5 Things about Chattanooga’s Original Whiskey Maker

J.W. Kelly, the man behind Chattanooga's first distillery | Photo submitted by Leslie Sampson via Keeper's Quest

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Leslie Sampson is an author and Chattanooga history buff.

James Watt (J.W.) Kelly was born in Waterford, Ireland in 1844. When he was 19, he immigrated to the United States and spent a year in New York City. In 1864, he moved to Nashville, TN, where he worked both in the stationery business and the liquor business. 

Two years later, he decided to head back to New York by way of Chattanooga in order to collect money that was owed to him; which he had to wait to collect.  In the meantime, he set up shop and founded J.W. Kelly & Co as well as Chattanooga’s first distillery, Deep Spring.

The history of both the man and the company is fascinating. Here are five things you didn’t know about Chattanooga’s original distillery.

The first pot-still distillery in Chattanooga was called Deep Spring.

It created about 12 labels, including “Old Milford,” “Golden Age,” and “Deep Spring Whiskey.”  The original location of the distillery was at the intersection of what is now Martin Luther King, Jr Blvd. and Broad Street.

J.W. Kelly was a very popular businessman, and was very active in several societies in Chattanooga. Mrs. Elizabeth Kelly was very involved socially with many different charities.

These societies and charities included supporting the Irish Relief Fund for the famine in Ireland; raising money for the orphaned children in Chattanooga; fundraising for several churches; and either hosting or serving on the board of many fundraisers for war veterans.

J.W. Kelly once owned the bar inside the Historic Read House.

He purchased the lease in May 1889.  He allowed others to run the bar in his stead, as well, often “reselling” the lease to ensure exclusivity.  For example, he sold the lease (or the rights to run the bar, not ownership) in September 1890, with the caveat that only his bourbon could be sold in the bar.

J.W. Kelly was also the exclusive wholesaler for many brands.

He not only made 12 labels of his own, but also imported cigars, fruits, nuts, spices, jellies, and other liquor.  He was the exclusive wholesaler for such well known brands as Budweiser and Schlitz.

He was one of 100 men selected for their contribution to Chattanooga.

In December 1892, the Chattanooga Times selected Kelly as one of 100 men who have done much for Chattanooga.  “ …he has built up one of the most extensive wholesale liquor and cigar businesses in the entire South.”

Mr. and Mrs. Kelly both passed in 1907 and are interred at Forest Hills Cemetery in St. Elmo.  Here in the South, especially in Chattanooga, we remember well the history that came before us. Let us remember the contribution of this enterprising Irishman, J.W. Kelly.