I’m not early to many parties, but today I’m happy to bring you a look at little-known Nashville whiskey producer Fugitives, and a bottle of their Grandgousier expression in single-barrel format.
Started in 2016, Fugitives is named after a post-WWI group of intellectuals from Nashville’s Vanderbilt University that emphasized agrarian heritage. There’s an analogue in Fugitives’ emphasis on local corn, making this truly Tennessee Whiskey.
The centerpiece of the company’s range is called “Grandgousier,” after a character in the Gargantua pentalogy by Rabelais. The foundation of this whiskey is a local heirloom corn known as Hickory Cane. Using the legally-stipulated Lincoln County Process, the distillate is filtered through Tennessee Sugar Maple charcoal (handmade by Fugitives) before maturation.
I caught up with founder Jim Massey, who spared some time to chat with me. Our conversation appears here, condensed and edited for clarity.
MALT: Tell me a bit about yourself, and how you got your start?
Jim: My father was in the spirits business; he helped lead the wine and spirits retailers in Tennessee in the 60’s and 70’s, and into the 80’s. He had one of the highest volume stores in the state.
More importantly: our family had been farmers in Lincoln County. The Lincoln Country Process is what makes Tennessee whiskey “Tennessee Whiskey.” We still have a farm in Lincoln County; it’s been in our family for 150 years. When I started grade school, half the town were farmers full-time. By the time I graduated from high school in ’79 there may have been one person in our class whose family were full-time farmers.
There would be train cars of grain going into Jack Daniel’s. I said, “Why can’t we sell to Jack Daniel’s?” My dad said, “We can’t grow it cheap enough.” We left fields uncultivated because it was cheaper for us to be paid to grow nothing as a subsidy. I said, “Why don’t we start our own distillery?” Bourbon had some down times a while back; it didn’t really stick with him.
Fast-forward: anywhere I go, I tell people I was from Tennessee. They didn’t ask me about country music or Elvis; the first question was “do you make whiskey?”
I was compelled after reading some articles 15 years ago, talking about Bourbon being made on the west coast. There may have been 12 members of the American Distiller’s Institute [at the time]. I met some guys out there that were really talented. I started distilling with them in workshops, way back, 12 or 13 years ago. Learning the process; I’m kind of a natural cook. I’ve always had a great palate and a punk rock attitude. “Why not me?”
I was fortunate to be an adviser to a number of different distilleries that all did sourced products. Most of those guys have sold out. I kind of stuck to my guns. I want to be able to make my own.
I think it goes back to the kid in me: if it’s not coming from Tennessee agriculture, how’s this really Tennessee whiskey? Why can’t we make one of the best whiskies in the world, made from Tennessee grain?
MALT: Tell me about the role of grain in Fugitives whiskey?
Jim: I thought I’d be able to find farmers to grow specialty grain for me. I went around to the co-ops; that’s familiar territory for me. I got one or two calls. I found someone that was growing one of the varieties I wanted.
Hickory Cane, it’s also called Hickory King. It’s one of the oldest varieties of corn in North America. It was really prized by the settlers and the Indians because it survives drought and heat. It doesn’t have to have really rich soil. The ears come off higher, so the deer don’t really get to all the corn.
This is how it’s totally switched: before, I couldn’t find a farmer to grow for me. Now, I’ve got farmers calling me because the Tennessee Department of Agriculture knows that I’m trying to use local heirloom varieties of corn and paying a lot more.
I make no secret: I pay a lot more for my corn, because it’s needs to be a win-win for everybody. The price I’m paying per pound is way, way higher than the market for commodity corn. I’ve got a lot more cost in that bottle. You look at what the price is of the grain the bottle for me; I’ve got astronomically more money in my grain in the bottle than some of the top American whiskies that come from the industrial guys.
Some of our fields have a five-year rotation. We’re doing it the hard way, but the reason that we’re doing it the hard way is because I feel like that’s the way to get the most flavor, the best flavor, out of the grain that we have.
MALT: Is there a unique flavor profile associated with Hickory King?
Jim: Absolutely. Some biscuit comes through there. The older it gets, it gets more nuance to it. I call it persimmon; it’s not as sweet as a fig. There’s a persimmon note in the back. There’s a general identifiable flavor to the Hickory King. We also use another open-pollinated corn for our #1 mash, which is a different variety. Not as old as Hickory King. There’s definitely a pronounced difference in the flavor.
MALT: Do you have a distillery?
