“Most people don’t realize it,” says founder and Master Distiller Phil Prichard, “but in the 1600s and 1700s, rum was America’s largest exported product. So what I set out to do when we started production was recreate America’s first distilled beverage, which was very different rum to that being made today. Two thousand rum distilleries in the world are making their rum out of a product called blackstrap molasses – which is 32 per cent sugar and 68 per cent… lord only knows!”
This is chief among many reasons why the rums, whiskeys and liqueurs made by Prichard’s Distillery stand out from the crowd. Another major factor is that the products are made – nurtured, even – in small batches using traditional techniques that hark back to the origins and history of the process. The rum is presented in a crook-necked bottle – like the ancient, hand-blown one Phil came across one day in an antique shop in New England. It seemed the perfect, distinctive vessel to carry Prichard’s rum so he had it reproduced for the brand.
The first of Phil Prichard’s distilleries opened in Kelso, Tennessee in 1997 and began production two years later. It was the first distillery to open in the state for almost 50 years and, unlike the world’s 2,000 other rum distilleries, used a process that dated back to when rum was such a valued export. “We make it pretty much like they did in colonial America,” says Phil. “Then, they didn’t know how to make large quantities of granulated sugar, so the rum they made was with a sweet molasses that was 90 to 95 per cent sugar – and that’s what we do. So when we fired our stills in the fall of 1999 we actually began the production of the first traditional American rum in over 200 years.”
In the two decades since, Prichard’s rums have won numerous awards and Phil has opened a second distillery, this time at Nashville’s celebrated Fontanel mansion. In it, he has installed a 400-gallon alembic copper still, the first of its kind in Tennessee. He has also expanded Prichard’s output to include a range of high-end whiskeys and liqueurs, whose production follows age-old traditional techniques of the kind used by Prichard’s grandfather.
“We make a traditional Tennessee whiskey,” says Phil. “It’s like my granddaddy Benjamin may have made back in the 1780s and 1790s, 50 years before Jack Daniel was even born. We don’t filter anything out of our Tennessee whiskey. We take it straight from the still and put it in new charred oak barrels to make a full-bodied, unfiltered Tennessee whiskey.”
This dedication to excellence is a defining characteristic of Prichard’s Distillery – and of paramount importance to Phil Prichard himself. For while both his distilleries have become popular tourist attractions, it really all comes down to how his rums, whiskies and liqueurs taste. Phil won’t stand for anything less than the highest quality. “My name on the bottle is my standard of excellence,” he says. “I have actually dumped whiskeys – because, if I don’t like it, I’m not going to put my name on it – and I’m certainly not going to sell it with my name on it. I don’t want a bad reputation. It’s very important to me that every product that goes out of this door is a product I’m willing to tell the world I have made.”