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Wandering and Tasting on (Middle) Tennessee Time

Updated: Jun 20, 2022

I’ve always turned to wandering driving trips in times of slumping stress. Few things clear my head better than a winding country road toward someplace I’ve never been – in this case the gentle beauty of Middle Tennessee.


My wife and I will be living in Nashville once this virus is wrestled to the ground. And we’ve quietly scouted it on a couple of careful, socially distanced trips. But as a native New Englander who’s never lived below the Mason Dixon line, I wanted to get to know the land around it.


What I found, in a meandering drive from Murfreesboro to Lynchburg to Columbia, is an inviting place of living history, tasty food, thoroughly drinkable whiskey, and friendly people happy to share a story.


Murfreesboro seemed like a good place to start, and I rolled in just around dinner time. Advice from a local sent me to the The Alley on Main, which did not disappoint. It’s located just off the courthouse square, and do yourself a favor and wander around the heart of downtown. The Rutherford County Courthouse, built in 1859 after the original – which once served as the Tennessee state capital – burned down, is one of only six antebellum courthouses still standing in Tennessee. Beautifully lit for the holidays, it was an antidote to a day of windshield time.


The Alley is a family owned place and proud of it, and especially of the seafood they fly in fresh. I opted instead for a bone-in ribeye and a sturdy cabernet, and appreciated that my server asked me to make sure it was done to my liking before he left. It was. The first bite was a perfect reward after a day in the car. What really stole the show was a side of crispy Brussels sprouts, cooked to perfection with a little Dijon mustard. Delicious.

Under normal circumstances I would have been happy to settle into the friendly bar for a drink and a chat with some of the locals. This being 2020, however, I retreated, well-fed, to my hotel.


The next day it was a short drive from my clean and comfortable Holiday Inn Express to the Stones River Battlefield. I inherited my love of history from my father, who we lost in March of this year. So it was with a twinge of missing him that I set out in a gentle rain.


The 650-acre site, run by the National Parks Service, is far more than a few statues and plaques. Large swaths of the original field of battle are preserved. I easily downloaded a National Parks app, and was quickly driving from stop to stop, listening to the excellent narration as I looked out on the land it was describing.


“On the field before you stood 30,000 union soldiers,” the voice told me as I looked out on an empty field. It was easy, and very powerful, to imagine the young men standing ready to fight, and to think of the carnage when they did.


Fought from Dec. 31, 1962 to Jan. 2, 1863, it was one of the bloodiest confrontations of the Civil War, with more than 80,000 troops fighting to either capture or defend the vital Nashville road and the railroad line that runs beside it. When three days of fighting was over, more than 23,000 men were dead, wounded or captured. The union army secured a key foothold that helped launch attacks further to the south. Especially moving is the Stones River National Cemetery, where about 6,000 soldiers are buried.


Next it was a drive of about an hour down US 231 to Lynchburg, home of the oldest registered distillery in the United States. Jasper Newton Daniel – aka Jack – set up his still here at the mouth of Cave Spring in 1866, starting a steady flow of Tennessee whiskey that would one day wind up in the hands of Frank Sinatra himself.


I’ll be honest. While I expected there to be Jack Daniels distilled in Lynchburg, I assumed it would be some token operation set up to honor the legacy. The vast majority of the wildly popular beverage was no doubt churned out in some massive industrial complex that was part of a corporate conglomerate churning out all manner of name-brand beverages. Not true. Every drop of Jack Daniels – upwards of 20 million cases of whiskey a year – is distilled, barreled and aged in Lynchburg.


As a relatively new appreciator of whiskey, the tour was an engaging class in the art of distilling. We stood directly under the chimney of where massive piles of sugar maple are burned every day to create the charcoal that makes Jack Daniels Tennessee whiskey. Not merely distilled and barreled, the whiskey here is slowly drip-drip-dripped through massive cauldrons of small maple charcoal pieces. It takes days for each drop to work its way to the bottom of the 14-foot high containers. Only then is it ready to be poured into the hand-made, charred-oak barrels where it will sit for several years, until the master distiller determines it is ready.


Especially powerful is a small grotto at the mouth of the Cave Spring. It is here that Daniel set up his first still more than 150 years ago. You can still see the stains from charred smoke on the rocks above the entrance. And you can see this same water running in a small stream into the distillery.


