Modern Spirits in a Moonshine World

East Tennessee has no shortage of moonshine distilleries these days, and the craft beer boom shows no sign of slowing, but the area is only just beginning to see its share of producers of more mature potables. Knoxville’s Old City is shaping up to be an incubator for a sophisticated cocktail scene and the craft distilleries helping to drive it. We spoke with Eric McNew, cofounder of Knoxville’s in-the-works PostModern Spirits, about the state of the craft spirits scene and how his distillery will push the boundaries set by its predecessors.

KaTom: Tell us what led you to becoming a co-founder of PostModern Spirits.

Eric McNew: I was a creative director for about 19 years, and at the end of 2015, I decided to get out of that and do mostly freelance work. Most of that came to me through my connections with the KnoxFoodie blog that my wife and I do, just through going to restaurants and doing profiles of them through the blog. A lot of those restaurants and food-related companies wanted some help with their social media and their marketing.

At the beginning of 2016, Stanton Webster, who was one of the founders of the other distillery in town, gave me a call, and I started working with Knox Whiskey Works in January of 2016. Stanton and I immediately had a good relationship. He left that distillery, and about that time, I said, “If you want to have another go at it, I’m definitely interested in investing and participating on any level that I can.” So by November or so of 2016, we were committed to starting PostModern and were having numerous conversations about the direction in which we wanted to go.

We want to be very authentic in everything that we do. We’re going to make everything in house. We’re not going to just source from other distilleries or use a lot of artificial ingredients. To us, it’s very important to be authentic with our customers. So that’s how I decided to get into it. I had a very little bit of home-brewing experience. I learned a little bit about the surface of distilling while I was at Knox Whiskey.

For my part, I come at it more from a marketing background. I’ve always worked with American companies, American manufacturers mostly. Those are the types of corporations I’ve worked with in the past. I’ve got a huge appreciation for that. I just love the craft industry, whether it’s distilling or craft breweries, so that’s kind of what led me into it.

K: What kinds of spirits will you be making? Will you be doing whiskey?

EM: We will be doing whiskey – more along the American single malt variety of whiskey. As soon as we get federal approval, we will start putting those away. We’ll do some shorter-aged whiskeys, but we’ll also be putting some away for more longer-term aging as well. Along with that, of course, we will have to have unaged spirits. We’ll certainly have a line of gin, vodka, and some other unaged spirits, along with some liqueurs.

K: Tell us about the name PostModern.

EM: While we want to celebrate everything local, we were really looking for a brand that would appeal outside the local market, something that would really stand out and almost flow along with the craft beer industry, because everyone in craft beer is doing really cool things. They’re experimenting with nontraditional ingredients. We will certainly be inspired by traditional spirits, but we want to make some spirits that are more accessible to people that maybe have been in the craft beer scene but don’t really have a lot of experience with spirits.

We feel like there’s a bit of fatigue right now because there’s so many people out there that think you have to pay $200 to $500 for a great bottle of aged spirits, but that’s just not the case. There are some great, really young products out there on the market. Corsair in Nashville is now producing beautiful spirits.

K: Tell us about the legal process and challenges involved in getting licensed.

EM: Luckily, Stanton has some experience with this, and we knew that timing was going to be a long process. To get federal TTB approval takes eight or nine months, usually. They give you an estimate, but that’s certainly not a guarantee. It’s literally a book of paperwork that you have to send in. They know everything, practically down to medical tests that you’ve had. We go through that for several months. We’re kind of in the middle of that at this point.

Once you apply, the paperwork just sits there. But once they get around to you, it’s a pretty quick process, from everything we’ve observed. Then, we can apply for local, state, and department of agriculture approval – everyone needs a check!

K: Do you have an estimate of when you’ll be serving your first drink?

EM: Not really, since we are in the middle of the federal approval process. We would love to be open this year. Maybe, maybe not, it just depends on when all the approvals roll through.

K: In an interview with Knox Mercury, Stanton said that he believes Knoxville is in the middle of developing a mature cocktail scene. What are some specific examples of how you’re seeing that play out in bars and restaurants in the area?

EM: One that comes to mind immediately is Oliver Royale; they have a really great program there. Armada is no longer open, but many of those bartenders are still around town doing great things. Sapphire has a really great program. Balter Beerworks is a brewpub, but their cocktails are very, very innovative. Knox Public House is another one that we go to pretty often. They have some really great infusions that they do with spirits and experimentation. I feel like all of those places have extremely experienced cocktail mixologists.

K: How did you settle on your location in the Jackson Terminal Building?

EM: We had a couple of places in mind that we wanted. We struggled with deciding whether we wanted a location with heavy foot traffic where maybe parking is not as convenient or a place with a huge parking area. Of course we needed a manufacturing facility.

We’ve got about 4,000 square feet in Jackson Terminal in the Old City, which is really growing up. It’s not just a college hangout place. With Oli Bea, Merchants of Beer, and Lonesome Dove – Lonesome Dove is another great cocktail spot, too – all of those places tell me that the Old City is really growing up. While parking may not be that convenient, people are willing to walk down there. We think that the tasting room sales will be really great.

K: Do you think there’s a moonshine bubble right now?

EM: I feel like that type of spirit fits well with a heavy tourist area like Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg. There’s a huge draw, obviously. You can go there any day and see what a draw moonshine has. On the flipside of that, I think that there are so many of those type products on the shelf now that it’s hard not to get lost. Distributors aren’t all that eager to pick up another flavored moonshine or a flavored vodka. It’s certainly been done a lot. Brands that are out there like Sugarlands and Ole Smoky have done extremely well. They have worldwide distribution. There are a lot of them coming on the scene right now, but to us, moonshine is still what you don’t pay tax on.

K: Is there anything else you want our readers to know about PostModern Spirits?

EM: I mentioned the craft beer culture, and we’re going to actually work with some of the local craft breweries and not try to compete with them, because I love what the craft breweries do locally. They all collaborate. My wife and I will go out on a Sunday to all the breweries and there’s a completely different vibe and culture at every brewery in town, and we want to be an extension to that. We may collaborate on bigger releases or on small, tasting-room only releases. We’re really excited about that, and they seem really excited.

Follow PostModern Spirits on Facebook and Instagram to keep up with the distillery’s progress.

Tanner West
Tanner West

A dedicated festival-goer, Tanner West has seen more bands perform live in the middle of hay fields and city parks than most people have probably heard of. Raised on beans and taters, he recently renovated a home and three vintage sheds in the back woods of East Tennessee that serves as a quiet retreat for reading and ready base for hiking and camping trips. Despite being able to craft 500-word descriptions of restaurant equipment, Tanner is a man of few words who described the best meal he ever ate in one word: Coffee.