As the craft spirits industry has grown, libation lovers looking to visit the South's top distilleries have more choices than ever before. The big names in Kentucky and Tennessee continue to receive the bulk of the crowds and are well worth a visit, but smaller boutique makers are also luring hordes of eager consumers. What better way to learn about a spirit than to tour the place where it's made while enjoying some samples with a side of friendly conversation. Here are 10 of the best distilleries the South has to offer.
Asheville Distilling – Asheville, N.C.
The booming city of Asheville passionately supports its numerous artisans and craft producers; visitors to Asheville Distilling get a sense of the city's entrepreneurial spirit via complimentary, family-friendly tours. After learning about the company's history and production process, participants enjoy a stop in the tasting room. Due to local liquor laws, guests cannot purchase bottles to take home, but those looking for a souvenir have plenty of fun merchandise to choose from.
Buffalo Trace – Frankfort, Ky.
In a (brown) sea of interesting, inviting distilleries, Buffalo Trace stands out for its variety of complimentary tour experiences. The basic tour includes a stop in Blanton's Bottling Hall, where the filling, sealing, labeling, and packaging processes (all by hand) are on display. Those wanting a behind-the-scenes look can take a "Hard Hat" tour to witness the grain delivery, cooking, fermentation, and distillation processes, followed by a visit to the E.H. Taylor, Jr. Microstill, where Buffalo Trace's award- winning Experimental Collection whiskies are made. Another unique offering is the "Bourbon Barrel" tour, allowing visitors the rare opportunity to follow barrels during their journey throughout the distillery before finishing in the dump room. Lastly, a ghost tour – featured on the TV show "Ghost Hunters" – recaps the distillery's visits from the supernatural.
Corsair Distillery – Nashville and Bowling Green, Ky.
In only a few years, the Corsair Distillery has become a regional powerhouse among craft producers. Since its birth in 2010, the company has produced an assortment of experimental whiskies – varieties have included oak-smoked wheat, triticale (i.e. cross species of wheat and rye), and perhaps its best-known label, Triple Smoke American Single Malt Whiskey. This award-winner is made with malted barley that's smoked by various fuels: peat, cherrywood, and beechwood. Corsair offers friendly, informative tours and tasting rooms at its distilleries in Nashville and Bowling Green, Kentucky. Beyond whiskies, the company has grabbed headlines with its vanilla bean vodka and pumpkin spice moonshine.
Firefly – Wadmalaw Island, S.C.
Visitors to South Carolina's largest micro-distillery enjoy Southern hospitality as sweet as its flagship sweet tea-flavored vodka. Friendly staffers guide visitors through the production process, with an emphasis on key ingredients such as muscadine grapes grown on the owners' property (Irvin-House Vineyards) and tea grown nearby at the Charleston Tea Plantation, the nation's only tea plantation. After visiting Firefly, visitors can enjoy a winery tour and tasting. Firefly works with the Lowcountry Loop Trolley to offer an "Island Sip and See" tour; guests board a vintage trolley to tour the tea plantation, vineyards, and distillery, with a picnic lunch included.
George Dickel – Tullahoma, Tenn.
A short distance from Jack Daniel's resides the state's second-largest whiskey producer. George Dickel, which dates back to 1861, takes pride in its tried-and-true practices, many of which are on display to those touring the distillery. Visitors are regularly taken aback by the intimate, rustic environs, and after entering by passing over a tiny bridge groups find themselves surrounded by horse buggies and whiskey barrels. Most importantly, tour participants enjoy samples of Dickel's exceptionally rich and layered whiskies.
Jack Daniel's – Lynchburg, Tenn.
Befitting one of the world's most famous liquor brands, visitors to Jack Daniel's sprawling grounds can make a day of it by touring the distillery, picking up some souvenirs at the old-time Lynchburg Hardware & General Store, and soaking up the samples with a meal of down-home Southern fare at Miss Mary Bobo's Boarding House. The distillery tour brings visitors back to the company's roots, when the "Lincoln County Process" (named after the distillery's original location) featuring sugar maple charcoal and new charred oak barrels gave the flagship product its distinctive taste.
Jim Beam – Clermont, Ky.
Visitors to the Jim Beam American Stillhouse enjoy guided tours detailing the entire production process, starting with the natural limestone water well and finishing with the bottling facility. Hardcore fans make a point to visit the "Super Premium" tour, which is offered twice a month and includes transportation. The tour includes rare opportunities such as a private experience with Master Distiller Fred Noe, a visit to the dump floor, a bourbon-themed meal at the Knob Creek House, and a commemorative etched bottle.
Ole Smoky – Gatlinburg, Tenn.
Every weekend, true whiskey lovers flock to the Tennessee Whiskey Trail to visit distilleries big and small. Sitting in the shadow of the Smoky Mountains, Ole Smoky makes authentic moonshine using limestone-filtered water and locally harvested corn that is twice distilled on site. Though master distiller Justin King's family has been making variations of moonshine for more than a century, in 2010 Ole Smoky became the first federally licensed moonshine distillery in eastern Tennessee. Those taking a tour can sample the company's numerous varieties, all of which are bottled and sold in mason jars.
Rock Town Distillery – Little Rock, Ark.
Located in downtown Little Rock, the state's first artisan craft distillery welcomes visitors to learn more about their products via a tour and taste. Rock Town's "grain to grass" approach, which starts with local grains, is on display for all to see. After the lively tour, which helpfully details the origins of bourbon, vodka, and gin, visitors get the opportunity to sample all of Rock Town's spirits.
Woodford Reserve – Versailles, Ky.
One of Kentucky's most beloved bourbons, Woodford maintains the oldest working bourbon distillery in the U.S., registered as a National Historic Landmark. Crowds queue up on weekends to learn about the company's remarkable history, five sources of flavor, and bottling process via its most popular offering, the "Bourbon Discovery" tour. Those especially interested in Woodford's architecture, influence on Kentucky heritage, and its cultural and architectural evolution can enjoy the "National Landmark" tour. Visitors seeking an education in bourbon production take in the "Corn to Cork" tour, during which they learn about the myriad elements (e.g. mechanical, technical, chemical) that go into producing one of the country's most popular bourbons.