pass

Chattanooga Whiskey Co. is planning to move into this 30,000-square-foot building on Chattanooga's Southside if state lawmakers approve a bill permitting distilling in Hamilton County.
Chattanooga Whiskey Co. is planning to move into this 30,000-square-foot building on Chattanooga's Southside if state lawmakers approve a bill permitting distilling in Hamilton County.
Photo by Contributed Photo /Chattanooga Times Free Press.
  • photo
    Joe Ledbetter speaks to the media outside the Chattanooga Choo-Choo in this November file photo.
    Photo by Staff File Photo.
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At a glance

Location: Chattanooga's Southside, 14th and Fort streets. The building is within walking distance of the Chattanooga Choo Choo, Finley Stadium, The Main Terrain Park and Hamilton County Convention and Trade Center.

Size: The 30,000-square-foot building has four stories, two rooftop patios and 5,000 square feet of event space

Architect: Artech Design Group

Completion date: October 2013

Still size: "Big Bertha" will distill 2,000 gallons of whiskey at a time

Employees: 15 with salaries of about $35,000 per year

Expected visitors: 450 per day

Source: Chattanooga Whiskey Co.

Whiskey entrepreneurs Joe Ledbetter and Tim Piersant are ready to begin work on their Chattanooga distillery this month, if a law that finally reverses Prohibition in the Scenic City is passed by the Tennessee legislature.

The law's passage would allow the Chattanooga Whiskey Co. to bring its bottling and distilling operations into Chattanooga by October and would open the door to other distillers who want to ply their trade here.

"We're going to bring in master distillers to ensure that our whiskey stays true to what we have today," Ledbetter said.

Today, the product is distilled in Indiana because of a 2009 decision by state legislators to exclude Hamilton County from a bill that reversed Prohibition in 41 other Tennessee counties. Even now, passage of the bill allowing Hamilton County residents to distill spirits isn't a sure thing, after it was delayed last week because of lobbying efforts by other distilleries in the state.

"If the law allows, then we'll be bringing the bottling operation here first, then the distilling," Ledbetter said. "We've got to take special care to make sure that when we distill something and put it in a barrel, that it's the same quality or better than what we're presenting to the public currently."

The process of crafting a whiskey isn't easy, requiring producers to take care in purchasing and preparing the grain.

"American whiskey is all about capturing the hearts, so you have to nail where you cut out the heads and cut off the tails," Ledbetter said.

Ledbetter and Piersant expect to employ about 15 workers at the plant, which they hope will bring in more than 450 visitors per day and millions in tourism dollars to Chattanooga's Southside.

The duo will spend $2 million to renovate the former headquarters of Turnbull Cone Machine Co., part of a plan to open the building this year. The building, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is located on the corner of Fort Street and 14th Street, and was built in 1910.

The four-story, 30,000-square-foot brick Southside structure will hold 1,000 barrels of Chattanooga Whiskey and serve as a home for Big Bertha, a planned 2,000-gallon still hand-built by Vendome Copper & Brass Works.

Big Bertha will rise 16 feet from the basement, where the company will run its distilling, barrel filling, proofing, bottling and packaging operations. The rest of the distillery will be used for tours, barrel storage, tastings, retail sales and event space.

While the actual still will occupy the bottom level, the first floor is where the real show begins. Visitors will be able to buy bottles, glasses, and apparel, while they check out the company's whiskey production facilities through a hole in the floor. Ledbetter and Piersant are also collecting local artifacts and documents from Chattanooga's pre-prohibition days for display.

"We'll have two whiskey cars from the 1900s, and we'll store them both in the distillery," Piersant said.

On the second and third floors, the company will showcase its stock of 53-gallon whiskey barrels, which will age the whiskey for about 41/2 years before it is bottled.

The fourth floor is the last stop of the tour, where visitors can sample Chattanooga Whiskey surrounded by views of Lookout Mountain and the Chattanooga skyline. In addition to corporate and other events, the 5,000-square-foot top floor and roof patios will be the home for what Ledbetter calls the "Chattanooga Whiskey Presents Music Series."

With their own facility, the duo also plan to adopt a more aggressive product release schedule, this year launching a charcoal-filtered Tennessee Whiskey, a rye whiskey, and a single-batch line in addition to its current handcrafted series, Piersant said.

"This will serve as our distillery and headquarters, but if we want to grow outside of 1,000 barrels aging at a time, we can add barrel houses," Piersant said.

Though much work is left to be done to whip the building into shape, Ledbetter and Piersant are planning an open house and whiskey-tasting event if the bill passes this month as expected.

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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