By Anna Robertson
There is nothing sweeter than the taste of a smooth whiskey when it hits your lips, especially when that fine whiskey is crafted locally. There is a sense of satisfaction knowing that something so good came from right in your own back yard. We have some fine distilleries in our community, and there is a new one to visit, sample and savor.
Leiper’s Fork Distillery, located at 3381 Southall Road in Franklin, is a closely held family business owned and operated by the Kennedy and Locke families. There are no outside corporate investors. Lee Kennedy had the dream of opening a distillery, and his family was excited and happy to join the business to make his dream their dream. Lee is the distiller and operator, the matriarch of the family, Gayle Locke Kennedy (mother), his brother, Wes Kennedy and their uncle, Nick Locke are the owners. Currently, the distillery employs six individuals who are family and close friends and help Lee run the daily operations.
Leiper’s Fork Distillery is a small boutique distillery producing only 25,000 gallons per year bringing back the art, heritage and history of small batch distilling similar to the forefathers of distilling. “We will craft premium spirits using mainly local ingredients and limestone filtered water to create superior spirits with a signature taste. Leiper’s Fork Distillery will be characterized primarily by a low volume/low impact concept of production. We aim to recapture the lost art of small batch spirit production, pouring our heart and soul into every drop we produce from grain to glass,” says Lee Kennedy.
The Distillery was organized in 2012, but it took over three years for local, state and federal approval, equipment installation and construction. The distillery began actual operations in early May 2016. Local, state and federal approval took three years. One critical and important item for Lee was to also have his neighbor’s approval.
Lee lives right outside of Leiper’s Fork and has roots there dating back to 1805. He has owned the 27-acre property the distillery is built upon since the late 1990’s. When the decision was made to go forward with building the distillery, the property and its close proximity to the historic village of Leiper’s Fork seemed to be a natural fit. In addition, Leiper’s Fork has a rich history with distilling whiskey, both legal and illegal. Distilling captivated the proprietor of Leiper’s Fork Distillery since he was sixteen years old, when he read Volume 1 of the Foxfire Books that gave a detailed description of how to build a still. “The history and heritage, which has its cultural roots in Scotland, Ireland and the American south, greatly moves and drives a lot of what we do. We also love the science of fermentation and distillation that traces its roots back to classical Greece then to the alchemist of the early Middle Ages. It is gratifying to create a product that has such a rich and colorful past,” explains Lee.
It is foremost a whiskey distillery. “We make three whiskeys here; a Tennessee Rye Whiskey, Tennessee Whiskey and Bourbon. These whiskies will be released under two different brands based on age and maturity. Seasonally, we plan to produce an apple brandy, as well as some other experimental distillates. Some of our first offerings will be an un-aged product that resembles the whiskey the early settlers in this area created called Old Natchez Trace. Our Old Natchez Trace White Whiskey honors the tradition of frontier distillers who settled in the hills and hollows of middle Tennessee. This whiskey is handcrafted using limestone filtered water, corn, rye and malted barley. These are grains that grow along the Harpeth River Valley in Williamson County. This will be offered in a White Whiskey and Rye. In commemoration to one of the early Williamson county distillers, Henry Hunter, we are bringing back a Tennessee bourbon. Partnering with world renowned master distiller, Dave Scheurich, we have hand selected and blended barrels of premium Tennessee bourbon. This blend will be bottled in 5-barrel batches, with a few select single barrels. Each bottling will have its own unique flavor profile. With Old Natchez Trace and our commemoration to Henry Hunter, we will also release one to two more offerings in the coming year, which will make up what we will call our ‘Williamson County Collection’. We are very excited to pay homage to our forefathers of distilling and offer a product we feel they would be very proud to have aligned to their names,” says Lee.
Owning and operating your own business is, in its own, a challenging endeavor. In the world of distilling, though, there are several other challenges that are faced. “Not including start up, we have challenges in refining production and an inherent challenge for new distilleries is the build up of aged, mature whiskey. Our initial brands will be representative of Tennessee’s early frontier whiskey. This will be un-aged or lightly aged whiskey; as our whiskey comes of age and we release our flagship Leiper’s Fork Distillery brand. This will be premium whiskey aged five to seven years. Our goals for 2016 are to perfect our production process and to increase our number of filled barrels. Currently, we are making four 53-gallon barrels per week. As we refine our process we hope to expand to five 53-gallon barrels by late fall and ten barrels in late 2016. Ten 53-gallon barrels per a week is our maximum capacity,” Lee explains.
“We feel there are several things that set us apart at Leiper’s Fork Distillery. One, we use local grains grown in the Harpeth River Valley and limestone filtered water. Secondly, our attention to detail in the mashing and distillation process and third, we use 15% of a heritage malted barley in all of our recipes. Fourth, our barrel entry proof is 110° and lastly but certainly not least to us, we are putting a great emphasis on distilling history and heritage, especially locally, as well as trying to bring awareness to the consumer of this nearly lost heritage when Prohibition took place,” Lee says. “We strive for a premium taste by using locally grown (Williamson County) grains and making sure we are a grain to glass distillery, have tried to immerse ourselves in the history of how our forefathers made whiskey and we love visitors who have a curiosity or love for whiskey because we’re open for tours,” he concludes. Learn more and plan a visit at leipersforkdistillery.com.