Distillery represents region, sets sights higher

The Tennessee Hills Distillery in Jonesborough. Photo courtesy of Tennessee Hills Distillery

By A.J. Kaufman, Managing Editor

Stephen Callahan and his wife, Jessica, founded Tennessee Hills Distillery in Jonesborough in 2014. Less than a decade later, the brand has expanded throughout our region. And throughout the time, the company has found important ways to enrich the lives of local residents.

In 2021, the couple established Tennessee Hills Brewstillery in Johnson City and broke ground on a $25 million expansion of his distillery in Bristol a year later. Additionally, Callahan served four years as an alderman in Tennessee’s oldest town, on the board of trustees at his alma mater, Emory & Henry, and helped establish a Brewing and Distillation Studies Minor at ETSU last year.

Tennessee Hills was established with the vision of creating exceptional handcrafted spirits to “captivate the palates of enthusiasts and connoisseurs alike, a brand that represents the people, culture, and the spirit of the Appalachian Highlands,” the founder relayed.

The Callahans’ commitment to quality quickly gained them recognition by becoming Jonesborough’s top tourist destination, with over 100,000 visitors a year and receiving numerous national-level spirit competition awards.

During the unprecedented challenges emanating from the Covid-19 pandemic, Tennessee Hills Distillery responded to the urgent need for hand sanitizer in northeast Tennessee by swiftly pivoting its operations. With only four employees at the time, the distillery transitioned to manufacturing hand sanitizer to address the shortage in their local community.

This involved the leveraging of expertise in alcohol production, adapting its production processes and deploying resources. Tennessee Hills therefore demonstrated a commitment to public health and played a critical role in providing essential supplies to meet demand during a crisis.

“This proactive and impactful initiative exemplified the company’s dedication to serving the community and exemplified its agility and willingness to contribute to the greater good during challenging times,” Callahan told the Business Journal. “Our love for the region and desire to make a major economic impact is a real one.”

Also in 2020, Tennessee Hills solidified its position as a trailblazer in the state’s craft spirits industry by opening a “sophisticated and alluring” craft cocktail bar. The owners believe the bar’s success stems from its commitment to crafting an excellent cocktail experience, by “seamlessly blending innovation, artistry, and a deep passion for mixology.”

Stephen and Jessica Callahan. Photo courtesy of Tennessee Hills

Tennessee Hills Distillery expanded its offerings a year later by opening the Brewstillery in downtown Johnson City, which quickly became a popular destination for visitors seeking to experience unique drinks crafted by the company. According to Callahan, the Brewstillery “…provides a welcoming and engaging environment for guests to immerse themselves in the art of craft distilling and brewing.”

Looking toward the future, however, perhaps as important as any endeavor is Tennessee Hills’ collaboration with ETSU. This visionary idea constitutes a milestone among workforce development and education within their growing industry.

“This partnership resulted in the establishment of a minor program designed to cultivate the next generation of skilled professionals in these specialized fields,” Callahan explained. “By merging academic expertise with real-world industry insights, the program provides students with a comprehensive and practical education, empowering them to thrive in the evolving landscape of craft beverage production. Tennessee Hills Distillery’s commitment to internships, knowledge sharing, and industry-relevant curriculum directly contributed to shaping a talent pool equipped to meet the growing demands of this dynamic and increasingly vital sector.”

Unsurprisingly, considering the company’s meteoric rise, Tennessee Hills aims to achieve national prominence and recognition. In August 2022, they broke ground on a 39,000 square foot distillery expansion in Bristol, across from The Pinnacle. The new experiential facility will emphasize in-depth operational tours, tasting bars, cocktail bars, and green spaces for entertainment. The new production facility will rank Tennessee Hills as the 4th largest self-producing distillery in the Volunteer State and capable of distilling 100 barrels of whiskey per week.

Simultaneously, Tennessee Hills is creating a new business model called the Tennessee Hills Creamstillery in an existing building. The new business will be the first of its kind with an emphasis on both alcoholic and non-alcoholic ice creams, cream liqueurs, whiskey infused baked goods and gourmet cheesecakes.

Once completed in 2024, the new Bristol operation will push the staff of Tennessee Hills to over 75.

Business leaders in the community have taken notice.

“Based on my expertise and experience as an entrepreneur, I am very confident Stephen will end up being one of the next great Niswonger, McGlothlin, Greene, Niswonder-type entrepreneurs of this great Appalachian Highlands region,” Scott Andrew, CEO of Retail Service Systems, recently told the Business Journal. “He is a humble, giving, hardworking entrepreneur that puts customers and employees first.”

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