The tour includes the entire process, and can also include a tasting at the end, which mine did. I sampled the top shelf offerings, including Jack Daniel’s No. 27 Gold; a Single Barrel Select as well as a high-octane Barrel Proof Select; and a Single Barrel Rye. The highlight, though, was a sip of the Sinatra Select, created in honor of the man himself, who used to take a sip on stage and declare Jack Daniel’s “the nectar of the Gods.” He is credited with popularizing the brand.


Speaking of tasting, I was thankful it involved a pleasant walk through the grounds – the better to walk off an extravagantly portioned and delicious lunch at the famous Mary Bobo’s Restaurant in Lynchburg. In operation since 1908, when it was a boarding house, it features classic southern fare. My plate was loaded with ham, chicken and dressing with giblet gravy, sweet potato casserole, mac and cheese, fried okra, creole green beans, cranberry relish, Lynchburg candied apples and a biscuit. (I think I just regained a few pounds just thinking about!)

Food at Mary Bobos is normally served family style, at large tables with mixed groups. While I enjoy the friendly conversation with strangers that such a tradition encourages, I was grateful that the practice is temporarily on hold because of the pandemic. I ate at my own table, with only one other family seated at the far end of the room, safely distanced.


Service is provided by co-op students from nearby Motlow State Community College, part of a longstanding program run by Jack Daniel’s, which has owned the restaurant since the early 1980s. Students work at every job in the restaurant. And the ones who took care of me were polite and attentive, a pleasant complement to the delicious food.


I had planned on dinner in downtown Lynchburg, in particular at Barrel House Barbecue, which I’d been told serves a decadent “Grilled Cheese on Crack” – the traditional sandwich infused with pulled pork. I was too full from Mary Bobo’s, however, and decided to push on to Columbia. As the father of two children who has, I believe, perfected the art of the grilled cheese sandwich, I shall return.


Columbia

This resurgent little county seat about 45 minutes south of Nashville is a gem. The courthouse square is sprinkled with restaurants, taverns, coffee shops, art galleries, and even a record shop and a book store. (Be still my beating heart.)


 It’s gotten attention lately as American Pickers host Mike Wolfe is renovating and old car dealership, along with auto restorer Mike Mefford. I’m told Wolfe is a regular around town, and has bought other buildings, part of a surge in investment likely to intensify as folks spread out from the city in search of more space.


I got a custom tour of the downtown from Chris Coyne, owner of Muletown Coffee. After retiring from the U.S. Air Force, Coyne built a second career as a leadership consultant. He landed in Columbia and is now owner of his own coffee roaster. He has a shop in the square, but also does a brisk wholesale business, as well as online retail, both of which helped him ride out the loss of business from the pandemic.


My day started with a two-mile hike on the Cheeks Bend Bluff View Trail. Although I was a little nervous – it was hunting season and I was not wearing the recommended blaze-orange – the fresh air and solitude was great.


Then it was a fiery lunch at of brisket, sweet potato fries, baked beans and cole slaw at Puckett’s. I’ll definitely be back when they are able to host live music again.


The brief tour at the President James K. Polk Home and Museum was about the right length. I’m a fan of presidential history, and the house is beautifully preserved. And our tour guide was helpful and interesting. But there’s only so much I need to know about the slave-owning protégé of slave-owning Andrew Jackson.

I also visited BriarWorks USA, a boutique pipe-making factory for a tour. If, like me, you grew up in a house where there was pipe smoke, it will bring back good memories.

Dinner started with a beer tasting at Taps Off Main, which offers 26 continuously rotating taps of craft beer, along with a large selection of cans to go. There’s also a friendly bar atmosphere, and host Will Hoelscher is there to help curate some new favorites.


Dinner was at Vanh Dys, which celebrates the food and culture of Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam. I’ve learned that places like this – Asian restaurants in towns not necessarily know for their Asian populations – are hit or miss. Vanh Dys is definitely a hit. The food is fresh and spicy. The cocktails are well-crafted. And the vibe was relaxed and friendly. They normally present live music on the weekends, and I’ll be back for that. But I was relieved the entertainment had called in sick. The four people at the bar, including me, were comfortably spaced. But it was easy to imagine a lively weekend crowd populating the well-designed lounge area. It’s a space that wants you to relax and have a drink.

My lodging for two nights was the Blythewood Inn B&B, and it couldn’t have been better, given the circumstances. While I normally might have spent very little time in my hotel room, the pandemic did not lend itself to lingering out late in the evening. This beautiful old mansion gave me the most comfortable hotel bed I’ve had in years, along with a warm fireplace and antique furniture that was as comfortable as it was beautiful.


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