Whiskey is a part of Tennessee’s heritage that runs deep, well below the springs from which many of the distilleries source their water. And yet, it’s surprising that no one has plotted out an official route in Bourbon Trail fashion, connecting the intoxicating beverages of the region. Until now, that is.
Enter: Williamson County. Today marks the grand debut of the county-wide Masters & Makers trail, and it’s a fun one, y’all.
Just 14 miles south of Nashville—and the seat of the county that’s home to such celebrities as Tim McGraw and Faith Hill, Carrie Underwood and Mike Fisher, Sheryl Crow and, soon, Justin Timberlake, too—Franklin also serves as the epicenter for this brand new five-stop, craftsman-inspired tour of Middle Tennessee comprising two breweries, one winery and a pair of homegrown distilleries. And eventually, it will connect to an even bigger trail that criss-crosses the entire state.
While we had friends in town from New York last month, SVV and I drove the trail over a two-day period—for research, of course; I wouldn’t want to steer you wrong—and while you can drive it in any order, here’s how I suggest tackling it, with frequent breaks for photos and snacks (obviously).
Stop 1: H. Clark Distillery
Born with a North American flavor in the country wilds on the far from civil battlegrounds of Tennessee by Scots and Scotch-Irish immigrants, the cooking up of grains and letting them steep for a while before boiling off and collecting the fumes has been embedded in the culture of Middle Tennessee since the first bootstrapping European settlers found this land.
Gushing with natural springs and fresh limestone filtered water, stills were scattered across the state until the late 1800s, when the rumblings of prohibition began to pick up speed and large-scale operations were frozen out by the Four Mile Law, which banned the sale of liquor within four miles of a rural school and essentially gutted the ability to make spirits in the state.
This was compounded by the passing of the Adams Law, further state restrictions and eventual federal prohibition of the popular liquid (there were more than 14,000 registered distilleries producing 25 million gallons annually by the year 1810). The state eventually got back into the game in the late 1930s but with highly restricted guidelines that limited widespread production.
Fast forward to 2007, when an entrepreneurial in-house lawyer began looking at the legislation on the books. Heath Clark realized that there were holes in the government’s oppressive statutes that should be taken into consideration regarding the actual manufacture of distilled spirits.
He drafted a simple bill that raced through the General Assembly in four months. From three in 2009 to now more than 30 independent distilleries across the state in 2017, Heath has continued to practice law, though he didn’t open his eponymous distillery until 2014.
Though it didn’t happen right away—”I’m better at drafting bills than opening distilleries,” he quips—Heath’s debuted five years after the bill passed as the first distillery in Williamson County since Prohibition. It occupies a 100-year-old, 1,200-square-foot granary building in historic Thompson’s Station and also doubles as the headquarters for his law practice. H. Clark’s tasting bar and retail store are open Monday through Saturday with tours available each of those days, as well. In my experience, the story behind the whiskey is half the fun, and boy do Heath and his wife Becky have some stories to share.
As a tribute to the state’s spirited legacy, they bottled their first batch at 106 proof, matching to the year how long it had been since making Tennessee whiskey was ruled a crime. Don’t miss their ridiculously smooth oatmeal stout distillate. We’ll fight you for it, SVV especially, and we may or may not have already burned through a case of their booze (they also make a dangerously good gin that goes down like water).
Stop 2: Arrington Vineyards
There’s no prettier place to be in Middle Tennessee than Arrington on a warm spring day, and we lucked out with the weather the morning we headed east from Thompson’s Station to test our knowledge of varietals (and our balance, too, once we’d tasted our way through Arrington’s best blends).
Co-founded by Kix Brooks in 2007, this oasis just 25 minutes south of Nashville is not just a great wine experience for Tennessee, it’s a great wine experience, period, and can hold its own against the better known wine regions in the country like Northern California and Virginia.
On weekends, it’s positively packed, and given its musical roots, there’s often live music on the docket, too.
Usually, I’d arrive to Arrington Vineyards with a posse of friends in tow, stake our claim to a spot on the spacious lawn and not move all day long. On this visit, though, we opted to see the vineyard in a way I’d not done before: by signing up for the AV Premier Experience.
This 90-minute tour costs $50 and takes you through the barrel house, production facility and culminates with a tasting of cheeses, hors d’oeuvres and boozy chocolates from a local chocolatier.
Our guide Allie was extremely knowledgeable about Arrington’s varied offerings, and we even got to taste a red blend literally from the barrel. Arrington also makes a pretty darn good sparkling wine, which was news to me, and we got to try it, as well.
After the tour, which lasted roughly 45 minutes, Allie took us up to the Wine Loft in a separate building where the team had paired four of their wines and one sparkling with a complementary amuse-bouche.
Oenophile or not, the AV Premier Experience is a fun activity for groups and couples who either want to learn a lot more about wine or simply taste their way through the menu. While the vineyard is open daily, this experience is only offered on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, and you must make a reservation in advance.
When you’re done with your tour and tastings, you can stock up on bottles of wine to take home or drink by the (plastic) cup out on the picnic tables scattered across the hillside, as we opted to do.
And before you head on your way to drink even more, you’ll want to fuel up. Lucky for you, Martin’s Bar-B-Que Joint’s flagship store is right smack in the middle of Nolensville en route to your next stop, and its tantalizing pulled pork will lure you in with scents wafting through the town.
Stop 3: Mill Creek Brewing Co.
