Whiskey makes comeback to Williamson County

Blood and booze.

Both were spilled across Williamson County on a regular basis nearly 100 years ago. Long before shoppers hunted parking spaces at CoolSprings Galleria, federal agents were hunting bootleggers deep in the hollows — smashing up illicit whiskey stills from Brentwood to Spring Hill.

This year, for the first time in 100 years, a different type of whiskey will be flowing in the county — legal whiskey.

And just as a good whiskey takes time to mature, so, too, did the journey of being able to manufacture it in Williamson County.

H. Clark Distillery in Thompson’s Station will become the first legal distillery to make whiskey again in the county on May 1.

Prohibition comes to Tennessee

Ten years before becoming federal law in 1919, Prohibition had already flooded its way into Tennessee.

In 1909, Senate Bill No. 11 banned the manufacturing of any alcoholic beverages within the state. The bill shuttered Williamson County’s last-known legal distillery, White Maple Distillery in Franklin.

“It wasn’t in operation very long because the state kicked in Prohibition so they had to close up their saloons,” said Rick Warwick, a historian for the Heritage Foundation of Franklin and Williamson County.

The law ushered in an era of a game of cat and mouse between feds and moonshiners. When a still was confiscated, two more would pop up.

“Around the time of Prohibition people started going into these hollows and making illegal whiskey and almost every area in the county had moonshiners, as they were called,” Warwick said.

And at times, the game became deadly.

Blood and booze might have been the last few images in Constable Sam Locke’s mind before a shotgun at the hands of a bootlegger left his body bullet-ridden near Franklin on a Saturday night in March 1925.

Locke was pulling into his home on Hillsboro Road when he was ambushed shortly before midnight.

A passerby later found Locke’s body in his automobile near the entryway gate — the engine still running.

The Review-Appeal reported that the Prohibition officer was assassinated by Jim Kelton, whose whiskey still had recently been one of many raided by Locke. Kelton was later convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison.

In the early ’20s, Locke assisted feds in destroying 73 stills throughout the county. On many occasions, thousands of gallons of moonshine would be found during a single bust.

Long road

Heath Clark of H. Clark Distillery in Thompson’s Station always had a fascination with whiskey and the distillation process, but he had to jump several hurdles before he could get his distillery started.

“Roman numeral one was to get permission,” Clark said. “So I started looking at the laws. At the time it was illegal to do it anywhere in Tennessee besides Coffee, Moore and Lincoln County.”

Fortunately for Clark, the rules were about to change. In 2009, the statute limiting the manufacturing of spirits was amended by the Tennessee General Assembly, making distillation eligible in Williamson County.

“That was a big victory,” Clark said.

Since that time Clark has been busy getting H. Clark Distillery off the ground. He spent three years renovating and restoring a 100-year-old, 1,200-square-foot granary building in Thompson’s Station, where he now operates his distillery.

Clark will sell an “unaged,” oatmeal stout whiskey as well as a gin out of his distillery, and he hopes to have his bourbon and Tennessee-style whiskey available next year.

In the meantime, H. Clark Distillery will hold a grand opening May 1. The event not only will be a milestone for Clark, but a historic moment for the county as well.

“It’s been a lot of work, but I’ve never been one to quit or give up on something,” Clark said. “But here we are six years after the bill passed and I’m finally about to sell my first bottle.”

Whiskey flow

Thompson’s Station won’t be the only place in the county where whiskey will be flowing this year. About 20 minutes northwest, Lee Kennedy is in the process of building Leiper’s Fork Distillery.

The 5,000-square-foot distillery as well as a 2,500-square-foot log cabin will rest on 30 acres in Leiper’s Fork. The log cabin, built in 1825, will hold tours, tastings, live music and retail and office space.

Kennedy plans to have the distillery operational in June, with a soft opening in July followed by a grand opening in October. Leiper’s Fork Distillery will offer a premium bourbon and a Tennessee whiskey aged in 53-gallon barrels, which won’t be matured for another four to six years, Kennedy said.

An unaged white whiskey and brandy will be sold in the meantime.

Kennedy said he’s proud to be part of the distillery revival happening within the county as well as throughout the state.

“It was a major manufacturing contributor to the state, and Prohibition really eliminated that,” Kennedy said. “And with the law changes that happened recently you’re starting to see a flurry of distilleries opening up, and we’re really just now reversing the effects of Prohibition and seeing some variation in product and attention to detail and local distillers being able to get into the industry and make an impact.”

And while the journey to putting cork to bottle has been long, Clark said just like whiskey, all good things take time.

“There’s something about creating a tangible product that’s always been interesting to me. And then you think about whiskey, it’s an all-natural product. It’s water, it’s grain, it’s wood, it’s fire, it’s time — these are base ingredients to this American dream.”

Reach Collin Czarnecki at 615-852-1130 and on Twitter @CollinReports.