From an image drawn on a paper napkin and research that came from a dusty collection of Appalachia-centered books, Lee Kennedy first learned how to make whiskey.
He was but a teen at the time, nearly 30 years ago, but he had already become fascinated with the heritage, science and art of whiskey-making. An uncle who had dabbled in distilling jump-started Kennedy’s interest, which later turned into a passion and eventually the realization of the Leiper’s Fork Distillery.
“My uncle did a little distilling, and one time he drew a picture of a still on a cocktail napkin for me,” says Kennedy, who opened his distillery on Southall Road four years ago. “After that, I made a little still out of a 5-gallon pressure cooker with copper condensing wire from Home Depot and a 5-gallon bucket. I had some recipes out of an old book called the Foxfire Series.
“Back then, when I was 16 years old, there was no internet, so you either had to know somebody who knew how to make whiskey and could teach you, or you’d find some old archaic literature. I learned just enough to be dangerous.”
And enough to know in his heart where his vocational path would one day lead.
Change in state law opens new window
Though he started working in real estate, commercial construction and later the financial ser vices industry after graduating from Auburn University, Kennedy saw the window open to life as a distiller when the Tennessee General Assembly made a change to law in 2009 re garding the making of whiskey and other spirits in the state. Specifically, it amended the statute that had for many years prohibited the operation of a distillery in all but three counties — Moore (where Jack Daniel’s is made), Coffee
(George Dickel) and Lincoln (Prichard’s).
On 27 acres of land his family owned near the Leiper’s Fork community, Kennedy set about building his distillery. His brother, Wes Kennedy, managed construction of the facility, and his uncle Nick Locke is the business’s CFO. Kennedy’s wife, Lynlee Kennedy, runs the retail store where bottles of the prod uct and other merchandise are sold, and his mother, Gayle Kennedy, also works at the dis tillery. Longtime friend Matt “Pops” Mayo is the head tour guide and helps bring character to the place.
Kennedy relishes his role as head distiller.
“I like the physical act of creating some thing,” he says. “It feels good to be able to take a grain, add some ingredients in a contraption and turn that into something flammable but at the same time a beverage people can enjoy. “It’s being able to create something. Initially my interest was kind of captivated by the cultural heritage standpoint of distilling. It still is, but from a chemistry standpoint, I think it’s fascinating that people figured out how to do this 500 years ago.”
Good partnership between distillery and community
It could be said that whiskey-making takes the head of a scientist and the heart of an artist.
Perhaps tourism follows that same formula, which can help to explain why the distillery
of Leiper’s Fork has formed such a bond with the community of Leiper’s Fork. They complement one another.
“Since we’ve opened, we have had a very good, symbiotic relationship with the [Leiper’s
Fork] village,” Kennedy says. “It’s become kind of a hidden gem to other parts of the country. We see people from all over the place, and it’s amazing how many people from these large metropolises across the country know about the little village of Leiper’s Fork.
“They’ve embraced us as a business, and obviously we send people up their way. It’s
been a good partnership between us and the community. We have a very eclectic community out here. We have a lot of creative people in the community. We just feel like we fit in. We’re trying to keep everything similar to the village and extend that down to here.”
Tourists have been the bedrock of the Leiper’s Fork Distillery since it opened to the
public in October 2016. In 2019, for instance, the distillery counted nearly 20,000 paid tours.
In the gift shop, visitors can also purchase T-shirts, shot glasses and other souvenirs, as
well as the distillery’s earliest whiskey releases — Old Natchez Trace White Whiskey, named for the tradition of frontier distilling by Middle Tennessee’s earliest settlers; and Colonel Hunter’s Select Barrel Tennessee Bourbon Whiskey, a brand in which the distillery blended some of its product with finished Tennessee bourbon from select barrels from other distillers.
The Leiper’s Fork Distillery also released a rye whiskey in November 2019, and plans to
begin bottling aged Tennessee whiskey and bourbon in November 2020.
“We’re trying to make a big boy-style Tennessee whiskey and bourbon using our local re
sources at a smaller scale,” Kennedy says. “Our whole intention is to be a regional brand and carry our brand to a wider audience.
“So our focus for the first four years has been very internal, trying to drive as many folks as we can out to the distillery [for tours and retail] to help pay the bills. Once we start
releasing our Tennessee whiskey and bourbon, our focus shifts externally promoting a regional brand. Our long term business plan is to be a regional brand.”
Sunday: 11:30 a.m.-6 p.m.
Tuesday: 11 a.m.-5 p.m.
Wednesday-Saturday: 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m.
TOURS AND TASTINGS
Wednesday through Saturday begin at 10 a.m. and happen every hour and a half, with the last tour beginning at 4 p.m. All tours are capped at 10 people per tour. Make reservations online and check for current tour capacity at leipersforkdistillery.com.