Learning to Drink: Making the Trek to Prichard's Distillery
It’s not often that I travel through three different states before 10 am on a Sunday morning. However, when the reason for traveling is whiskey, it’s difficult to not get in the car. I’m not the only one. Today I’m joining Phillip Rix of Chocistry, Tom Botto of Wine Market, and photographer Justin Fox Burks to see where our distilled spirits comes from.
Prichard’s Distillery is one of the newest and most exciting distilleries in the South. Their spirits have quickly racked up fans and awards on a global scale. It seems like it was a quick and easy rise for former Memphian Phil Prichard and his wife, Connie. When they got started in 1997, there weren’t many counties in Tennessee that allowed distilleries. Lincoln County lured Phil and Connie to Kelso and a small schoolhouse that was built in the 1930s. Rum was initially their reason for setting up shop. There is so much sorghum in the South that Phil thought it would be perfect for rum. Unfortunately, sorghum is not “allowed” in rum-making. It legally can’t be called rum. So Prichard’s is made from pure sugarcane molasses.
After making muscadine wine for a while, Phil found the book The Lore of Still Building and set out making one of his own. In 1997 at his 40th high school reunion, Phil gave his friend, Vic Robilio (a Memphis-area wine and liquor wholesaler), a bottle of rum he had made. Vic called him shortly thereafter and asked him when he could buy some to distribute. Phil sold his first batch of rum to Vic in 2001 and sold just $34,000 that first year. This year, Prichard’s Distillery will sell more than $3 million in distilled spirits. The distillery that started with one employee (Phil) now employs 26.
When we drove up to Prichard’s, it was difficult to believe that we had arrived at such a globally recognized distillery. There are no fancy gates, no fancy sign, no concierge, and no hospitality room. It is in the middle of Nowhere, Tennessee. There isn’t a fancy bed and breakfast or white tablecloth restaurant nearby. The most important part is what’s in the bottle.
Prichard’s is still housed in the original schoolhouse although now, instead of just having one room to distill in, they have taken over the whole schoolhouse, including the gymnasium. That gym is filled with some of the best whiskey ever tasted. Connie sat us down in an old classroom lined with desk chairs and began her presentation. Suddenly, I was back in class and thinking about whether or not I was sitting up straight enough. But few classroom presentations end with a tasting of rums and whiskeys.
As we toured the schoolhouse-turned-distillery, she told the story of a certain large global whiskey producer that got a bill rammed through the Tennessee legislation. That bill stated that to legally be labeled a “Tennessee whiskey,” a distillery had to undergo a charcoal filtering process. When Phil got wind of this, he went to the state capital to dispute this bill. He argued that he had never used such a process, and he had been producing Tennessee Whiskey since 2001. The bill unfortunately passed, but not without a provision that stated that any Lincoln County distillery that had been producing Tennessee Whiskey since 2001 was exempt.
As we made our way into the adjacent barrelhouse, Connie explained that it was easy to tell where a distillery was — just look for the telltale black mold surrounding certain warehouse buildings. The mold itself seems to enjoy the company of distilled sprits as much as many Memphians do.
The distillery butts up against a stretch of woods and an overgrown field. Philip Prichard (Phil’s son) said they plan to clear that field and plant sugarcane for the rum. The result would be a hyper-local source for the basic and most important part of any good rum. Bringing sugarcane production in-house is just one example of their forward thinking mindset.
Another example of that is their partnership with Memphis chocolatier Phillip Ashley Rix. Great spirits go hand in hand with great food. However, chocolate doesn’t necessarily come to mind when thinking about whiskey. Rix’s maniacal creativity takes the unique flavors of Prichard’s spirits and crafts them into eye-rollingly delicious chocolates and truffles. It was easy to be electrified by Rix’s obvious excitement for the product. While tasting through the lineup, Rix’s eyes would light up, and he would start rattling off chocolate ideas to Philip.
The unique array of products is inspiring. The distillery itself had the gall to make rum in Tennessee, of all places. We are not a Caribbean island (even though some of us wish we were). Thankfully, that didn’t stop Phil. That rum led to whiskey, and whiskey is what we Southerners thirst after like few other people in the world. Prichard’s produces Tennessee Whiskey and Double Barreled Bourbon. Both start out with the same mashbill and are aged for the same amount of time, at first. At one point, the whiskey is removed from the barrel and becomes Tennessee Whiskey. They hold back some whiskey from bottling and re-barrel — hence the name Double Barreled. The whiskey that spends an extended amount of time in the second barrel is then bottled and comes out as an elixir.
Whiskey — like rock ‘n’ roll, fried chicken, and collard greens — is just better in the South. There are very good whiskeys made in other parts of the country and the world, but it just isn’t the same.
Driving through Muscle Shoals, Alabama, on the way to Kelso, we listened to the Rolling Stones. We considered their pilgrimage to the South to record Sticky Fingers. That steeping in the South had a definitive effect on the Stones, and it seeped into their music. But it just doesn’t work that way for whiskey. Whiskey producers from around the globe may try to emulate what we do here in the South, but you can’t replicate it. It’s living here and making it here that make it great.