Our sixth state and what a treat she was, Tennessee proved to be the kind of America we had been yearning for when we first conceived our road trip dream. Beautiful countryside, quaint towns, friendly locals, and our first taste of home cooked southern soul food. Not to mention a trip to the town of Lynchburg, population 400, and home to Old No.7.
A long… very long, drive through the night and we arrived at Knoxville with sleep deprivation kicking in. Refreshed from a nights sleep and charged up on coffee we decided to drive further west into Tennessee, to the town of Manchester. On the drive, a hundred miles out from Manchester, we left the interstate in favour of the smaller highway routes. Our decision was rewarded with clear roads and expansive, beautiful landscape. As we drove up through the Rock Island State Park the surroundings became blanketed with a layer of snow, giving this peaceful setting a wonderful stillness. Manchester is a small town seated in Tennessee’s Coffee County that comes alive once a year for Bonnaroo Music Festival, the rest of the time it’s a sleepy little place. This laid back setting made the decision easy to choose Manchester as home for a handful of days while we took trips to neighbouring towns. First up we took a trip to Old Stone Fort Archaeological Park, a prehistoric Native American structure built between 80 and 550 AD during the Middle Woodland period. Old Stone Fort is nestled between the Duck River and Little Duck River, sitting on an area of land cut deep into the gorge land where both rivers converge. Woodland surroundings, jagged cliff faces and a series of substantial waterfalls and whirlpools make this an area of natural beauty and tranquility. After our morning stroll we stopped in at Coffee Cafe, a laid back coffee-house that uses fresh, locally farmed produce to create daily lunch specials. Along with entrée dishes, Coffee Cafe make a selection of dessert pies and cakes each morning, we opted for the Key Lime Pie and the Coconut Cream Pie, along with the infused coffee of the day, caramel. Seriously good pies!
The following morning we awoke early and made the short drive to Lynchburg, home of Jack Daniel’s distillery. Our guide, Goose, took us around the grounds, first to the outdoor area where ‘rigs’ of maple planks are set alight and dampened, a process that creates the ten feet of charcoal that every drop of distilled whiskey is dripped through in order to give its smoothness. This technique of charcoal filtering allows Jack Daniel’s the title of Tennessee Whiskey instead of bourbon. Next we were shown the natural spring water cavern, where Jack Daniel’s whiskey starts life. The water is crystal clear and naturally filters through layers of limestone, as a result the distillery does nothing more than simply use the spring water in its natural state. We were then taken inside the distillery and were shown where the ‘mash’ (mixture of corn, rye and barley) is created, before being added to spring water and cooked at high temperatures and left to ferment with yeast. This process creates what the distillery calls ‘beer mash’, coming in around 20 proof (10% alcohol), similar strength to a strong brew. The beer mash is distilled, a method that separates the unattractive brown mash to leave a clear un-aged whiskey, coming in around 140 proof… some serious moonshine. The final leg of the tour allowed us access to one of the storage warehouses where the whiskey is left, untouched and unmoved, for five to ten years depending on which product is being created. Interestingly Jack Daniel’s build their own barrels to age the whiskey, and each barrel is used only once before being shipped to Scotland to age scotch. The aging process allows the whiskey to mellow, and gives the distinctive amber colour. Fascinating experience and of course we couldn’t leave the distillery before tasting Jack Daniel’s three main whiskeys; the classic Old No. 7, Gentleman’s Jack (a whiskey dripped through charcoal prior and post barrel aging creating a very smooth drink) and Jack Daniels Single Barrel (specially chosen barrels that have been aged in the top levels of the warehouses, producing a richer, darker whiskey). In case you’re wondering Old No. 7 is the product of mixing around 200 barrels to give the distinctive flavour and taste. Final fact, Jack Daniel’s has 84 warehouse, each housing a million gallons of whiskey, so at any one time the distillery houses around 84 millions gallons of whiskey. Of which they give all 400 residents of Lynchburg town a pint of whiskey on the last Friday of each month. Apparently nothing much is achieved by the town of Lynchburg on the Saturday following what the locals’ call ‘Wet Friday’ and now we know why.
