Southern Whiskey Society: Brown Water at its Best
By Jason Frye | Photography courtesy of Southern Whiskey Society
Travel the whiskey world in Franklin, Tenn., with events that include visiting chefs, distillers, and 90 spirits to sample.
Great things come from humble and unexpected places. This laptop I’m using, a MacBook Air, traces its roots to a garage in Los Altos, Calif. Google, the email service I’ll use to send this story to my editor, was born in a garage. Amazon, Microsoft, even Disney’s first animations… all came from garages.
What if instead of an anonymous garage in some suburban cul-de-sac somewhere in California, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak had met in a barn in Franklin, Tenn., invited over a few buddies for conversation and a bottle or two of good whiskey?
I think they’d have come up with the Southern Whisky Society, just like Chris Thomas, founder and CEO of Made South and the mastermind behind the best evening of whiskey tasting in the region.
“It all started in a little barn where we’d hang out,” says Thomas. “A few good friends, good conversation, good whiskey, it was all we needed. But I’d been in the event business for a while and I thought, ‘I wonder if we could get 20 or 30 or 40 of our favorite distillers together for a giant tasting?’”
Turns out, the answer was a resounding, “Yes.”
Thomas knew that whiskey alone wouldn’t carry the evening. “With that much whiskey, you need food, and that food’s gotta be good,” he says.
One look around Franklin and the surrounding hills, a phone call or two to some Nashville buddies, and Thomas had 10 chefs lined up, ready to flex their culinary muscles and dish up hundreds of plates to what he was calling the Southern Whiskey Society.
The Inaugural Southern Whiskey Society event in 2017 saw 500 people descend on The Factory at Franklin, a former stove factory in its second act as a home to boutique shops, restaurants, recording studios, offices, and Liberty Hall, an event space perfect for whiskey tasting. When those 500 thirsty patrons arrived, they found 10 chefs, 30 distilleries, and somewhere north of 90 whiskeys to taste.
Those whiskeys weren’t just the top-shelf offerings from places like Buffalo Trace, Willett Distillery, and Jack Daniel’s. They were rare bottles, single barrels, and blends hand selected for the Southern Whiskey Society. Things you couldn’t taste anywhere else.
“We were onto something and we tried to grow,” Thomas remembers, “but that second event, it just didn’t shine for me, so we retooled it.”
Limiting the number of participants to the 500 range kept the flow and energy of the evening running right. “We never wanted any lines, and at that size, you could walk up to pretty much any distiller for a taste and a chat with no problem,” he says. But Thomas wanted something more, something to make the whiskey aficionados turn their head.
After observing the next couple of events and doing some thinking, a true VIP experience was born — a separate lounge upstairs in Liberty Hall, surrounded by historic brick walls and looking down on the rows of distillers and throngs of thirsty whiskey hounds. Also, a table of ultra-rare bottles (and a few ultra-ultra-rare bottles tucked away beneath the tablecloth for those in the know) were available for VIPs only.
I found myself standing at the balcony of the VIP area on Leap Day, 2020. My throat warm from a swallow of Kentucky Owl and a barbecue slider in my hand, I watched bottle after bottle tip, spill a splash of brown liquor into a glass, and then the swirl-sniff-sip of seasoned tasters. On stage, The Podcask, a whiskey-centric podcast was conducting interviews with distillers and chefs. Soon the band — with their slide-heavy blend of blues, Southern rock, and Outlaw Country — would take the stage again. I’d already texted my buddies, the ones with whom sit in the garage and compare notes on whiskey and beer and whatnot, telling them, “I found the perfect guys getaway for the end of summer: Franklin, TN, and the Southern Whiskey Society,” illustrated with a blurry selfie.
For all of 2020, the Southern Whiskey Society, and the other events Thomas had planned through Made South — his company that provides subscription gift boxes of curated items from Southern makers and artisans and hosts a spectacular Holiday Market every winter — was silent. With the pandemic, Thomas’ vision of two Southern Whiskey Society events — one in late winter and one at the end of summer — was for naught. He had time to think again, reworking the event in his mind, running through lists of craft distillers, chefs whose culinary voices needed to be added to the chorus, one more way to make this event the best it can be.
“Maybe less is more,” says Thomas. “Maybe we’ll all appreciate the camaraderie and the food and the whiskey just a little more next time we can come together and raise a glass.”