Distilling in Middle TN
Middle Tennessee has a rich but nearly forgotten history of whiskey distilling. In 1799, John Overton, serving as Supervisor of the Internal Revenue for the District of Tennessee, performed a General Accounting of Stills, and found that there were 61 stills servicing the 4,000 inhabitants of Davidson County. As land began to open up to the south and west many of these people began to settle along the Harpeth River Valley in the newly formed Williamson County. Many of these early residents to our county naturally brought their stills with them as they moved. In this early period of our county’s history, whiskey production was small in scale and conducted by individuals. As part of a farming operation, and true to their cultural traditions, many farmers fermented and distilled their excess grains in the form of whiskey. In those days, whiskey was used not only as a libation but was also used for medicines, disinfectants, an ingredient in perfumes and even as a currency for bartering.
By the mid 1800s, small commercial distilleries began to dot the landscape. In our area, the Boyd family operated a grist mill on the West Harpeth River and a distillery at the head of Still House Hollow. Colonel Henry Hunter, who originally owned the property where Leiper’s Fork Distillery resides, operated a small distillery on Old Hwy 96, just outside the Village of Leiper’s Fork. In county records, this piece of property was called the “Distillery Tract”.
As time passed and the Industrial Revolution began to emerge, distilleries began to become more technologically advanced, slightly larger in size and fewer in number. In 1886, the Nashville Union reported that the distilling industry was the largest manufacturing industry in the state. By the turn of the 20th century, Williamson County followed this trend, having only one legal distillery which made approximately 150 gallons of spirit per day. This was the J.H. Womack & Bro. White Maple Distillery. The White Maple Distillery was owned and operated by John H. and Towns P. Womack. Both brothers were born in Lynchburg, Tennessee in the 1860s. The Womack’s operated a grist mill in Lynchburg and were contemporaries of the Tolley, Motlow and Daniel families in Lynchburg. It was from these prominent distilling families that they learned the distilling craft. According to the federal census, by 1900 the brothers had moved to Franklin, in Williamson County, Tennessee.
On this census their occupation was listed as “Saloon Keepers”. The White Maple Distillery began operation in May of 1901. The distillery produce two barrels of whiskey per day until they were forced to close in 1910. White Maple Tennessee Whiskey was distributed extensively throughout Tennessee and Northern Alabama. History and time, however, were not on the brothers' side. The distillery only operated for 9 years, closing when Tennessee enacted it’s own statewide Prohibition in 1910. An article on the front page of the Tennessean newspaper, dated December 31, 1909, reads, “Distilleries and Breweries Must Close Tonight”. At midnight on this date 41 distilleries shut their doors across the state. Many Tennessee distillers ran their last batches right up until midnight. With the stroke of a pen, Tennessee’s 100 years old legal whiskey industry was wiped away. Many TN distillers moved their operations to Kentucky, but in 1920, when federal Prohibition was instituted by the Volstead Act, they too were forced to shut their doors.
Prohibition was not the end of the whiskey industry in Williamson County. Illegal or untaxed whiskey production had always been prevalent in the hills and hollows of our county and, with the implementation of prohibition, increased dramatically. It has been said by local old-timers that every spring in the county had an illegal still on it at one time or another. The natural limestone filtered spring water in our area, which is inherent to the famous whiskey making regions of Scotland, Ireland, Kentucky and Tennessee, produced some of the finest illegal whiskey in the country. The infamous Williamson County Whiskey Ring shipped their local moonshine from this area to city centers such as Nashville, Cincinnati and Chicago. Sam Locke, the 3rd great uncle of our proprietor, Lee Locke Kennedy, was a revenuer in Williamson County during the Prohibition era. On Saturday, March 7, 1925, as he unlocked the gate to his family farm, he was gunned down by hired henchmen of the Williamson County Whiskey Ring. He had done his job a little too well, and in the course of a 3 month time-frame had busted more than 73 illegal whiskey stills in the county. This brazen act shows the deadly seriousness with which these illegal distillers guarded their profits and livelihoods.
As you can see, Tennessee and Williamson County has had a rich and colorful past when it comes to the manufacturing of whiskey. Here at Leiper’s Fork Distillery, we are honored to help usher in a new era of distilling to our county. Today, as we view the distilling landscape locally, it seems more akin to the period of the 1850s, when small batch, locally owned distilleries were producing quality spirits from local ingredients. For us, this is an exciting time of renaissance in whiskey production for the county and we are privileged to be a part of it.