Chattanooga Whiskey Company’s Joe Ledbetter Interview and Review

by Ernie Ayres on February 17, 2013

I have met quite a few people in the liquor industry in the last few years. Mostly, everyone has been involved directly with whiskey. So far, I have yet to meet one person that has a ho-hum attitude about the whiskey product he or she is involved in producing or marketing. Joe Ledbetter from the Chattanooga Whiskey Co. is no exception. He’s enthusiastic about his dream. One that sees Chattanooga pumping out barrels and barrels of Chattanooga Whiskey. A side dream is to have the world’s coolest mustache, and he’s well on his way for that one too!

Joe and I met for a few minutes in downtown Nashville at Merchant’s Restaraunt on Broadway. While sitting at the bar, I asked Joe to tell me about his company.

JL> So 15 months ago I was on Google.  I’m a big whiskey nerd, big whiskey fan, American whiskey fan and I was just googling different whiskeys. And I’m from Chattanooga, TN so I googled “Chattanooga whiskey” just to see what would come up. What came up was this thing called Ugly as hell website but it’s got all these amazing old photos of bottles and shot glasses and documents and brands and what popped up was the Chattanooga Distilling Company.

I was like, what? I’m from Chattanooga there’s no such thing as the Chattanooga Distilling Company;  what is this?  I started doing research and sure enough it was the Chattanooga Distilling Co., E. R. Betterton, E. B. Gibson, White Oak Whiskey, Preston, 30 plus distilleries in the heart of Chattanooga where I live and where it’s really cool to live and work and play. Almost immediately I said that I’ve got to bring whiskey back to Chattanooga. I’ve got to do this! This is amazing. Right time from a craft spirit standpoint, that’s where we are in America. Right place, Tennessee because of Tennessee Whiskey.  Right place again because Chattanooga has this cool atmosphere to it nationally.

At least regionally, I think people view Chattanooga maybe not as it actually is but kind of this wholesome southern town. It clicks, it made sense.  The only issue is, well, it’s illegal to distill whiskey in Chattanooga.  We got opted out of a 2009 law so the question is how do you do this.  How do you start a whiskey company in a town where you’re not supposed to have whiskey.  First it takes a special jackass to do that. And I guess we’re not very smart.  So the idea was let’s go get a good whiskey and let’s put it in a bottle.  The other crazy idea we had was let’s just tell people the truth about where this whiskey is coming from, why we’re doing this.  Let’s tell them, because a lot of people do this, it’s not like we’re the first ones to go source whiskey.  There’s more sourced whiskey than there is production, whiskey that comes from the actual distillery by that name and that brand. So we don’t want to lie to people. We have no interest in lying to people whatsoever. Not that we’re lying but to me marketing and lying are very similar in a lot of ways.

WN> Not even lying, but withholding?

JL> Withholding, yeah, transparency. We want to be as transparent as we can, which some people fault us. Like, “Guys, shut up, you don’t need to Joe Ledbetter Quotebe that transparent.”  But, it’s worked for us. So 15 months ago I started a FB page and I asked a very simple question, “Would you drink Chattanooga whiskey?”  The first weekend we had 200 people that liked our FB page. The first month we have 2000 people that liked our FB page. And it became a movement in Chattanooga to bring whiskey back to Chattanooga. We kind of led the charge of “Let’s do this!”  Essentially what we wanted to do was we wanted to create a market, create a group of people that we knew would purchase our whiskey so that it would be less of a business risk but it would also be a marketing tool to get the word out about our whiskey.  It’s kind of like grassroots movements like, “Have you heard about this? Have you heard about Chattanooga Whiskey?” “No, what’s Chattanooga Whiskey?” “Oh, it’s this really cool story.” You know and kind of go viral a little bit. We have all social media, Facebook, Twitter, and to this day we have almost 19,000 people on FB and we just got verified on twitter a couple weeks ago so we have almost 4,000 on Twitter.  We’re growing pretty rapidly on that.

WN> Do you handle all of the social media?

JL> I do all the social media.  It’s just 2 of us, me and Tim.  Tim is out with another guy in Nashville, just hanging out, meeting people, keep telling the story.  So, long story short, we changed the law and how we changed the law was the same way we started the company.  We put out a campaign called “Vote Whiskey,” and the idea was to tell our leaders to vote whiskey. It was long it was hard it was arduous but as you know, 7 weeks ago we essentially got the support locally. Essentially we changed the law. It’s more formality than anything else.  I’m meeting with one of our leaders today here in Nashville but essentially mid to late February it will be official and we’ll unveil our building in Chattanooga. In fact, I’d rather you not tell anybody about this but I’ll show you the building if you’d like to see it.  We’re gonna do an unveiling and I’d love for you to come down, if you’d like. It’ll be an empty building but there will be renderings and what we’re doing. We’re pretty excited about it.

We kind of scrambled to get the whiskey and everything going.  The process to do it, to have a distillery, or have a brand, talk about arduous as well!

**Joe shows me the exterior of the building**

WN> Wow, that’s nice; very historic looking!

