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VOL. 43 | NO. 28 | Friday, July 12, 2019

Distillery takes its stand with Tennessee corn

Emerging brand aims to give state's farmers bigger shot at success

By Jim Myers

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Jim Massey wants you to care about the corn in his whiskey. Wind him up, and he will wax poetic, and at great length, about the growing habits and yields of Tennessee Red Cob versus Hickory Cane.

When he’s finished, you’ll be thirsty and thoroughly convinced that corn carries the full weight of Southern whiskey history. You will want to hug his farmers.

Massey, along with partner Darren Briggs, co-founded Fugitives Tennessee Artisan Spirits in 2016, taking full advantage of laws he helped push through the Tennessee Legislature that catalyzed the boom in craft distilling.

Fugitives Spirits takes its name from a literary journal and group of poets at Vanderbilt University in the 1920s who lamented the loss of agrarianism in the face of the industrial revolution. That literary bent also carries over to Massey’s Rabelaisien Grandgousier, a bona fide Tennessee whiskey made with heirloom Hickory Cane corn grown in-state.

Massey comes naturally to his love of history, and his roots anchor him in Middle Tennessee soil. His mother’s family helped settle Giles County and fought alongside Andrew Jackson against the British. The Massey side hails from Lincoln County, birthplace of the process of charcoal filtering that defines what it means to be Tennessee whiskey (and not bourbon).

They still own a “Century” family farm where the “new” barn was raised in the 1930s and where he and his wife are busy restoring Ravenscroft, one of the last Overton family homes in Crieve Hall.

Jumping into whiskey making is not without risk, and you’d better have a pretty good story to tell, a clever one that helps your brand rise above the din.

Jim Massey stands in one of the cornfields at Windy Acres Farm in Orlinda. Farm owners Alfred Farris and his wife Carney grow organic corn for Fugitives Tennessee Artisan Spirits.

-- Photo By Michelle Morrow |The Ledger

Massey, though, genuinely sees the ingredients, and not just their sum, as an equal part of the story. For him, whiskey remains an agricultural product where sourcing grains and farmers is more about art than logistics.

“Here in Tennessee, we have arguably the best-known agricultural product in the whole world, Tennessee Whiskey,” he says, referring to global leader Jack Daniel’s. “Yet it hasn’t been made with just Tennessee grain in decades, until recently. I’m glad to be a part of the first big step in revitalizing Tennessee agriculture in our small way.”

Building relationships with farmers can be a time-consuming two-step. Growing varietals outside of the agro-industrial complex costs more, and buyers need to commit to a fair price.

That’s what Massey has done, though, with farmers like Alfred and Carney Farris who grow rye as well as Jubilee corn, an open-pollinated, heirloom variety unique to their Windy Acres organic farm in Orlinda, about 40 miles north of Nashville.

The Hickory Cane corn he uses comes from the East Tennessee on Jennifer and Frank Nicely’s farm in Strawberry Plains, about 15 miles northeast of Knoxville. They hope to plant more as they grow alongside Fugitives. It can be a fragile symbiosis.

Massey says it takes around 800 pounds of corn to produce a 53-gallon barrel of his whiskey. While Jack Daniel’s works with higher yields, the Lynchburg distillery keeps close to 2 million barrels aging at any given time. More specifically, according to Jack Daniel’s master distiller Jeff Arnett, they go through 400 million pounds of corn a year.

This notion of terroir, though, is fairly new to the spirits industry. While we’re familiar with the concept from Europe, where location qualifiers like Bordeaux and Roquefort legally define wines and cheeses, discussing soil types and heirloom varietals in breathy fashion has been foreign to the whiskey business. The subtle flavors of heirloom fruit that can survive and influence fermentation are largely stripped out during the distillation process.

Massey, though, makes a passionate argument for his use of local grains.

“In terms of flavor, the grain is affected by the soil it’s grown in, arguably as much as by the type and variety. For instance, Hickory Cane grows well in rockier soil and has more intense flavor when it struggles a bit. When you do a double pot distillation like we do, we are able to bring out all the great nuances of that corn,” he says, adding, “What we put in the barrel has a more robust grain profile from the start, and that begins with the dirt.”

More compelling, perhaps, is Massey’s argument about the value of sustainably produced heirloom grains.

“I pay my farmers a living wage to grow specialty grains, and I like to say the best way to preserve green space is to make farming profitable,” adds Massey, the excitement building in his voice.

“Sustainable farming to support excellence in whiskey is a very good thing on the environmental level. Our watersheds are dramatically affected by chemicals. Forever, [distillers] have talked about the quality of the water used in their whiskey, yet much of the industrial approach to farming has been contrary to the health of our aquifers and streams.

“It just seems like there should be a better way, and I think we are on to it.”

While he’s more about lionizing than tilting at windmills, he knows the competition for shelf space is modern marketing warfare. Recent success, though, has buoyed his spirits. Grandgousier, the Tennessee Whiskey that Massey hopes will help expand the category beyond Jack Daniel’s and George Dickel, is already garnering praise from independent examiners like the Tasting Panel, which gave it an impressive score of 93.

Massey is bullish not only about his prospects, but what he sees developing across the state. “I see a future where we have 100 or more distilleries in Tennessee, supporting hundreds of farms, all with unique flavor profiles in their whiskey.”

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