Proprietor and Distiller Lee Kennedy of Leiper’s Fork Distillery leads the way toward production of small batch Tennessee Whiskey and Bourbon using locally grown grains and lots of heart.

{ White Lightning Strikes Twice }

Williamson County, Tennessee has a long and storied history surrounding the production, consumption and sale of whiskey and bourbon. Centrally located in the state, the county encompasses the Harpeth River Valley, an area rich in agriculture. Crystal clear spring water filtered by limestone flows through the lush rolling hills. It is due in part to this unique water source that the singular flavor of Tennessee Whiskey became world famous. Distilling was woven into the fabric of the landscape and became a way of life from the time of the county’s earliest settlers.

During the late 1800s, local stills were commonplace in Williamson County but were operated for personal consumption and family use. During the 1850s, approximately seven distilleries were located inside the county’s borders. By the close of the century, only the White Maple Distillery operated legally and on a large scale. Founded by W.H. Womack and his family, it distilled whiskey from 1901 until 1910 for sale to the public. Following prohibition, the distillery was shuttered, and the era of illegal wildcat whiskey began in Williamson County. For years, a group known as “The Williamson County Whiskey Ring” produced and distributed illegal whiskey to Nashville and surrounding areas.

Fast forward to 2009 when the Tennessee legislature passed a bill relaxing regulation on distilling in the state. This legislation paved the way for an ongoing renaissance in small batch whiskey and bourbon production. Immediately following the passage of this law, longtime Tennessee resident and bourbon enthusiast Lee Kennedy began the planning stage of what would become one of the first legal distilleries to operate in Williamson County since prohibition.

Located on 27 acres in Leiper’s Fork, Tennessee, Leiper’s Fork Distillery is a short drive from Franklin, the site of the last legal distillery to operate in the county over one hundred years ago. Lee Kennedy, the proprietor and distiller at Leiper’s Fork Distillery, wants to continue the tradition of premium quality and small batch production the area enjoyed prior to prohibition. The distillery’s motto, “recapturing the lost art of small batch production using local ingredients and pouring our heart and soul into every drop” is evident when visiting the property.

Just off Southall Road, a few miles from the heart of Leiper’s Fork, sits a cabin at the end of a gravel drive. This cabin was built in Vanleer, Tennessee by James Daniel between 1820 and 1825 of rough hewn timber harvested from the surrounding woods. The cabin was moved from Vanleer to Lee Kennedy’s property where it was meticulously restored. It now serves as the tasting room and gift shop for Leiper’s Fork Distillery. A sweeping front porch welcomes visitors and frequently serves as a stage for impromptu concerts.

A few steps from the cabin sits the massive timber frame building that houses the distillery. The primary components of the distillery are a grain hopper, cypress mash cookers, a 500-gallon copper still, and a charcoal filtration system. The still is a Scottish-style swan neck still fabricated by Vendome in Louisville, Kentucky. The barn-like structure also contains a finishing area where the final product is tested, bottled and labeled by hand. The labels are signed by Lee Kennedy.

{ Against the Grain }

All whiskey and bourbon have a common starting point: grain. In order to be labeled and sold as bourbon, the spirit must be produced using a minimum of 51% corn. For Lee Kennedy, minimum standards are not the standard. He uses only the highest quality, locally sourced grains. Corn comprises 70% of the ingredients used to produce whiskey and bourbon at Leiper’s Fork Distillery. Kennedy grows all of the corn used in the distillation process at his own farm a few miles away from the distillery. All wheat, rye and barley used in production comes from farms within a twenty-mile radius of the property. The barley undergoes the malting process at a malting house in North Carolina. Sourcing local grain is important to the distiller because it imparts terroir to the spirit. Once the grain is harvested, it is milled on site in a hammer mill until it is the consistency of meal. Milling occurs once a week at Leiper’s Fork Distillery.

After the locally harvested grains are malted and milled, the chemical process that produces whiskey and bourbon begins in the distillery’s cypress mash cookers. The milled grains are added to the mash cookers in a specific sequence. Corn is the primary ingredient. To that, wheat or rye are added to give the whiskey and bourbon its complex flavor. The malted barley and yeast are finally added to the mash mixture. The mash will ferment from three to ten days before being transferred to the still. At this point, heat from steam will raise the temperature of the mash to 175 degrees and the alcohol begins to evaporate into the swan neck of the enormous copper still. The condensed alcohol collects in the tubing and distills into a container.