I’d been seeing Mill Creek’s cans all over Nashville for the past year, but had no idea they were from a local brewery until we rolled up to this hard-to-find spot tucked away in an industrial park back off of Nolensville Road. And, in fact, when we arrived in mid-April, the taproom had only been open 10 weeks—it’s that new (though they’ve been distributing for some time now).
These days I might be an even bigger beer fan than I am of bourbon, so it was nice to mix things up: a little whiskey and some gin, followed by wine, followed by beer, followed by a nap! And if you’re still hungry—in which case, I’m not judging—there’s a food truck parked inside the brewery that’s open for business.
Be sure and check Mill Creek’s hours before you go. At the time of our visit, the taproom was only open on Thursday and Friday afternoon and all day Saturday due to Tennessee’s prohibitive alcohol laws.
Overnight: Pot ‘N Kettle Cottages
If you’re not local and want somewhere to lay your head for the night (or longer), there are plenty of big-brand hotels in Franklin and Brentwood, but I’m more drawn to this trio of cottages right off of the main drag in Leiper’s Fork, which are a Pinterest lover’s dream. Owned by the same company, Leiper’s Fork Inn is another lodging option, having just debuted a few weeks ago.
As the saying goes, liquor before beer, right? You’re starting your second day off straight with the hard (yet delicious) stuff at Leiper’s Fork Distillery, a newer endeavor headquartered in the western part of Williamson County.
I’ve been to dozens of distilleries in the 15 years since I’ve been of age, and I’m always in awe of how the vibe can differ from place to place. Leiper’s Fork Distillery is even newer to the game than H. Clark, and though just 11 miles separate the two, the experience couldn’t be more different.
Following Heath’s lead (and legislation), Lee Kennedy opened up shop in Leiper’s Fork in mid-2016—though he started meeting with legislators as early as 2012—making the distillery just the second in the county since Prohibition. Lee intends to be a whiskey-only distillery using all local grains and local water and will produce around 500 barrels a year.
The 5,000-square-foot distillery sits on 27 lush acres between Leiper’s Fork and Franklin. There’s also a 2,500-square-foot log cabin that was built in 1825 and is where all tastings and events occur. And despite the fact that tours have only been on offer for under a year, the entire process is very polished.
One thing that always strikes me about distillers is that, without fail, they’re the funniest, friendliest, most charming people I ever encounter (though if I tasted whiskey every day for a living, perhaps I would be in such spirits, too!). Lee was no different. I wanted to hang out after our tour and tasting to hear more of his stories.
I can’t actually call myself a whiskey aficionado, as there are very few kinds I can drink straight. The stuff that Lee served us ranks among that small selection.
Since bourbon takes years to age—and Leiper’s Fork Distillery only started production last year, and Lee aims to age it anywhere from five to seven years (or possibly longer)—at the moment, you’ll only taste their Old Natchez Trace white whiskey and their rye white whiskey. But as is often the case for new distilleries, Leiper’s Fork also has their own select blend, Hunter’s Select Barrel Tennessee Bourbon Whiskey, that they picked out themselves and named for Colonel Henry Hunter, a veteran of the War of 1812 and who owned the property where the distillery now resides.
The distillery is open for general tours on Tuesday through Saturday, and the experience takes about an hour and costs $10. If you want the full shebang—the Distiller’s Tour with Lee (and trust me, you do)—that occurs every Tuesday and Thursday at 10am and 2pm for $25 a person.
Even if you don’t have time to do the full tour, the distillery has a great gift shop that stocks artisan goods from makers throughout the state.
Stop 5: Mantra Artisan Ales
You wouldn’t stumble upon Mantra unless you set out looking for it, as it’s hidden stealthily in an office park just south of downtown. But locals quickly claimed this two-year-old brewery as their regular watering hole, and it’s packed every night of the week (yes, that’s right, it’s open daily!). It definitely lives up to its, er, mantra for lack of a better word as the concept behind this thoughtful brewery was to “be here … present in the moment” (hence, no TVs or other outside distractions, unless Jenga and Connect Four count).
That could be because of its creative brews like a Saffron IPA or Japa Nitro milk stout, due to the regular happy hour specials or because Mantra is just downright pleasant. It’s a collaboration between brewers Derrick Morse and Chad Frost and spunky Maneet Chauhan, who’s helmed such other concepts in the area as Tànsuǒ and Chauhan Ale & Masala House. It also serves snacks from other local artisans like Noble Springs Dairy and Carnivore Market, both of whom are rumored to be joining the trail later down the line.
Tours take place on Saturdays at 3pm, 4pm, 5pm and 6pm and cost $10.
When you’re done with your second afternoon of drinking, you can head on over to Gray’s on Main in downtown Franklin and toast to a day well spent.
Give yourself plenty of time between stops—particularly if you’re trying to make a specific tour time—as there are plenty of photo opps along the way. This is a trail best tackled at a leisurely pace.
EXTEND YOUR STAY
Before there was whiskey, Franklin was most well-known for its Civil War battlefields. Planning to stick around Williamson County beyond the time it takes you to drive the trail? Consider checking out Franklin’s historic downtown square, as well as the site of the Battle of Franklin and myriad other attractions scattered throughout the city.
AND STAY TUNED…
Masters & Makers will be adding new members in the coming months, in addition to an official trail passport that allows you to check off each stop as you go and collect swag once you’ve completed all of them. So check back soon to see what’s coming up next!
This post was sponsored by Visit Franklin. All opinions (and my affinity for whiskey) are my own.