Drink Magazine

The Mystery of S.E. Callahan’s Bourbon and Rye

By Josh Peters @TheWhiskeyJug

Some friends and I were chatting about craft whiskey recently, during that conversation the S.E. Callahan’s Bourbon and Rye came up. I hadn’t hear of either of them so I pulled up their website, navigated to their Bourbon and was greeted by the two biggest red-flag words in all of whiskeydom: “Produced” and “Bottled”; no mention of distilling. But the careful wording of the site seems to suggest it, leaving the customer to make that leap themselves.

S.E. Callahan's Bourbon Label

“Experience Washington County, Tennessee’s first bourbon. This whiskey is produced and hand bottled by THD in Tennessee’s oldest town, Jonesborough. Our straight bourbon offers hints and aromas of smoky oak, bountiful vanilla, honey and spice. Aged for over 2 years, SE Callahan’s Bourbon leaves you with a slight hint of cherry, leather and tobacco leaf for a long, dry, smooth, rich finish.” – TN Hills Site

Seriously, red flags everywhere. “Produced” and “Bottled” right after saying “Experience Washington County, Tennessee’s first bourbon”. They seem proud of being from TN, yet the bourbon and rye are not labeled as Tennessee Straight Bourbon or Tennessee Straight Rye.

Right away I was pretty sure I knew what was happening (or not happening). On the off chance it was simply a case of a bad label with bad copywriting I wanted to dig deeper. I was hoping this wasn’t another case of a distiller trying to pull the wool over the eyes of their customers.

I thought the cautionary tale of Templeton would have made most people more cautious and transparent. Over $3,000,000 in class-action lawsuits and being drug through the US media is a hell of a lesson in why honesty and transparency is always the best policy.

S.E. Callahan's Rye Label

Digging around online I found several articles about the S.E. Callahan’s Bourbon and Rye launches, but not once in these articles do the words “distilled” come up in relation to these products. I also found a series of videos on WJHL News Channel 11’s YouTube channel that featured Stephen. Hoping he’d explain it all I watched them. Unfortunately they just increase my suspicions.

Stephen seems like a nice guy. He seemed very personable in the videos but his expert dodging of questions and the way he changed how he talked about the different products raised even more red-flags. He does an excellent job of painting a picture without actually saying anything concrete or directly incriminating.

S.E. Callahan's Bourbon Label - Back

Towards the end of video 1 the host asks about the process of making the bourbon and instead of talking about the distilling process, Stephen quickly sidesteps the question. Instead he talks about how he’s always wanted his name on a product and that he “settled on a profile that was fitting for me and then actually put it in a barrel and then wait for the magic to happen…” not a word about the distilling process.

Other moments like that were speckled through the other videos and after watching all of them I was left with more questions than answers, and not just about the bourbon and rye. Other products left me wondering. Next stop, the TTB.

I love the TTB’s public COLA search. In a matter of minutes, you can have high-resolution copies of the front, back, side and neck labels of any alcohol product in the USA. You can pull up everything a distillery or “producer” has put out by searching their permit number. In the case of a distillery, that number is their DSP ID.

You can do it yourself. Just go to the TTB’s Cola Registry search (linked above) -> click on Advanced -> set your date range -> scroll to the bottom -> in the box labeled Plant Registry/Basic Permit/Brewer’s No. enter the DSP ID (DSP-TN-21025 for TN Hills) -> click search. Boom, instant labels.

S.E. Callahan's Rye Label - Back

Pulling up everything Tennessee Hills Distillery has put out some interesting patterns emerged that heightened my suspicions on more than just the S.E. Callahan’s Bourbon and Rye. Reading through all of the labels I uncovered three main buckets their labels fall into. They’re all linked below so you can see them yourself. If you’re having a hard time reading the labels right click and open them in a new tab/window and they’ll expand.

Label says “Produced” and “Bottled” but no “Distilled”
I have serious doubts about them distilling these products.

Label only says “Hand Bottled”

These all contain the words “we have a passion for distilling products that are unique and authentic to the Tennessee Hills” on the label, but the label doesn’t actually say they distilled these liquids. Only says they bottled them. Quite suspicious.

