Leiper’s Fork Distillery
By John McBryde
There is a gleam in Lee Kennedy’s eyes. As he sits inside his 5,000-square-foot still house off Southall Road on a warm March morning, he is just a few weeks away from what is both the opening of a new business and the culmination of a nearly lifelong dream.
The beam from his face comes honestly. Kennedy, once a buttoned-down owner of a financial services company who is now sporting shoulder-length hair and a full-fledged beard tinted with gray, is on the cusp of making whiskey for a living. With the help of family, friends and neighbors, he is soon to open the Leiper’s Fork Distillery and produce three distinctive types of spirits – bourbon, Tennessee whiskey and Tennessee rye whiskey. He’s the veritable kid in a candy store, only he’s approaching 40 and the “candy” he’s awaiting will have something of a kick to it.
“I’ve had a fascination with distilling going back to when I was a teenager,” says Kennedy, who expects to start manufacturing whiskey by around mid-April. “I don’t really know why. I’ve just always been fascinated with the history and heritage behind it and also the science behind it.”
Though no one could legally make spirits in Williamson County or most of Tennessee when Kennedy was a teenager in the early 1990s, he spent considerable time researching in case the day ever came.
“This was before the Internet, so I was reading whatever I could find,” Kennedy says. “I remember looking at the old Foxfire books, and the first book in that series had a chapter titled ‘Moonshining as a Fine Art.’ It retold the process of Appalachian distilling going back to the earliest days.My fascination and passion with it grew over the years. It’s been kind of an evolving story for me.”
While keeping his long-term goal of one day becoming a distiller, Kennedy went on to launch a career in real estate and commercial construction, and later he and two other businessmen started a small financial services business. And then in 2009, Kennedy could sense his dream had a path to reality.That’s when the Tennessee General Assembly amended the statute that had for many years limited the distillation of spirits to just three counties – Moore (home of Jack Daniel’s), Coffee (George Dickel) and Lincoln (Prichard’s). The revised law allowed distilleries to be established in 41 additional counties that were either fully wet or sold liquor by the drink.
And with that change, Kennedy went to work. His family owned 27 acres of farmland near Leiper’s Fork, so he drew up a plan to see if adding a commercial distillery to part of that property made economic sense. When the results of a study confirmed that it was a viable idea, Kennedy went about clearing the governmental hurdles within Williamson County.
“Before I met with the county, I met with my neighbors that surround me here,” he says. “I wanted to make sure we had their blessings, so to speak, before we went to see anybody in any regulatory roll.”
By January 2012, Kennedy had a business plan and a scheduled meeting with the Williamson County planning commission. The process had its typical bureaucratic speed bumps, and even required the creation of a new law that allowed for distillation in a rural section of the county, but within three years Kennedy had his building permit.
“I knew it was going to be a long lead time, because this is such a new industry that has been reborn inside the state and at our county level,” Kennedy says. “The barriers of entry are really high. You’ve got to really want to do it and have a thick skin.”
In addition to the still house – which will produce two 53-gallon barrels of whiskey per day using locally grown grains and water from the property’s limestone spring – the Leiper’s Fork Distillery will include a visitors center and retail shop that has been reconstructed from an 1825 cabin built in Dickson County and moved to Southall Road.
Most of the whiskey will be aged four to six years in new white oak barrels charred on the inside, but Kennedy and his plant manager, Catlin Christian, will bottle some of the unaged whiskey and sell in the retail store.The distillery will also partner with a distiller in Kentucky to make a blend that will be a commemoration of the old White Maple Distillery located in Williamson County in the early 1900s.
The cabin, which is expected to open to the public in June, will also have other items for sale. In addition, it will be used as a tasting room and a place for private barrel sales, and will serve as the starting point of distillery tours.
Kennedy is counting the days.
“It will definitely be a milestone when we barrel our first whiskey,” he says. “We feel like we’re bringing back a lost art and an industry that’s been long gone from this county. We’re honored.”
John McBryde is a freelance writer and editor who lives in Franklin with his wife and daughter. He can be reached at email@example.com.