'Chattanooga Whiskey' makers seek end to local Prohibition - WRCBtv.com | Chattanooga News, Weather & Sports

'Chattanooga Whiskey' makers seek end to Prohibition, to distill spirits here

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CHATTANOOGA (WRCB) -- Chattanooga Whiskey shares the top-shelf with small-batch bourbons and sour mashes across Tennessee, Kentucky and Georgia.

But almost a year after the first aged barrel hit bottle, entrepreneurs Joe Ledbetter and Tim Piersant still can't distill or bottle it in the Scenic City. And an Attorney General's opinion would appear, on first sip, not to offer much hope.

"Hamilton County does not come within the statutory requirements (that authorize county legislative bodies to adopt resolutions authorizing the manufacture of intoxicating liquors)," Attorney General Robert E. Cooper writes, "therefore, the county must follow the petition and referendum procedure."

It's too late to petition for the November ballot.

"We've got a victory," Ledbetter insists. "And the victory is we know the direction, the path we've gotta go now."

Back to the Legislature. And to the Middle Tennessee lawmaker who spearheaded the 'Craft Distilleries' Bill in 2009 that opened up liquor production in 41 more Tennessee counties, but opted out Hamilton County by request.

"I will ask the General Assembly to reverse course," says Rep. Joe Carr, R-Lascassas. "But the (Hamilton County) delegation and the County Commissioners will have to come together and find some method of making that request."

Ledbetter and Piersant have been courting Commissioners' approval for weeks. They're seeking to place a resolution at the next Agenda session for discussion the following week. If five Commissioners approve, the resolution would ask Rep. Carr to draft an amendment or bill to lift Hamilton County's prohibition.

"I see it as primarily a jobs bill," Rep. Carr says.

"It sure is," retorts Rep. Richard Floyd, R-Chattanooga. "You talk about jobs for lawyers, and policemen, emergency workers, ambulance drivers, rehab staffers."

Rep. Floyd had asked Rep. Carr to exclude Hamilton County in 2009. He sees no situation that would permit him to support a Hamilton County distillery.

"I have nothing against those young men or their business efforts," Rep. Floyd says. "It's a matter of religious faith, and of seeing how alcohol wrecks lives."

"I don't think Chattanooga needs to be known for whiskey."

But Piersant maintains Chattanooga Whiskey trades upon the Scenic City's heritage as home to a number of distilleries in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

"We bottle in Lawrenceburg, Indiana, we don't feel as authentic as we want to be," Piersant says. "For us, authenticity isn't just about bragging rights, it's the goal. Once we move hear, we will be rolling out a true Tennessee whiskey. Multiple Tennessee whiskeys."

The partners estimate a Chattanooga 'craft' distillery could create 15 jobs and generate an additional $150,000 in yearly tax revenue.

"We're looking for a total visitor experience," Ledbetter says. "You could tour our distillery, taste-test if for free, and buy it. All here."

But Rep. Carr maintains that on-site sales could be a deal-breaker.

"The manufactured whiskey cannot be sold directly to the consumer," he says. "It has to go through a distributor."

"Our goal is to change the law," Ledbetter says. "And at that point figure out where it's gonna be, what it's gonna look like."

A 'fast-track' could get a bill passed and enacted before next Saint Patrick's Day.

"Now is the time," Ledbetter says. "If the people don't want it, or we can't get it changed, then we have no choice but to move to Marion County or somewhere else."

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