From Lynchburg we drove further south to the town of Kelso where a tiny distillery named Prichard’s is producing the only rum you’ll findin Tennessee, out of a semi-converted kindergarten school. The sports hall is now used to house boxed up bottles for shipping, and still has basketball hoops fixed to the walls as well as a disco ball hanging from the ceiling. One of the old classrooms has the production line for mixing flavourings to the rum (Prichard’s produces flavours like peach mango, key-lime and cranberry), as well as the production line to physically bottle the rum, and in the corner two workers hand label each and every bottle prior to being filled. Again, fascinating to see production on such a small-scale compared with the polished and experienced Jack Daniels distillery. Our tour ended with us given free rein to taste any of the rums we fancied. Needless to say the afternoon drive back to Manchester was a tad jaded.
As the day had been spent sampling whiskey and rum we felt it necessary to search out a hearty dinner, and as luck would have it, opposite our motel was a locals’ favourite, Emma’s Family Restaurant. Emma’s serves home cooked, southern favourites in buffet format. For $6 you can help yourself to as much crisp and succulent fried chicken, beef meatballs in a rich tomato ragù, light and flaky catfish and tender, juicy pork chops. As well as staple southern sides like mac n’ cheese, black-eyed beans, creamed corn, collard green and okra, decent salad and dessert bar too, although I only had room to sample the peach cobbler. Soul food at its best.
Sadly our time was drawing to an end in Manchester, but not before fitting in one final distillery tour, and this time was the turn of George Dickel in Cascade Hollow. George Dickel shares many of the same practises as Jack Daniel’s, the main being the charcoal mellowing which also allows Dickel the title of Tennessee Whiskey (in case you’re wondering George and Jack are the only Tennessee Whiskeys in the world), although Dickel declared his nectar the finest sippin’ whisky in the United States, equal to the finest scotch. Consequently, in keeping with Scottish whisky tradition, Dickel dropped the “e” in whiskey. Another significant difference is that Dickel chill their whisky before it’s dripped through the charcoal mellowing vats, this filters out oils and fatty acids inherent in most whiskys, which can create a bitter taste. The reason for this is that George Dickel discovered the whisky he made in the winter was inherently smoother than that made in the summer when he opened his distillery in 1870.
Next on the agenda, Nashville, the home of country music. I’ll be honest, we wanted to like Nashville, in fact we wanted to love Nashville, but as we drove away from small town America and approached busy interstates and erratic drivers the whole state of relaxation gained in Manchester started to fade rapidly. Trying not to be discouraged we spend a day walking around downtown Nashville and the famous Honky Tonk Highway where stars such as Willie Nelson started their careers. Unfortunately, Bon Jovi was playing Bridgestone Arena, situated in the heart of downtown, so every bar had “Livin’ on a Prayer” blaring out, on repeat… Fail. The weather took a turn for the worse, and not even a smokey pulled pork sandwich from Hog Heaven BBQ (a Nashville BBQ institution since 1986), or a tasty cheeseburger on french bread from Rotier’s Restaurant, could save our time in Music City.
Deciding to cut our loses we took to the road the following morning and head further west to the outskirts of Tennessee and the city of Memphis, widely regarded as the birth place of rock ‘n’ roll. Instantly Memphis got off to a good start, with the sun was beaming down and nothing but classic 1950’s records on the radio we saddled up and took a trip down Elvis Presley Boulevard to Graceland, Elvis’ mansion home. I was sceptical at first but this was great fun and gave a great insight into Elvis’ life and career, a highlight being Elvis’ car collection and his gold record room, and boy did Elvis have plenty of both. Later that day we made our way to Beale Street for a lazy afternoon of beer and blues, but not before stopping in at the famous Sun Studio where Elvis, Johnny Cash and Roy Orbison all cut records.
Not so much takes of eating on this leg of the journey, but that’s not to say we didn’t eat plenty, mainly vibrant, fresh Mexican street food in an attempt to lower our cholesterol as we head further into the deep south (the home of fried chicken and waffles). As we took to the road again, now over 2000 miles into the road trip and with six states under our belts (seven if you count the fleeting drive into Arkansas where West Memphis sits), we were craving similar, hearty southern cooking that we had experienced at Emma’s. And boy did we find it as we drove south along Highway 61, home of the Mississippi Delta Blues trail.