By COLLIN BROOKS
Stephen Callahan didn’t imagine having to wait the extra time that he did to open the Tennessee Hills Distillery. But he probably didn’t imagine that he would defer his acceptance into medical school in order to pursue his dream of opening up his own distillery.
Now, a smile paints the face of Callahan whenever he sees the reaction from people after telling them about the path that led him to the distillery business.
“It’s about following your passion,” said Callahan, surrounded by his passion, which is housed in downtown Jonesborough inside the 160-year old building known as the Salt House . “Too many people are on autopilot and go through life without finding that one thing that they’d risk everything to do. If I could have had a career path in college that would’ve allowed me to do this, then I wouldn’t have been going the medical route. Now there’s degrees in brewing and distillation. I had to teach myself everything.”
But it wasn’t a smooth path to get to this day. The 28 -year old Callahan had to overcome obstacles in order to make sure his dream could become a reality. Now, he is similar to his product, soaking and just enjoying his time.
“It’s a great feeling to have the pressure of not being open off our shoulders and it’s also a really great feeling to reap what we have been working for this whole time,” Callahan said. “It’s been a long road and we had to fight for everything we have got, but we have made it.”
Callahan said that since they now have their footing, they will only continue to get better as the months pass.
“I think people will begin to appreciate the time that we have put into it and the risk that we have taken to get to this point and I think that something special is definitely in the works, with just the amount of product that we have sold in the last week.”
A lot of that support has come locally, after the whispering of a soft open on Saturday, May 14, started to make it’s way around town. After posting the date on his personal Facebook, Callahan said there were still plenty of people that showed up.
“It was a pretty overwhelming response,” he said.
But that is what he has come to expect from his hometown.
“I think Jonesborough is ready for something new, to try and get away from the antique scene,” Callahan said. “People in my generation, we like to spend money whether we have it or not and we like to sit down and have a drink and some entertainment. So I think Jonesborough is ready to move forward and I hope we are a good example.”
But he won’t be able to bring his building into the 21st century, which is fine with him. The Salt House is a part of town that he has had his eye on since he was young.
“I’ve actually had my eyes on the Salt House since I was a small kid,” he said. “I knew when I walked into this building when I was young that this was just a cool building.”
It’s also a building that houses one of the oldest hand-working elevators in the state, according to an Elevator Preservation Society that stopped in one day.
That isn’t the reason he wants people to stop in. And while he was hoping to open well before this month, he isn’t apologetic that it took the extra time.
“I told people in the beginning, just jokingly, that I would run it to the ground before I produced something that I didn’t think was the quality that we needed, and we almost did,” Callahan said through a forgiving laugh. “But I think it is just a good example of not giving up and kind of keeping your eye on the prize.
He hopes that his corn liquor, which currently comes in a couple of flavors including lemon drop, and rum will be the foundation of an bigger things. Callahan hopes to start producing a Sorghum rum, apple brandy, bourbon and American single malt whiskey.
“I think single malt whiskey is going to be the next thing that moves across the United States and really catches people’s attention,” Callahan said. “So we have a lot of things in the works. It has taken some time to get to this point.
The next few months are going to be rough for us as we try to basically maximize our efficiency and capacity with our equipment.”
The shipment that left the distillery on Friday, May 20 was headed to multiple liquor stores as far west as Chattanooga. The Tennessee Hills corn liquor is starting to make his mark in the area, he is hoping that it won’t be a footprint in the sand.
“What I really wanted people to understand about it is that I want to be known as a craftsman, which is why we aren’t doing the moonshine,” Callahan said. “Nothing against those guys, obviously it is working well for a lot of people, but with my background in chemistry and biology, I felt like I could offer the industry a lot more than just moonshine products.”
Tennessee Hills Distillery is open Tuesday-Saturday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and select days during festival seasons. For more information, visit tnhillsdistillery.com.