Sunday, December 16, 2018

Spirited: Church, whiskey, bourbon, gin and a little Civil War

Kim Peterson, tour experience manager at H Clark Distillery, stands next to a tub of "spent grain." 
The distillery gives the waste product from the production of spirits to a farmer, 
who feeds the slop to his cows.  It makes the animals happy. (CLICK ON IMAGES TO ENLARGE.)
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Channeling my inner demon, I rush from a church service to a distillery in Thompson’s Station, Tenn., on Sunday morning. Somewhere David Allan Coe is smiling and thinking, “Damn, there’s a mighty good country music song there. All we need is a train, a pickup truck and a prison.”

Barrels of spirits in "The Shop," nerve center
of the distillery in Thompson's Station, Tenn.
My aim is to meet  H Clark Distillery owner/founder Heath Clark, an attorney, I’m told, with an above-average Civil War IQ. The 1863 Battle of Thompson’s Station was fought near the 100-year old granary where his team produces fine Tennessee bourbon, whiskey and dry gin. Clark's law office is in a small room in the four-year-old distillery, perhaps making him unique among legal practitioners in the United States. A family obligation prevents Heath from connecting with me, but I don’t leave his distillery disappointed.

Enter Kim Peterson, H. Clark's tour experience manager and a woman who obviously loves her job. “I have a blast here,” she tells me minutes into our visit.

A former hairdresser and special education teacher, Kim oozes charm and knowledge about the whiskey/bourbon/gin-making process. Ever-smiling, the 56-year-old Michigan native and Central Michigan women’s basketball fan eagerly gives me a tour.

A micro-batch distillery, H Clark focuses on quality over quantity. It produces one 53-gallon barrel of bourbon a week and a similar amount of whiskey and gin. By contrast, Jack Daniel’s distillery in Lynchburg, Tenn., produces thousands of barrels in the same timeframe.

The H. Clark Distillery is in a former granary in Thompson's Station, Tenn., where a Civil War battle
was fought on March 5, 1863.

The magic at H. Clark is created in “The Shop,” a room about twice the size of an average living room. As Kim and I enter the nerve center, the sweet (and tremendous) aroma of mash is apparent. She lifts the large lid on a vat of the mighty mixture of grains and water -- its creation is one of the early steps in the making of fine spirits. Tempted to dip my face into the thick, oatmeal-like mass, I instead place my nose as close as I can, careful that sunglasses tucked into my shirt don’t drop into the ooze.

"Doesn’t that smell great?” she says. Mmmmm, good.

Behind the red door, Tennessee
bourbon, whiskey and dry gin are made.
As I take notes on my church bulletin, wary of a lightning strike as I write, Kim talks in detail about the process of creating fine spirits. Think of it as symphony -- all steps must be in perfect harmony.

In The Shop, barrels of bourbon sit next to bags of corn and other grain, the key ingredients. Perhaps the most important piece of equipment  in the room is the large copper still, made in Portugal. The product is hand-bottled on the opposite side of "The Shop," a few steps away.

Near a long wall, a massive tub of brown liquid — spent grain, it’s called — sits. A local farmer takes this waste product from the alcohol-making process and feeds it to his cows, a pleasing feast for the animals.

“The cows love our bourbon mash,” Peterson says. “They come running for it. Then they just lay in the field, chilling.” She wants to shoot video of the cows enjoying the mostly alcohol-free slop someday. I take her word for it.

Of course, no visit to a distillery is complete without sampling the goods. As I sit in metal chair at the bar in the tasting room, a small sign on the mantle, near a broken Civil War bayonet, catches my eye: “Alcohol. Because no great story ever started with someone eating a salad.”


Peterson pours me two snorts of bourbon and one each of whiskey and dry gin. I sniff each, then savor the greatness. Clark’s best bourbon — bottled in bond and aged a minimum of four years — costs 100 bucks a bottle.

Euphoric, I say goodbye to Kim and step out into the sunshine. At the old railroad station across the road, I immediately see a bright red caboose.

Dang, David, about that song...

H Clark Distillery's copper still, made in Portugal. 
The final products. 

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