The first alcohol to evaporate is methanol and is not fit for consumption. Also known as the “head’s share,” this distillate is collected and used as disinfectant to clean the mash cookers. The distillate that eventually becomes whiskey and bourbon is known as the “heart’s share” and is stored in a metal basin before it is finally filtered. To become bourbon, the whiskey must be aged in new, charred oak barrels. There is no legal requirement for length of aging period, but to be labeled straight bourbon, it must be aged for a minimum of two years and contain no added flavor, color or other spirit. Leiper’s Fork Distillery currently produces approximately 25,000 gallons of whiskey per year.

{ Whiskey, Bourbon & Tennessee Whiskey }

Whiskey & Tennessee Whiskey

When distillate is collected from the still, it is drinkable but has a very high alcohol content and does not have the flavor most people associate with whiskey and bourbon. This type of whiskey is commonly known as white lightning or white whiskey. A distiller may choose to sell the product in its clear form or age it in oak whiskey barrels. For whiskey, the barrels are not required to be charred or new.

So what qualifies a whiskey as Tennessee Whiskey? There has been much confusion on this point, but it comes down to a final filtration process known as “The Lincoln County Process.” In this filtration method, sweet maple wood is turned into charcoal, and the whiskey is filtered through the charcoal. There was no official definition of Tennessee Whiskey until 2013 when the Tennessee legislature adopted one. With one exception, the bill requires any products produced in the state labeling themselves as “Tennessee Whiskey” be filtered using the maple charcoal process.

Bourbon

All bourbon is whiskey, but not all whiskey is bourbon. This old rule-of-thumb sounds simple enough, but that’s not the end of the story. Unlike a lot of spirit-related terminology, bourbon is defined by federal statute. Here’s the short list definition of bourbon:

  • Must be produced in the United States
  • Made from a grain mixture consisting of at least 51% corn
  • Aged in new, charred oak containers (whiskey can be aged in uncharred/used barrels)
  • Must meet certain proof requirements
  • There is no minimum aging period, but straight bourbon must be aged for a minimum of two years (and contain no added flavor, color or other spirit)

{ In the Meantime }

If straight bourbon must age for at least two years, what does a one-year old distillery do while waiting for those charred oak barrels to work their magic?

If you’re Lee Kennedy, you have a good time. Leiper’s Fork Distillery currently produces a white whiskey and a white rye whiskey for sale to the public. These white whiskeys taste different from their bourbon counterparts, but the ones we sampled in the tasting room were smooth and delicious. They drink well neat but are an excellent substitute for other clear spirits commonly used in cocktails. The white whiskeys are sold under the name Old Natchez Trace and are available for purchase in the distillery gift shop.

Kennedy has also bided his time by working with another distillery to create a blended bourbon under the label Hunter’s Select. Col. James Hunter owned the land where Leiper’s Fork Distillery now sits. His final resting place is in the field directly behind the present day distillery. The grounds around the distillery are rolling pasture surrounded by wooded groves and provide a perfect setting for events and concerts. Country music superstars Chris and Morgane Stapleton are known to visit on occasion and on the day we visited, live music spilled from the front porch along with white whiskey punch. Leiper’s Fork Distillery is also a stop on the new tourism initiative launched in 2017 by The Tennessee Distillers’ Guild known as The Tennessee Whiskey Trail. The aim of the initiative is to “responsibly promote and advocate for the Tennessee distilling industry, as well as draw visitors to every corner of the state to experience Tennessee Whiskey”. Tours are open to the public and cost $10. Leiper’s Fork Distillery takes its whiskey and bourbon seriously, but the mood is that of relaxed country fun.

All this and more are why we’ve partnered with Lee and Lynlee Kennedy at Leiper’s Fork Distillery to host the kick-off of our Fall 2018 Eat Y’all CONNECT Dinner Tour presented by The Dairy Alliance featuring Chef Bill Briand from Fisher’s in Orange Beach, Alabama as guest chef and Chef Dylan Morrison from 1892 Leiper’s Fork as host chef, along with a myriad of other lifestyle partners including BONGO Coffee, Peter Nappi and more.

{ A Smooth Finish }

A deep respect for the rich history of Williamson County and a passion for sourcing local grains sets Leiper’s Fork Distillery apart from other small batch distilleries. Lee Kennedy has created a distillery with the potential to bring back the local flavor and handcrafted quality not found in Williamson County since the 1850s. It’s been a long century or so, but legal bourbon is flowing again in the Harpeth River Valley – right where it belongs. `

Leiper’s Fork Distillery is located at 3381 Southall Road, Franklin, Tennessee. They can be reached by phone at 615-465-6456. You can learn more about the distillery and arrange a tour by calling or visiting them or online at leipersforkdistillery.com.