    • Lemon Drop Corn Whiskey With Lemon Flavor
    • Lavender Lemon Grain Neutral Spirits With Natural Flavoring
    • TN Hills Vodka
    • Hellcat Gin – Front says “distilled from grain, but the word “by” is omitted. However the word “by” does appear on their Spitfire Vodka which uses the same label layout. They both do say they’re “made” in Jonesbourogh, but that doesn’t mean they distilled it. You can say it was “made” there without actually distilling it; Templeton did…
Hellcat GinHellcat Gin missing the word “by” after “distilled from grain” Spitfire VodkaBut Spitfire Vodka contains the word “by” right after the “artfully pot-distilled from grain”. Hmm, wonder what the back labels say…

Label says “small batch distilled and hand bottled by”

Hey look, they do in fact put it on their label when they distill it. They also call out their corn whiskey as being “Authentic Tennessee Corn Whiskey”, so why wouldn’t they do that on their bourbon and rye?

Only reason I can think of is they can’t legally put it on the label. All of this tells me the missing “distilled by” in all of the above products isn’t a case of being ignorant of the laws and the labels. They’ve done it on 10 other products.

    • Corn Liquor – Authentic Tennessee Corn Whiskey
    • Smoke – Tennessee Hills Authentic Tennesse Corn Whiskey
    • Pineapple Upside-Down Cake Rum
    • Coconut Flavored Rum
    • Angry Pecker Rum
    • Red Hot Pecker
    • Dead Pecker Rum
    • Dark Roast Coffee Flavored Rum
    • Pecan Pie Flavored Rum
    • Spitfire Vodka
Hellcat Gin - BackThe back of the Hellcat Gin label. Notice it only says it was “hand bottled”. Spitfire Vodka - BackBack label of the Spitfire Vodka. Notice it says “small batch distilled” and “hand bottled”. Now why would they put that on one but not the other?

At this point I was 98% sure they didn’t distill the S.E. Callahan’s Bourbon and Rye along with some of their other products. But I wanted to see what they had to say about all of this so I reach out to the distillery to ask them directly.

I wanted the situation laid out in their own words so I sent them a note using their contact form that read “I have some questions about your bourbon. I’d love to get more info on it. Thanks!” A day later I got a response.

The email arrived with a friendly and helpful tone from someone named Laura. It read “What would you like to know? We currently offer two labels of our bourbon, both are a higher rye. Our green label is 90 proof and has been aged for at least 3 years and our blue label is 102 proof and has been aged for 4 years…”

This would be the end of our communication. After sending the below questions to them they stopped responding.

Hey Laura,

Thanks for getting back to me. I was looking at the label and I have a couple of questions I’m hoping you can help me with.

1. Looking at the front and back of the labels, the website and watching some videos with S.E. in them that the words “Produced” and “Bottled” are used, but never the word “Distilled”. Do you distill the bourbon and rye at the distillery or is it contract distilled or sourced from another location?

2. I also noticed that it doesn’t say Tennessee Straight Bourbon Whiskey. I’m curious why you wouldn’t label it with the state? If you’re not distilling it are you contract or sourcing from another state like KY or IN and so you can’t call it a TN Straight Bourbon?

It’s just some odd verbiage to use on the bottle, and in S.E.’s videos, if you are distilling it so I’m super curious about where the whiskey comes from and the verbiage usage on the bottles and site.


I followed up with them via email 3 more times, 4 total emails with no reply, and asked them the same question on Instagram with no reply. I even called the distillery and left a voicemail letting them know I was writing an article and would love to chat, but they never heard back. In situations like this silence speaks volumes.

Coupling all of the evidence above with the evasion of simple questions that should have simple answers I can only come to one conclusion.

I don’t think the S.E. Callahan’s Bourbon and Rye is distilled at the Tennessee Hills Distillery and very well might not have even been distilled in Tennessee. Yet they seem to be trying their hardest to lead their customers to the idea that it was without out actually saying it themselves. This is dishonest at best, defrauding their customers at worst and the real mystery is why would anyone even attempt this after all that’s happened?

It’s sad to see them run so hard from such simple questions. I hate to see a small distiller digging themselves into such a deep hole so unnecessarily. If Tennessee Hills Distillery actually does distill their S.E. Callahan’s Bourbon and Rye, and several other products, then they should easily be able to tell people this. If they don’t, then they should be upfront with their loyal customers and tell them. Once trust is broken it’s hard to get back.

Product desction from TN HIlls Site

Sticking this screenshot from their site right here just in case something changes with it. It wouldn’t be the first time someone who gets caught goes back and changes their text.

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