When preparing for this article, I was surprised to realize it’s been just over nine months since I first announced Knox Whiskey Works, a small-batch craft distillery, would be coming to 516 West Jackson Avenue. The projection was for a spring opening and, given we’re close to entering autumn. It turns out they have some news: Ryan Catlett has been hired as head distiller. This means he will, “lead all production functions at the bushel to bottle, small batch distillery . . . including grain sourcing, fermentation, distillation, barrel maturation and bottling,” according to Stanton Webster, Knox Whiskey Works manager.
The Oak Ridge High School graduate joined the Air Force, where his focus on fluid dynamics would prove to come in handy later on. After serving in the Air Force, he obtained a degree in recording arts and worked, “as a production and audio engineer. This is where Stanton points out that a shift happened which would begin his journey toward Knox Whiskey Works. “a budding passion for home brewing beer and the underlying scientific principles of fermentation led to a natural interest in distilling.”
Most recently, Ryan has gained experience in both brewing and distilling, “working at one of East Tennessee’s largest distilleries.” Ryan added, “I really enjoy the interplay of science and seasonality and my ability to express this professionally through brewing and distilling. Growing up in East Tennessee and spending so much of my time outdoors, I have always had an appreciation for the seasons.”
The outdoors is a big part of his life as he particularly enjoys mountain biking, who lives in south Knoxville near all the Urban Wilderness. Of that he said, “The Urban Wilderness and all the trails in South Knoxville are an asset for our city. Seeing all the outdoor development coinciding with all the business development in Knoxville is great.” He also enjoys gardening and is excited about using that experience to select and work with the best regional ingredients available for the whiskey.
He said, “One of my main goals is to assist the Knox Whiskey Works Team in creating and operating a safe, quality distillery that is part of the local business community. We want to craft spirits that people will love, and we want to make them the right way. Our goal is to utilize seasonal ingredients from the East Tennessee region in our pursuit to develop truly native Knoxville spirits.”
Knox Whiskey Works owner Cindy Nichols added, “Ryan’s skill set will be a major asset to the entire Knoxville community. Ryan brings a wealth of working knowledge in distilling and brewing at a time when Knoxville is exploding with growth potential in both areas.”
The group is hoping for an early autumn opening and, from appearances inside, the space should be ready soon. Tennessee law requires that they can’t start distillation until they are officially open for business, which means the full line of their products will not be available initially. Their version of white whiskey (moonshine), Old City White Whiskey, should be available right away, as well as vodka and gins they will distill. Over the next months they will expand the line as they have the chance to properly age the product.
In addition to hiring Ryan and to the progress visible in these photographs of the build-out (work by Jesse McAlvin, JCM Construction), they’ve also been working toward establishing relationships needed to produce the whiskey. Riverplains Farm has grown to varieties of heirloom corn for the young company and, of course, they’ve been hard at work navigating the requirements to get all the permissions, approvals, certifications, etc. which are required to open such a business. Stanton pointed out that the local ABC board has been great at guiding them through the process.
So, very soon we’ll have the first distillery in memory located in downtown. Stanton pointed out that they consider downtown to be their market. Initial production will not allow wide distribution, so it will, for the most part be a line of whiskey products that require people to be physically present. A tasting room with a bar is under construction and whiskey, t-shirts and more will be available. Short tours and tastings will be offered and it will likely be a destination. It seems a natural draw for out-of-towners and a great place to bring out-of-town guests. Watch for it very soon and, in the meantime, follow them on FB.