By Gini David

Too much of anything is bad, but too much good whiskey is barely enough,” quipped Mark Twain, and I suspect many Tennesseans would agree with the American humorist. Now, with the official June launch of the Tennessee Whiskey Trail, whiskey-lovers have an excellent excuse to visit Tennessee distilleries and taste the drink that George Bernard Shaw called “liquid sunshine.”

The Tennessee Whiskey Trail features 25 whiskey and moonshine distilleries all over the Volunteer State, from Memphis to Knoxville and all points in between. Eight of the stops are in Middle Tennessee. A joint effort of the Tennessee Whiskey Guild, the Trail’s 25 distilleries range from small boutique or Mom & Pop distilleries to large, internationally-known producers. According to guild president Kris Tatum, “On the Trail visitors can learn about the art of distilling and about the history and culture of whiskey-making that is legendary in our state.”

Artwork at H Clark Distillery maps the many varieties of whiskey.

During its inaugural year, the Trail’s launch will be celebrated with events in each region of the state. The Trail launched June 19 in Middle Tennessee with a kick-off at The Little Brick Theatre at the Factory in Franklin. The second celebration will be November 3-4 in East Tennessee and coincide with the Tennessee Whiskey Guild’s annual Grains and Grits Festival in Townsend, a charming town on “the quiet side of the Great Smokey Mountains.” The third and final celebration is planned for May 2018 in West Tennessee in Memphis.

To track their adventures on the Tennessee Whiskey Trail, whiskey enthusiasts can pick up a free passport online or at select distilleries and get it stamped at each distillery. Of course visitors will be invited to taste and purchase whiskey and moonshine! Plus, Trail visitors who collect all 25 distillery stamps will receive a commemorative gift and have their name added to the website. Also, a 10-day itinerary is available on the website for folks who want to visit all 25 distilleries in one trip.  For a complete list of distilleries by region, trail map, trip planner, and more, go to http://www.tnwhiskeytrail.com.

Distiller Travis Smith proofs H Clark’s Tennessee Dry Gin.

I unexpectedly jumped on the Tennessee Whiskey Trail the week it launched. As luck had it, I was communicating on another TCB Magazine story with Heath Clark, founder of H Clark Distillery, who invited me to watch the gin bottling process at his distillery in Thompson’s Station. In truth, H Clark’s gin is … well … sublime, handcrafted with fine botanicals and citrus. (Back Story: Two years ago, shortly after I relocated to Tennessee, I met Heath at a county chamber of commerce event. After hearing him speak about the recent opening of his distillery, I took a tour, tasted his gin, and became an instant fan of H Clark Tennessee Dry Gin.  (At the time, their Tennessee Bourbon wasn’t quite ready for tasting and as Heath says, “Patience is one of the main ingredients. We will wait for nothing less than perfection before hand-bottling these spirits.”)

Hence, I jumped at the chance to watch the gin-bottling process (“research,” I said) and a couple days later on a warm afternoon, H Clark’s distiller “Dixie” Travis Smith greeted me at the distinctive gray barn on Thompson’s Station Road. After exchanging pleasantries (“Dixie is a family name,” he said, “although most folks call me Travis”), we got down to the business of bottling a very small batch of gin.

H Clark Distillery’s Hoga Copper Pot Still only looks ancient, says Travis.

H Clark Distillery’s mission is simple: “Our goal is not to make a lot of spirits. Our goal is to make a little bit, and to make it real good.” H Clark’s portfolio is small but memorable: Tennessee Bourbon, their new Tennessee Black & Tan, Tennessee New Whiskey, and, of course, their Tennessee Dry Gin.

Before we began bottling the gin, the first order of business was proofing it. Pouring a sample of gin from the barrel into a test tube, Travis used a hydrometer to take an original gravity reading to ensure the alcohol content was right on the money, 44% –  and not a fraction over. Travis made the necessary adjustments and gave me a tour while the gin cooled.

