When you interview a guy you’ve known for years—a guy who has had dozens of articles and interviews published since the launch of his business—the thing you are probably the most aware of is the desire to be original in what you put on paper for the whole world to see.
If nothing else, don’t be cliché about it.
So that was my goal as I mentally prepared myself to interview Sam Bryant, owner of Samuel T. Bryant Distillery here in Jackson. As I drove down I-40 and turned onto Lower Brownsville Road, I thought to myself, “What the heck am I going to ask him?” After all, I have known Sam for going-on ten years now, and as his friend and a fan of his work, I had already read every article and watched every video published about him and his new business. I had also toured the distillery once before, so I was familiar with his products. I had met his parents (the only other employees, besides himself, at the distillery) on my previous visit, so I knew exactly what to expect when I got there.
So there it was again. That same burning question: “What am I going to ask him that he has not already been asked twenty different times in twenty different interviews?” And then it hit me:
“If you could serve a drink to anyone dead or alive, who would you pick and what would you serve them?”
And that is how I learned what the “T” in Samuel T. Bryant stands for.
“John A. Tinker,” Sam answered me. “He had one of the very first distillery permits issued by the English Government in 1660.”
I’m not exactly sure how many “greats” would go before “grandfather,” but we’ll just call it a lot for the sake of keeping it simple.
Distilleries have a very special and unique history, but then again so does Sam. I won’t spoil all his stories; I don’t want to ruin the tour for you—and I cannot stress enough how worth it it is to take a tour, regardless of whether or not you drink. The experience of meeting Sam, as well as his family, is well worth it. Within minutes of meeting his parents, you realize where he gets his personality and work ethic from. To coin one of the oldest phrases in the South, “They’re just good people.”
On top of that, it’s a beautiful handmade building that stands alone as a work of art worth visiting.
“With the building, we made it all on-site, piece by piece—everything but the doors and a couple of the covers over the light switches,” Sam told me. “We milled it here, planned it here, dried it here. These are all trees that I took down when I was in the tree business. I’ve known my counter top since it was a little, bitty tree over on Windy City Road.”
Sam was an arborist until 2011 when he decided to go into financial planning, a job that didn’t last long.
“I was used to being outside and more hands-on. So I decided to go into this after my neighbor down the road taught me how to make wine.”
He took two years to plan the business and began building in January of 2015, opening just a year-and-a-half later in July of 2016. And if you thought his history as an arborist was odd, you’ll be even more shocked to know that Sam went to school to become a chemical engineer before changing his major during his senior year.
Basically, making alcohol is all just science, so a lot of what he learned then has come into play with his newfound profession. Sam likes to watch what other people are doing and see if he can figure out how he can do it just a bit better. He likes to make a more authentic tequila like the “good stuff” that the locals of Mexico tend to keep to themselves, so his has more of an edge to it than what you find at most local liquor stores.
Another classic Sam has tweaked is whiskey. You see, true “Tennessee whiskey” is aged in oak barrels or filtered through charcoal.
“The supply of oak barrels is fairly tight, and it’s hard for us little guys to get them because the barrels come at such a premium price,” Sam explained.
To address this dilemma, Sam uses small column stills and has a very exact process for making all of his products; but he enjoys it, and that means a lot when you are a small business owner.
“I tell everyone, ‘If you really like something, buy a lot of it because it might not be the same next time!’”
As we walked through the back building where he and his dad make all the finished products, he explained to me just how many factors affect the final outcome—but it gives him what he likes to call “happy mistakes.”
“We want to keep things consistent, but we don't want to be perfect,” Sam admitted.
If the unfinished product gets too hot he can lose a batch, and if it gets too cold he has to warm it up and get the process going again to let it all ferment. It’s all a learning process, and the Bryants learn something new with every batch. So in his building out back where all the magic happens, surrounded by his grandfather and great-grandfather’s old tools, Sam and his dad make moonshine legally in a part of the world where illegal moonshine is what paid for many of the surrounding farms.
The whole experience is like stepping back in time, and the stories are plenty. That is the true magic of the Samuel T. Bryant Distillery: it’s a place where memories are made, whether it be through tasting new spirits and flavors or through the many events that are held there. So come for the whiskey and moonshine and stay for the atmosphere and good company. Moonshine has a way of bringing out stories from times long forgotten, and if you ask Sam, he may just tell you a few.
Austin Thompson is serial entrepreneur, baseball dad, founder of Thompson Industries and Random Pieces of Wood, unintentional Darius Rucker look-alike, and a lover of all things Batman. Although originally from California, he has proudly called Jackson home since 2001.
Photographer Cynthia Sipes is a native of Alabama who moved to Jackson in April of 2016. She works at Starbucks full-time while pursuing an MA in Art Therapy. She is happily married and enjoys photography along with other creative endeavors.