Jim: I invested in my product, not into a facility. My investment is in the quality of the ingredients.
I helped a number of guys get started on their path to distilling. One of the folks came to me and said “Hey, if I’m opening a distillery, do you want to make your whiskey here?” I said “I’d love to make my whiskey there, but only if I make it. I’m not interested in you making it for me.” What you’re drinking now is what I first distilled from Nashville Craft Distillery.
We outgrew them and needed to be in a bigger space. [note: Jim asked that we not disclose the name of the distillery]. They’ve got a big 850-gallon pot still that I get to use. It’s a dedicated whiskey still. I am working on a deal now to get some more production capacity. Hopefully, the relationship we have now will work. It lets me focus on paying for the ingredients.
MALT: Is your intention to have your own distillery?
Jim: Absolutely! My dream is a to build a large pot still distillery. It takes a ton of capital. I don’t think people recognize what the cost would be. To build out the distillery, marketing, you have to be four years ahead of production. It’s in the range of 15 million bucks. Putting that together and building that inventory up; I’ve worked the numbers numerous times and there’s really no way around it. When we’re doing pot still, there’s only so much that we can do, because of the method. There’s money to be made, but it’s not like you’re going to go buy a jet plane with it.
What I’m really excited about now is now I can get more heirloom grain. If you asked me two years ago, should you spend the money on a facility like that to try to really up production? Well, from a philosophical standpoint: absolutely yes. If I put my business hat on: can I look somebody in the eye and say “I’m going to take money out of your kid’s mouth because we’re going to build this facility, and we’re going to hope we can convince farmers to grow this grain, the way we need it grown?” I don’t know that we could do that. Now I know that we can.
MALT: How about maturation?
Jim: I use Kelvin Cooperage for my barrels. I have them toasted and then charred, to my specifications. We have, right now, probably 65 barrels of that Grandgousier put up. For my initial experiments I used some 25 gallon barrels, then I used the traditional 53 [gallon barrels]. I found that I really liked how the 53s were aging my whiskey; I felt there was too much wood approach in the smaller barrels. It still made good whiskey, just not as good as I wanted it. So, I switched to the 53s.
What’s really exciting is I have a few of them put up in [72 gallon] hogshead barrels. I’ve got about 8 hogsheads that I’ll be releasing at some point. Now, they’re aging very differently; not nearly as aggressively as the 53 gallons. The jury is still out. It’s probably going to be three years from now before I can tell you, “You know what? This was really a win-win-win.” Once I know that answer, I can see us actually shifting our focus. It’s a question of economics. If I had the capital, I’d be putting up a large number of those barrels. It’s extraordinary and it’s extraordinarily different than anything that’s on the market, because it is so grain forward.
Hearing all of this, I’m eager to have a sip of the finished product. This is a single barrel (#1) of Tennessee Whiskey, from a mash bill of corn and malted barley, aged 4 years. It is bottled at 94 proof (47% ABV). I paid $80, before tax, for this 750 ml bottle at the Nashville airport gift shop. Jim indicates that retail price is likely in the $70-80 range, depending on the location.
Fugitives Grandgousier Single Barrel Tennessee Whiskey – Review
Color: Glistening, luminescent orange.
On the nose: Sweet and layered. Agave syrup, apricot marmalade, mint sprigs, corn tortillas, pine needles and Christmas spice, all with a strong stony underpinning.
In the mouth: Starts with a mellow corniness. This builds to a pertly stony note at midpalate, with an accent of spearmint. This finishes sedately, with a smoothly sticky texture of honey that lingers, along with a subtly tannic greenness and a faintly meaty aftertaste.
Solid craft whiskey. The nose intrigues, while the palate has a softness throughout. I could have used a higher bottling strength and perhaps a longer maturation. Generally, though, this tastes like whiskey made by someone who knows what he’s doing and has taken his time, without cutting corners.
Is $80 too much to pay for a four-year-old single-barrel craft whiskey? It’s up there, for sure, especially considering that this is not bottled at barrel strength. However, it’s worth considering what Fugitives is doing differently from others. This isn’t sourced whiskey. It’s made from heirloom corn grown by local farmers, imparting a unique flavor profile. It has undergone a proper maturation in full-sized barrels. Considered in the context of supporting someone doing something better than the industrial-scale corporate distilleries, I’m happy to pay a premium.
Overall, I’d be a repeat customer of Fugitives, based on this high-quality example. If you find yourself flying through Nashville, you could do a lot worse than picking up a bottle of Grandgousier.