The four-nozzle bottler fills bottles of gin rapidly.

In the back of the distillery, Travis pointed out H Clark’s gleaming 400-liter Hoga Company Copper Pot Still from Portugal. “It looks like it’s ancient, but it’s not,” Travis said. Though the design is. This alembic style pot still design hasn’t changed much for hundreds of years.

H Clark’s Black & Tan whiskey is twice distilled, Travis explained, giving a rudimentary description of the “head, heart, and tail” process used to make the popular oatmeal stout brimming with rich malt and dark chocolate notes. He gave me a peek of a barrel full of the fermenting Black & Tan, lifting the lid to reveal the beautiful caramel-colored mash. We bent down to take a whiff of the golden mash. Mark Twain was right: “too much good whiskey is barely enough.”

Travis uses an eye-dropper to level the small batch of handcrafted gin.

But I was focused on H Clark’s Tennessee Dry Gin which is handcrafted using an entirely different process. Their dry gin, Travis explained, starts as a neutral spirit – “clean and high proof” – and is cut to lower the proof and add flavor. To give H Clark’s gin its refreshing and unique flavor, the small batches are macerated or “soaked” for 24 hours with a blend of citrus and fine botanicals, of which two are spices. I guessed, correctly, that one of the botanicals is coriander, but guessed no further – some things are meant to remain a delicious mystery.

But back to bottling gin. Hydrometer in hand, Travis did a second and final reading on the small batch of gin, ensuring the proof and temperature were perfect. He poured a small batch of gin, about six gallons total, in a large clean bucket next to the four-nozzle bottler. Travis calculated the number of fifth bottles needed to bottle the small batch and set a box of empty bottles on the counter nearby. Fascinated, I watched as Travis moved left to right, quickly and rhythmically inserting the bottles into the bottling apparatus. The bottles filled quickly and after bottling about ten bottles, Travis turned to me and asked if I wanted to try it. Did I?! Of course I did, attempting to match his efficient technique. As each bottle was filled, I quickly added it to the growing collection of filled bottles sitting atop the large barrel. Before I knew it, we had emptied the bucket of gin and had 26 bottles of H Clark Tennessee Dry Gin to show for it.

Bottling spirits, I learned, is a sweaty but fun business.

But we weren’t finished yet, Travis explained as he brought out a sealed bottled of H Clark’s gin for a reference. Some of the bottles were slightly over-filled and Travis used an eye-dropper to carefully get each bottle filled to the exact level. Next, we corked all the bottles, settling the natural corks snugly into each bottle. Finally, I helped seal each bottle with the red H Clark label, exactly lining up each label as Travis instructed. We carefully put the filled, corked, and sealed bottles into a box.

Distilleries tend to be warm and by now there were beads of sweat running down my face, but no matter. There is something exhilarating and substantial about bottling gin and having something to show for it. Twenty-six bottles of the finest Tennessee Dry Gin – and I helped!

Just as we finished, Heath returned to the distillery and spent a few minutes talking about the launch of the Tennessee Whiskey Trail. “Tennessee is known the world over for music, hospitality, and whiskey. The Tennessee Whiskey Trail connects these cultural cornerstones all across the state. And the experience is a diverse as the state itself,” he said. “From blues to bluegrass, from mountains to plains, and Tennessee Whiskey to vodka, the Tennessee Whiskey Trail is an experience like no other.”

Heath Clark stamped my passport – I’m now officially on the Tennessee Whiskey Trail!

Helping Travis bottle H Clark’s extraordinary gin gave me a special, first-hand appreciation for the care that goes into producing Tennessee spirits. I was hooked, ready to visit more distilleries across the state. Heath handed me a small, beautifully printed passport to the Tennessee Whiskey Trail, taking care to stamp and date it. I was officially on the Tennessee Whiskey Trail! Mark Twain would be pleased.

Gini David is a freelance writer based in Franklin, TN.