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Ingesting the Opposition - Week 11: Prichard's Distillery

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Without any craft distillers or brewers in Martin, Tennessee, how can we ensure that Mississippi State avoids the ghosts of Maine a week before it meets its destiny in Tuscaloosa? By becoming acquainted with Tennessee's oldest and feistiest craft distillery. May none be injured, and may the rum and whisky flow freely!

Photo: Prichard's Distillery

Let's go ahead and get this out of the way: There are no breweries or distilleries in Martin, Tennessee.

Not even sort of.

Here's a map showing Martin's plight. The little pins are distilleries. The vast emptiness is Martin:

Whisky trail map

Yikes.

And you know what you get when you google "liquor store Martin, TN"? This:

Martin map

That's a big ole chunk of empty space surrounding the small ole chunk of Martin.

So . . . what the hell are we supposed to do now?

I could wax poetic about Martin's history and about northwestern Tennessee's austere charm, or about the random connection between UT-Martin's roster and State's. (That really is an interesting read, by the way.)

But even if I did that, it wouldn't get us where we need to go. Because we can't do our pre-game expressionistic victory dances empty handed, can we? I mean, I'd feel awful silly if I was watching this weekend's game in my lucky boxers while sitting in my lucky chair preparing to do my lucky George-Bailey-style touchdown celebrations without some football-themed internal alchemy occurring.

So let's suspend direct institutional associations for a moment. Focus on what the game actually is—an FCS athletic team from a tiny school (the smallest of the UT system's main campuses) in rural Tennessee pitting itself against an SEC opponent in an all but certain lopsided defeat. And, at least for this glorious moment, not just against any SEC opponent. But—dare I say it—the current Number 1 team in college football.

What we must do, then, is pay homage to Tennessee's perpetual underdog. The underdog who doesn't shy away from competition with one of the biggest liquor manufacturers in the world, and who has been the object of praise from more than one of the companies I've profiled in this series.

That underdog is Phil Prichard, the man behind Prichard's Distillery in the infinitely-smaller-than-Martin town of Kelso, Tennessee.

[This is all a fancy way of saying that I've wanted to talk about Prichard's all season, so now I'm going to do it, opponent location be damned.]

Rum

As so often seems to be the case with craft distillers, the idea for Prichard's rose from the ether in a most fortuitous way. By the early 1990s, Phil Prichard was looking for a different career path. A decade or so earlier, he had relocated from Memphis to New England to raise horses on a farm with his wife Connie, but that business had recently declined. He took other random jobs to pay the bills, but none were close to satisfying.

Enter cousin Mack Prichard. Mack was a naturalist with the State of Tennessee who was living in Nashville. [Aside: Mack Prichard is a god among men. If you've ever been to any of Tennessee's amazing State Parks, you owe this guy a bear hug.] One day while the two were discussing Phil's plight, Mack mentioned that his father had always thought that someone should make rum in Tennessee out of the state's sorghum.

Phil was taken aback by this. He told me that it was like he had received a "higher calling" to do something else with his life.

Well, that, and he had just been canned from his last job.

So around this same time, Phil started experimenting with DIY distillation. He didn't have any actual equipment, so he made some alterations to his wife's canning gear and got to work with sorghum on the kitchen stove. Connie served as the taste tester, and had immediate glowing reviews of the rum. Phil's friends were likewise impressed (including one who was a liquor distributor in Memphis), and before long, he had a group of people ready to back the business plan he'd been developing.

But there was a problem with Mack's sorghum idea. The drink was great—sorghum's sugar profile is apparently well-suited for distillation—but it could not be called "rum." By law, rum had to be made from sugar cane. So if Phil wanted to make and sell "rum" of any kind, he couldn't use sorghum.

So Phil dove into the world of sugar. And from very early on, he developed a very specific vision for the rum he wanted to make. You see, the form of sugar cane traditionally used to make rum—molasses—actually comes in a number of forms. There are various "grades" of molasses, such as "A," "B," "C," and so forth, which are distinguished from one another based in large part upon the amount of residual sugar each contains. The higher the grade, the higher the sugar content.

Prichard discovered that the variety of molasses used as the base for rum in the colonial period—when rum was America's spirit of choice—was extremely high. Refiners had yet to learn to extract nearly as much crystalline sugar from the molasses as they do now, so the grade of molasses that went into rum was akin to today's "A" product. In other words, they would make rum out of the same stuff a person would slather on biscuits.

Phil would settle for nothing less, especially given his disdain for the trend of using blackstrap molasses for rum. Whereas table-grade molasses may contain upwards of 70% fermentable sugar, Phil described blackstrap molasses to me as 32% sugar and 68% "lord only knows." He thinks it makes the end product bitter because of its low sugar-to-miscellaneous ratio, so he adamantly refused to go down that road.

Rums prichard's

So where could Phil make these magical, high-end cane elixirs? At the time, there were only two distilleries in Tennessee: Brown Forman's Jack Daniel's, one of the largest producers of whisky in the world, and George Dickel, the "other" Tennessee whisky that would soon be purchased by liquor conglomerate Diageo. So there wasn't exactly a craft distillery scene in Tennessee to help him along his way.