JL> I’m pretty sure nobody that knows our story thinks that this is what it’s gonna look like.  Everybody thinks small craft, you know they think Corsair. They think Collier and McKeel. Our whiskey is bottled at Speak Easy. Jeff Pennington and those guys they bottle all the whiskey in town.  It used to be Kentucky, but now its Speak Easy.

WN> It does kind of look like the Collier and McKeel bottle now that you mention it!

JL> It is. Same bottle, they used the same bottle but they used it first obviously. It is a popular bottle. So…all that to say, 1816 is the year that John Ross found Ross’s Landing. It’s a 90 proof 4 ½ year old whiskey made in Indiana, bottled in Nashville.  We don’t do anything to it, we don’t add anything to it. No color, nothing. It’s non chill filtered. The only thing we do to it is we add the water, we proof it.

WN> So they distill it, put it in the barrels and move it to Nashville?

JL> No, it’s aged in Indiana. We bought the entire lot of this.  We own all of this whiskey.

WN> Well that’s good. You won’t see it under other labels.

JL> Right, and when we distill our own we’re going to try our hardest to replicate this. Well, certainly we’ll replicate the mash and we’ll source the grains from the same sources. The only difference will be the aging process. It’ll be the weather patterns that will make it different.

WN> Water?

JL> Well, we’re going to try and source the same water, because you know, most people are sourcing water. They’re not truly getting it from a spring down by the brook.  Again, it’s transparency.  We’re on the forefront of the whiskey revolution, if you will.  And the next ten years are gonna be gorgeous.  I think people are going to be so much more educated in 5 years and certainly 10 years. DC, New York, Chicago, those guys are already really educated.  It’s these guys are the next step and then Chattanooga is kind of below that.

Chattanooga Whiskey Bottles

Chattanooga Whiskey ‘Cask’ and ‘Reserve’

Here, let’s drink some whiskey.

**Tasting** Here is where I got to sample the Chattanooga Whiskey Reserve (White Label).

JL> 21% rye, 75% corn, 4% barley. The reason we chose this is because it’s very similar the way we found Chattanooga, and America really, 100 years ago. High, high corn, cause we had a lot of corn. Higher rye cause we had a lot of rye. Barley, not as much.

WN> What’s the aging on it?

JL> 4 ½ years, white American oak barrels and number 3 char.

WN> This is good! its got more of a rye bite than I normally like, but it’s a good balance.

JL> Now, taste the (black label) Cask strength, 113.6 proof. Same whiskey, same mash bill, same age, just we select the barrels that have that proof.

WN> It’s actually got a softer nose to it, sweeter. It’s got a much better balance of sweetness and rye spice. More oak. I like this. I like the reserve, but I like this a lot more.

JL> I do too, it’s all I drink. If you’re a whiskey lover, drink this (Joe points to the Cask bottle). If you like whiskey, even if you don’t like whiskey, a lot of time you’ll like this (pointing to the Reserve bottle).  What happens there is the alcohol evaporates immediately because it’s such a high proof. You’re left with the all of what makes whiskey…whiskey. The wood, the vanilla, you get the caramel a lot more in that than you do in the reserve.

WN> When you chose this particular flavor, how did you do that?

JL> I tasted a lot of whiskeys, number 1, and figured out what I liked. Because, at the end of the day if I don’t like it, I can’t sell it.  So what do I like, big mash bill.  We wanted to recreate a pre-prohibition style.  What did you have in Chattanooga 100 years ago? We had something very similar to this. So, there were a couple of options like a higher rye content, but we chose not to do that.  In about 69 days, we’re coming out with a rye that’s going to be 105 proof. It is a blend that we have that’s … really good stuff, so look for it.

And with that, Joe went on to the next stop to promote his whiskey.

Joe Ledbetter of Chattanooga Whiskey and Ernie Ayres of

Seriously. Look at that ‘Stache!

Reserve Notes: Very good, heavy rye. Balanced spices and an almost bourbon sweetness. Slight vanilla, caramel undertone that finishes to a spicy faint caramel. During an actual review, I would give this a. 8.5 out of 10 Noses. I found Chattanooga Co. Reserve locally for $25.99.

Cask Notes: More complex than the Reserve. Initial alcohol bite that fades extremely quickly, revealing a balance of sweet caramel with vanilla and rye spice. As the sweetness fades, the spice stays but just long enough to finish with a woody flavor. Again, during an actual review, I would give this a. 9.3 out of 10 Noses. Chattanooga Whiskey Co. Cask runs around $40.

Thanks to Joe Ledbetter for taking the time to sit down and talk whiskey for a few minutes. Also, thanks goes to Chase Good with Athens Distributing Company for letting me borrow a few minutes of Joe’s time, and to Merchant’s Restaurant for letting me hang out for a little while at the bar.

On a personal note, Merchant’s is where I took my ‘girlfriend’ to dinner one night before proposing. She said “Yes” and we recently celebrated our seventeenth wedding anniversary! We have been back to Merchant’s a few times since and we both highly recommend eating there. Be sure to ask for a glass of Chattanooga Whiskey Cask while you’re there and let me know what you think!

What do you think about the recent wave of whiskey companies that have started up? Is it OK to outsource until distilling their own whiskey is possible? Does it really even matter that some whiskeys are outsourced?


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