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Plans unveiled for Sand Creek whiskey facility

(Editor’s Note: The following story is being reprinted courtesy of John I. Carney and the Shelbyville Times-Gazette.)

The owners of Uncle Nearest Premium Whiskey formally announced last week their plans for a whiskey production facility, tasting room, museum and music venue at Sand Creek Farms on U.S. 231 north of Shelbyville. Parts of the project may be open to the public as soon as March or April of 2018.

The way was cleared for the project earlier this month when Bedford County Board of Commissioners voted to rezone a portion of the Sand Creek property from agriculture to commercial.

Fawn Weaver, president of the company and founder of the Nearest Green Foundation, told the Times-Gazette the project will keep the appearance and atmosphere of Sand Creek Farms and restore it to its previous reputation as a showplace.

“Sand Creek has always been known as the gateway to Shelbyville,” said Weaver.

Horses and cattle will continue to be raised at the site, which will be known as “Nearest Green Distillery at Sand Creek Farms,” preserving the previous name. Weaver said there are currently about 40 Tennessee Walking Horses and 20 quarter horses stabled at Sand Creek; the plan going forward will still involve walking horses but will add other breeds as well.

Uncle Nearest Whiskey is named for Nathan “Nearest” (or “Nearis,” in some incorrect accounts) Green, the slave who is reported to have taught Jack Daniel the craft of distilling. Green was brought to wide public attention in a June 2016 story by the New York Times, and the Jack Daniel Distillery is now mentioning Green’s role in its public tours.

The hay barn at the site will be converted to a 3,500-barrel rickhouse. Weaver said work on the hay barn will begin in January and take about a month. Behind the hay barn, a new bottling plant, a distillery and additional rickhouses will be constructed.

The distillery will not be built immediately; Uncle Nearest Whiskey currently has an agreement with a third-party distiller, and for the moment that company supplies the company’s actual distillation needs.

“We don’t have a need to bring in additional capacity at this time,” she said. A 1937 state law requires that whiskey be stored in the county where it’s produced; that law resulted in a 2014 lawsuit against the state by Diageo, the owner of the George Dickel brand, after the state cited the firm for producing Dickel at its facility near Normandy but storing it in Louisville, Kentucky. Weaver said efforts are underway to repeal the law in the coming legislative session.

The long-term plans announced Friday do include a distillery at the site. Shelbyville resident and Wartrace High School graduate Sherrie Moore, who has 31 years of experience in the industry, has been named director of whiskey operations for the company.

“We look forward to continuing to work with our Tennessee distillery partners to create and bottle our award-winning premium whiskey; but as the brand continues to grow and excitement around Uncle Nearest Premium Whiskey increases, we need to be prepared to keep up with the demand,” said Moore in a news release.

Even while it is being distilled elsewhere, the whiskey will undergo its final filtering step at the Sand Creek location once that facility is ready.

One damaged horse barn will be restored and converted into the “Nearest Green History Walk,” a museum along one wall of the barn with an interactive display about Green and the history of whiskey-making. The Nearest Green Foundation has published a 50th anniversary re-release of the 1967 book “Jack Daniel’s Legacy,” by the late Times-Gazette editor Ben A. Green, because it includes information about Nearest Green.

Opposite the history walk will be a wall of display-only barrels, which the company plans to have visiting celebrities and VIPs sign.

The horse sales arena will still be available for horse auctions, but will also be upgraded to serve as an intimate concert venue, said Weaver. Part of the plan is to offer Nashville stars a chance to have small, fan-only concerts or chances to try out new material. For these concerts, she said, phones and other recording devices will be checked at the door.

Weaver said the inspiration for the concert venue was a residency that Garth Brooks had at a Las Vegas casino. Instead of Brooks’ normal, splashy concert presentation, he performed in a more intimate setting with a scaled-back band.

The project will also include a gift shop and a tasting room. Weaver said she’s in talks with her favorite barbecue restaurant about opening a location on-site.

Each day, tourists from north of Shelbyville pass the Sand Creek site on their way to tour the Jack Daniel Distillery in Lynchburg. Weaver said she noticed the Sand Creek site while driving back and forth between Murfreesboro and Lynchburg. The state tourism department promotes a tourism route called the “Jack Trail,” named for the Jack Daniel Distillery, and Sand Creek is right on that route.

Weaver doesn’t yet have an estimate of how many people the Uncle Nearest complex might attract when in full operation. Now that the rezoning is in place, she said the company plans to look more closely at such statistics. She said she expects that there will be visitors from between Murfreesboro and Nashville who would rather make a 45-minute drive to Sand Creek than a 90-minute drive to Lynchburg, saying she’s sometimes surprised at the people in Nashville and even Murfreesboro who’ve never been to Lynchburg.

Sand Creek is also convenient to Webb Road/Highway 82, meaning some visitors might make the distillery part of a day trip to Bell Buckle.

Allen Pitner of Shelbyville-Bedford County Chamber of Commerce said that if the development unfolds as planned, it should be a boon to local tourism promotion.

“I think that kind of fits in the theme,” said Pitner. “It will only enhance our tourism.”

Uncle Nearest Whiskey had purchased the historic Dan Call farm in Lynchburg, where Nearest Green taught Jack Daniel and where Daniel distilled whiskey until 1881. Some assumed the company would locate there.

“But if you’ve ever been to Lynchburg, you know it’s Jack Daniel country. They’ve spent more than a century and a lot of marketing dollars putting Lynchburg on the map,” said Kate Jerkens, vice president of sales and marketing for Uncle Nearest Whiskey, in a news release. “We decided to build outside of Lynchburg for a few reasons. One was our enormous respect for Jack Daniel, making sure we always reciprocate the respect he paid to Nearest and Nearest’s children. Another was the opportunity to broaden regional economic benefits through the creation of new and exciting opportunities in the neighboring community of Shelbyville, as the Tennessee Whiskey market and tourist activity expand.”

The news release also says a fire station will be built on the property and will be available to serve the area.

Bedford County Fire Chief Mark Thomas said he’s been involved in discussions with the company. It’s not clear yet whether Uncle Nearest Whiskey will donate or lease land for the station.

Currently, the county has a fire truck stationed at the Bedford County Emergency Medical Services station on Frank Martin Road. The fire department had wanted its own hall, however, and had purchased property on Unionville-Deason Road. If everything can be worked out between the county and the whiskey-maker, the county can sell the Unionville-Deason road property and build instead on the Sand Creek Farms location, which would give the fire department a base to serve that part of the county.

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