When he looked into the matter, he discovered that in fact Jack Daniel's and George Dickel were located in two of the only places in Tennessee in which a distillery could operateJD in Bedford County, and Dickel in Coffee County. So his first idea was to join Dickel in Coffee County. They already had one sizable distillery, so surely allowing a small craft operation wouldn't present any issues.

Local preachers did not concur. Apparently one distillery was enough for them. So they raised a huge stink in the press and led Phil to reconsider.

Lucky for him, there was another, little-known third option. Lincoln County, Tennessee—yes, the county after which Jack Daniel's famed "Lincoln County process" is named—also allowed distilleries. Apparently back in the day, Lincoln county was quite large and encompassed the original Jack Daniel's distillery. When lines were re-drawn, Jack Daniel's was lost, but the laws that permitted the locals to allow distillation were not.

So when Phil was run out of town by the godly men of Tullahoma, he just moved on down the road a ways to Lincoln County. (Lincoln, Bedford, and Coffee Counties are all adjacent, by the way. Just FYI, this makes multiple distillery tours in a single day pretty easy.) He bought an old schoolhouse in Kelso, Tennessee—a "town" that I've driven through but still never seen—and filled it with distillation equipment he purchased from a defunct distillery in Vermont.

With his old fashioned pot still in place, and a small supply of 15-gallon new, charred oak barrels, Phil now had his own functioning craft distillery. And after about ten years of establishing himself in the industry, he's opened a second location near Nashville, where he'll be able to increase the production of his mainstays and also experiment with a super cool old-world-style brandy still. Fancy.

Prichard's still

I'm not all that well-versed in the world of rum. But Prichard's stuff is really, really good. The dark rum is oaky and smooth, and the light rum has an amazing vanilla quality that really fits nicely in cocktails. And from my conversations with other craft rum distillers, his products—which he started producing a decade before the craft rum trend really caught on in many places—set the standard for what small batch rum could be.

But this is Tennessee. Whisky we want, and whisky we shall have.

Phil approached the brownest of the brown liquors in a number of ways. First, he made what turned out to be the precursor of all the "honey" bourbons you see on the market today: Sweet Lucy Bourbon Liqueur. It's syrupy and sweet, but carries a solid bourbon kick. Phil developed it specifically for those souls that spend their weekend mornings sitting in cold and damp duck blinds. I'm not a hunter, but I imagine this stuff does the trick.

Next, he made a Double Barrel Bourbon. This was exactly what it sounds like: bourbon that was aged, cut, and then re-barreled for additional aging. Phil told me that he got the idea from his rum, which is bottled at barrel proof. He wished there was a way to maintain some of the notes in barrel proof whisky without having to bottle it at such a high proof. The second barrel did the trick.

Then came a rye, a traditional Irish-style single malt, a Double Chocolate Bourbon (which, yes, is infused with local artisan chocolate), and an unaged corn whisky ("Lincoln County Lightening").

And then there was what we'd all been waiting for—Tennessee Whiskey.

Whisky

But let me first provide some context.

Up until fairly recently, there was never really a legal definition of Tennessee whiskey like, say, there was for bourbon. Something called "Tennessee Whiskey" had to be made in Tennessee, but that was about it.

In effect, though, the only Tennessee whiskies on the market were essentially this: high-corn bourbon that was filtered through huge vats of sugar maple charcoal before (and sometimes after) aging.

As more micro-distilleries popped up in Prichard's wake, especially in the past two or three years, this state of legal ambiguity didn't sit well with Brown Forman. It believed that Tennessee whisky needed to be legally "protected" in the same way bourbon was. Otherwise, any old bathtub shine could be labeled "Tennessee whisky," which would do nothing but weaken the category and steer revenue away from Tennessee exports. Amirite?

Legislators to the rescue!

So what did our esteemed lawmakers do to "protect" the craftsmen of Tennessee whisky? Why, they defined the product just how Brown Forman wanted them to: Something isn't "Tennessee whisky" unless it's made exactly like Jack Daniel's.

Well, Phil Prichard wasn't having any part of that crap. He believed that Tennessee whisky was something different entirely. Based upon a study of a whisky recipe handed down from his early 19th century Tennessee relatives, Phil was convinced that "Tennessee whiskey" should be made from white corn (which has a higher sugar content than the yellow corn others use in their whiskies), should be distilled in a traditional copper pot still, and should stay as far away from charcoal filtration as possible. That's how he had been doing it for a few years at his distillery in Kelso, and that's how he intended to keep doing it. Thus spake Phil to USA Today and the Washington Post:

"This is all about my rights. And when you take away any of my rights, I'm going to fight you tooth and nail on it," said Phil Pritchard, owner of Pritchard's Distillery in Kelso, Tenn. "Last year, a lot of those rights got taken away from me through a process that was abetted by an employee of Jack Daniel's for the benefit of Jack Daniel's."

"If I wanted my whiskey to taste like Jack Daniel's, I'd make it like Jack Daniel's . . . ."

Prichard dislikes the charcoal mellowing process, and testified against the 2013 bill. He got his distillery exempted from the law passed in 2013.

"The only corn we grew in Tennessee in the 18th century was white corn, and we only used pot stills," said Prichard. "If I had the power and influence Jack has in this state, and I told everyone that Tennessee whiskey was made with white corn in pot stills, how would distillers feel about that?"

Tell it like it is, Phil. Tell it like it is.