Heath Clark was brought up around the business of Tennessee Whiskey. Living on a farm near Lynchburg, Tennessee, and with two uncles who were engineers at Jack Daniel’s, he remembers being enamored with the process of distilling even at an early age. Clark became an attorney instead, but the lure of fermenting mash never left his mind.
“Back in 2008, I guess I was talking about it a lot, and my boss at the time said you need to just go do it,” he explains.
But in order to realize his dream, Tennessee law would have to change. Clark joined forces with a handful of others with an interest, and in 2009, legislation was passed to open up the state’s 95 counties to legal distilling for the first time since Prohibition. The result was a surge of interest, with micro-distillers emerging all over the state and millions of dollars of investment behind them.
For Clark, it was important to do it right, and that meant doing it himself. It took him a few years to find the right space, get the equipment in place, and start running product through the still. H Clark Distillery opened in Thompson’s Station in 2014, becoming the first legal producer of spirits in Williamson County in 100 years. The company quickly developed a reputation for gins, bourbons, and a “black and tan” whiskey derived from distilled oatmeal stout—all produced in a small copper pot over an open flame.
As a young leader in a fledgling industry, Clark joined the board of directors of the Tennessee Distillers Guild, working with operators large and small to advance the cause. Through the Guild, Clark collaborated with Kris Tatum of Old Forge Distillery in Pigeon Forge and Jack Daniel’s Master Distiller Jeff Arnett to create the Tennessee Whiskey Trail and to pass additional legislation in support of the rapidly growing trade. If they could accomplish so much together on a volunteer initiative, they often said, imagine what they could do full-time. Then the pandemic hit, prompting many to rethink the future and pursue dreams that might not have been practical under other circumstances.
As a result, Arnett, Clark, and Tatum founded Company Distilling, leaning on the legacy H Clark location in Thompson’s Station and adding a new one in Townsend, Tennessee, just outside the gates of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Together, they’re focused on gins and bourbons, as well as a line of flavored spirits that complement a tasting-room cocktail menu developed with assistance from the chefs at Blackberry Farm.
Clark says each brings unique experiences and talents to the table, but the Company Distilling Bourbon is a masterstroke, thanks to Arnett.
“He started out of college learning how to blend coffee beans at Folger’s, then joined an iconic distillery and became the master distiller for over a decade, so he knows the process of bringing flavor components together for a better whole,” Clark says.
A big part of that process at Company Distilling is exposing bourbon to woods beyond American white oak, the typical barrel material. Company’s wheated bourbon is finished with toasted maple, and Arnett is working with other woods found in Tennessee’s forests: fruit, nut, and hardwood species, from cherry to hickory, persimmon to pecan, that you might associate with smoked meats.
“I thought this would be something really fun to explore in this last chapter of my life as a distiller, and Heath and Kris bring the right set of skills to complement my strengths and weaknesses,” Arnett explains. “I’d experimented with maple barrels, but the loss of product through evaporation essentially doubled the angel’s share. But we can still introduce woods through the bung in a traditional barrel and pick up those flavor notes.”
He references several ideas that pair flavor distillates found in bourbon with different woods, whether its spicy rye or sweet corn. It’s one of those ideas that just makes sense, as hard as it may be to believe that it hadn’t already been done.
“My previous role was rewarding, and I was honored to do it, but I had these other concepts that I wanted to build a brand around,” he says. “I knew if I didn’t try it, I’d always regret not taking that leap of faith. Kris and Heath and I realized we were stronger together, and we’re now well positioned to develop a full portfolio of spirits.”
In its initial product offering, Company Distilling is bottling Ghost Rail Gin—Clark’s traditional Tennessee Dry Gin that nods to the Thompson’s Station rail stop where it’s made—and Arnett’s Straight Bourbon Whiskey, with its wheat-forward mash bill and toasted maple finishing, along with Tatum’s eight Ace Gap flavored spirits that get their name from an East Tennessee mountain cut where folks used to gather and tell stories around a moonshine still.
Clark says that spirit is the essence of the Company brand: bringing people together to enjoy each other.
“’Meticulously crafted for the best of friends’ isn’t just a tagline—our bottle shops and tasting rooms welcome people for tours and samples and to enjoy a range of cocktails,” he says. “The three of us have always focused on producing spirits worth gathering over, and we hope you’ll come to see for yourself.”
Be sure to visit Company Distilling at Thompson’s Station as part of the Makers and Masters Trail, which celebrates the long history of alcohol production in Middle Tennessee through stops at the breweries, distilleries, and winery that call Williamson County home.