I’d never been to Chattanooga before, but within the first day of my visit, I knew exactly what Chattanooga feels like. It’s almost as if there is a shared soul among the residents and business owners. Shops, restaurants, and buildings all speak in a similar way, and I enjoyed exploring the various sides of Chattanooga’s welcoming and artistic personality. Despite all the city had to offer, the Tennessee Stillhouse was my favorite taste of Chattanooga, hands down.

Owner and co-founder Tim Piersant and head distiller Grant McCracken were kind enough to give the ScoutLands team a one-of-a-kind tour, and, as someone new to both the city and to the world of whiskey, I got way more than I expected.

We entered from the street and drank in our surroundings while the woman at the counter helped a customer. My eyes were drawn to the shelves full of whiskey, glass bottles sparkling against what we would later learn is reclaimed wood from a local factory. The space is full of products and interesting decor but is not so busy as to be overwhelming. There was a perfect balance of things to look at and learn about, but plenty of space to stand and breathe too.

We were led back to the bar to wait for Tim, and I was immediately enthralled with the space. The huge mirror behind the bar reflected all the glass bottles and copper in the room, making the cozy space feel huge and enchanting. Flowers sat in whiskey bottles on the counter, and conversations full of jargon floated around me, making the expertise of the Stillhouse employees almost tangible. I stared at bottle upon bottle of whiskey as the bartender poured us tall glasses of water that we barely had time to sip before Tim arrived with Mia Littlejohn, Chattanooga Whiskey’s marketing strategist. Introductions were made, and we were led back to the entrance where we met Grant and got to hear the story behind the Tennessee Stillhouse and Chattanooga Whiskey.

The front window reads “Whiskey To The People,” and that same mantra appears all over the Tennessee Stillhouse decor and products, along with the words “Vote Whiskey.” Chattanooga Whiskey began as a brand with a dream to produce whiskey true to its name, but laws that were still in place after Prohibition made it impossible for Chattanooga Whiskey to be actually distilled in Chattanooga. Tim told us about the movement, about lobbying for county and state restrictions on distilling to be changed, and how success finally came in the form of House Bill 102 and Senate Bill 129. A law was passed in 2013 that opened the majority of the state to producing, including the city of Chattanooga. Up until that point, the whiskey sold under their label was bought fifty barrels at a time from Indiana, something they tried to be transparent about in order to gain supporters for the Vote Whiskey movement.

""We pick a sound vessel, and then it's out of our hands.""

After the law was passed and construction finished, the Tennessee Stillhouse opened in the spring of 2015, and, with Grant at the helm, production of genuine Chattanooga Whiskey began.

We were treated to a tour led by Grant himself, and it didn’t take long for my mind to be swimming with information. We heard all about the process, learned about how fermentation and distilling works, and even tasted malted grains straight from the bag. Grant and Tim told us about their efforts to keep the Stillhouse environmentally friendly, from reclaiming energy from heat produced during distilling to buying the decorative still in their front window from a local smith. Grant walked us through the entire process, letting us get a behind-the-scenes look at what goes into creating a barrel of whiskey. Then we went down into the cellar to take a look at the barrels that were currently aging there, see and learn about the inside of a used barrel, and hear more about what happens in that period of time as the whiskey waits and changes. Grant shared that the aging stage is probably the most important stage in getting a whiskey ready for consumption, but it is also the stage that they have the least control over. “We pick a sound vessel, and then it’s out of our hands.” Each barrel is its own micro-climate, and the changes that the whiskey goes through during this period will define much of its taste. Grant referred to each barrel as a “snowflake,” saying that it’s the variety and the individual qualities that make each whiskey great.

While I learned an incredible amount about the distilling process and what makes Chattanooga Whiskey unique, the thing that will stick with me most is the theme of play that kept coming up throughout the tour. Tim referred to what they do at the Stillhouse as “research and development,” but the passion of these men for what they’re doing keeps that process from being boring or stilted. Grant talked about his job more like a man would talk about his hobby, saying that the microdistillery provides him with the chance to produce a different barrel every week and the opportunity to “play with whiskey.” Even with planned expansions that would allow Chattanooga Whiskey to become a national brand, the experimental philosophy of the Tennessee Stillhouse is to be retained, allowing Grant the continued freedom to play.

Tim shared with us a common phrase said around the Stillhouse: “Rules are good; change them.” It’s obvious in hearing the story of Chattanooga Whiskey that everyone at the Tennessee Stillhouse has great respect for history, but it’s the inventive and artistic spirit of people like Tim and Grant that really give the brand life. They avoid being strangled by tradition and instead seek to take the good from the past and improve on it. Grant explained the percentage requirements for ingredients in making whiskey, saying that there is an unspecified 49% that provides him with plenty of room for experimentation and play.

Before coming to work at the Tennessee Stillhouse, Grant worked as head brewer at Samuel Adams. When asked about how that job prepared him for his current work, Grant said that “great whiskey comes from great beer.” He has taken his knowledge from his time at Samuel Adams and uses it as a springboard for his whiskey distilling at the Stillhouse. Grant shared a number of things he does differently than a lot of whiskey producers, but one aspect that sets him apart from others is his use of malted grain rather than raw. The ScoutLands team got a chance to taste a couple different malted grains, and ScoutLands’ founder Randy even asked for a second handful. The nuanced taste of this grain shows up in the final product and adds something special to Chattanooga Whiskey.

Grant spoke passionately and expertly about his work for two hours, and, at the end of the tour, he asked us if he’d left anything out. Lauren, our content coordinator, replied, “I don’t think we’d know!” Listening to a master talk about his craft left us all feeling like excited schoolchildren.

After the tour, we returned once more to the bar where we enjoyed flights of whiskey, and Randy, who had found a kindred spirit in Grant, continued their conversation. I was once again impressed by the excellence of the Stillhouse employees. Christine was our bartender, and she proved to be both knowledgeable and helpful. She shared with us that Chattanooga Whiskey could be found all over town and that each place that serves it has a unique version because they are required to buy all bottles from a given barrel. That also means that the whiskey sold at the Stillhouse cannot be found anywhere else either. Christine asked about our tour and told us that the tours fulfill a requirement of the law that visitors learn during their time there. The Tennessee Stillhouse is not a bar but an education.

Our entire experience at the Tennessee Stillhouse was one-of-a-kind and left us all enthused about what the creativity and expertise of passionate people can produce. Grant, Tim, Mia, Christine, and everyone else at the Stillhouse are part of a truly remarkable movement that is bringing unforgettable experiences and great whiskey to the people of Chattanooga.