Instead of following his father’s footsteps at the family business, DisplayCraft, the young Auburn graduate tracked a new trend in the American beverage space—craft distilling. He desired to start a distillery in his hometown of Chattanooga, Tennessee.
It made sense. After all, the area was ripe with distilling history, and Tennessee claimed the world’s No. 1-bestselling whiskey—Jack Daniel’s—as its own.
There was just one problem: Chattanooga made distilling illegal after Prohibition and hadn’t changed the law. For those hopping just now onto the distilling trend, this is very common. Prohibition wreaked a havoc on distilling that it may take another 100 years from which to recover.
Piersant and his business partner at the time (more on that later) lobbied lawmakers to legalize distilling, while they sourced whiskey from a little known distilling haven in Lawrenceburg, Ind. That was 2011 and a lot has changed in the past eight years, including the complete rebranding of Chattanooga Whiskey’s products.
In August, Chattanooga Whiskey 91 will replace the company’s 1816 Reserve, and Chattanooga Whiskey 111 will replace 1816 Cask. While straight bourbons, these four grain bourbons (distilled at their distillery) include three specialty malts (malted rye, caramel malt barley, honey malt barley) and have pushed Piersant to do something extremely unusual in American whiskey. He is shying away from marketing his product as a bourbon. Instead, he’s calling it, “Tennessee High Malt,” albeit it’s clearly classified and labeled as a bourbon. “Every consumer who walks in our doors, says ‘you’re not bourbon’ and that got us to thinking, ‘what are we?’ and we wanted to celebrate our roots from Tennessee, but we are not a traditional Tennessee whiskey,” Piersant says.
To learn of this strategy and what the past decade has been like as a craft distiller, we sat down with Piersant.
What made you want to get into whiskey?
The discovery of the history of whiskey in Chattanooga was where the idea generated from, but there were a lot more influences. The location seemed perfect, nestled in the mountains of Southeast Tennessee: The local entrepreneurial community was firing up, the city had been getting more attention as an outdoor hotspot and mecca for climbing. Tourism in Chattanooga was growing, and finally, the idea of starting this business with my buddy in my hometown seemed incredibly exciting and was a ride I wanted to take.
You and your original partner, Joe Ledbetter, had a falling out and he’s no longer with Chattanooga Whiskey. What happened?
Together, we were a force when it came to reviving this history and getting Chattanooga excited about it. Our passion was simply infectious, and we were unfiltered in our messaging along our journey. I actually don’t think we could have changed the laws without each other. When the laws finally changed, we raised money and formed a board. We became more structured for the better, but the dynamic changed with a larger team and greater financial responsibility. Those first two years of starting a company are like the wild west, but 100% of the time, that will wear off and you hope it transforms into a profitable, stable business. It just didn’t work out as quickly and easily as we both had hoped, and our partnership didn’t last because of some issues we didn’t see eye to eye on. We went through fairly intense counseling along the way. The business structure put into place, I believe, helped the business survive the breakup, but I’m not sure what would have prevented the breakup other than predicting the future. Business is a risk. I do wish our partnership would have worked out, because I never would have started Chattanooga Whiskey without him.
You have pursued a branding strategy of high malt. Why this over bourbon?
[Note: Bourbon, by law, is required to be at least 51% corn and there is no requirement or restriction on additional grains as long as the minimum corn is met. These whiskeys meet the legal requirements]
Malted grain was one area that we thought gave us the most freedom and opportunity to develop interesting flavor, and discover what we liked the most. Simply describing our product as a straight bourbon doesn’t really tell the whole story. Tennessee Whiskey is a style of bourbon made in Tennessee that is charcoal filtered. We chose not to charcoal filter, so we’re not a traditional Tennessee Whiskey, but branding ourselves as a straight bourbon whiskey from Tennessee can also be very confusing to the average consumer. As our own style of high malt bourbon from Tennessee, Tennessee High Malt seemed to explain it well. And we like the way it sounded. We also kinda like the double meaning that references our location in the mountains of Southeast, Tennessee.
Jut to be clear. You’re talking about the height of the mountains and not the fact your local residents are ‘high’ all the time.
You can’t get high on CBD. You know that, C’mon.
Okay. Back to your geography. You’re in the backyard of the world’s largest whiskey brand. Do you feel like you’re in Jack’s shadow being in Tennessee?
No. Not at all. Jack Daniel’s has Tennessee Whiskey; we have Tennessee High Malt. If anything, Jack has only helped us. They put whiskey from Tennessee on the map and provided a place for it on every shelf and back bar.
You’re pushing a 20,000-case brand. Most would suggest that is a success. Do you feel you’re successful?
Depends on how you define success. Would we like to be a 100k case brand? Yes. But we could launch in 30 states tomorrow to temporarily artificially inflate those numbers. We don’t want to do that. I want people drinking Chattanooga Whiskey, not just trying it once. I think we’ve successfully built an amazing infrastructure, company culture, upcoming package, and most of all, product. I think we’ve made our community proud. We are the best kept secret in the whiskey business. … We have a lot of growing to do. I’m not really the kind of person that easily claims “success.” Ever.
As craft whiskey goes, you’ve been around the block awhile. What’s it like competing to get shelf space in a liquor store?
It’s definitely more difficult, due to an increasingly crowded market, but you really have no one to blame but yourself if you can’t achieve a solid spot on the shelf. Good shelf placement requires differentiation, packaging, quality product, market support and great relationships. …We invest at least 20% of gross revenue per case sold into the market to support the brand, and we didn’t go too wide too fast with distribution to prevent ourselves from spreading our resources too thin.
Do you think it’s too late to get in the craft distiller game?
Yes and no. Yes, if you want to get rich quick. Not going to happen. No, if you have the money, patience and talent to build an authentic brand. Some will fall, and it will make space for others to rise.
What are your thoughts on celebrities coming into spirits?
That’s a funny question. If you are ready for your brand to live and die by that celebrity, go for it. We don’t really feel like we need a celebrity to do our product and story justice. It would really just mask it. Though it is fun to think about celebrities drinking our whiskey simply because they really like it. If you are a celebrity and want to drink Chattanooga Whiskey, it is available in Tennessee, Georgia, South Carolina, Alabama, and soon to be Florida.
This article was originally sourced from here.