Gate 11 Distillery is TSBDC’s 2020 Rising Star


Each year, the Tennessee Small Business Development Center (TSBDC) recognizes one company as their Rising Star client. This is a small business that has had great success from using TSBDC resources. This year, Gate 11 Distillery received the Rising Star award.

Photo by Jessica Gann Photography

Gate 11 Distillery is a multi-product craft micro distillery focused on providing unique experiences that includes: tours (which we are hoping to get back to after COVID concerns lessen), tastings of delicious products that are distilled in-house, a cocktail bar experience, live music and a unique custom whiskey program.

Sequatchie Valley native Bill Lee, owner of Gate 11, spent his career mostly in the Midwest in food processing and in biofuels. This led him to distilling alcohol for beverage purposes, working in R&D organizations, large production plants and distilleries. After spending 15 cold tundra years in Minnesota, he and his wife, Wanda, decided to move back home to the south in 2009. They saw Chattanooga emerging as a major Southern city and wanted to be part of the action.

Photo courtesy of Chattanooga Times Free Press

Where did the name Gate 11 come from?

“Chattanooga Whiskey did a great job opening Chattanooga up to distilling and it seemed like this city could support another one,” Lee says. “The opportunity to come to the Choo Choo opened up because they wanted to reinvent the place as more of an entertainment area and they liked the idea of having a distillery; they thought it mixed well.

“As far as the name, we came up with lots of fancy names, but when we came to this location there were steel gates with the number 11 on them, right where the bar is located, so we thought ‘Why don’t we just call it where we are?’”

Science Meets Taste

From the start, Gate 11 wanted to do things differently by not solely focusing on whiskey, but on a wide range of products. They call it “science meets taste.” Gate 11 takes craft and artisan spirits seriously, so much that they design and build their systems from scratch.

“It’s definitely a small batch orientation here, but we say small batch equals big flavor,” Lee says. “We focus on creating a lot of new, interesting and high-quality flavor experiences for our customers.”

Product Offerings

In addition to their full-service cocktail bar, Gate 11 makes their own vodka, gin, bourbon, rum, absinthe and whiskey in-house.

“All of our products are available in the 750 mL bottles except for our absinthe blanche, which is in a smaller bottle,” Lee says. “Its name is Infame and it's a nod to its notorious heritage. Absinthe was thought to be dangerous, but it was essentially a smear job by the French wine industry who didn’t want the competition. Only in 2007 was it legalized again in the U.S. We’re now working on the green version, absinthe verte, as well as an aquavit which is another botanical spirit with a Scandanavian background. And, tequila is coming!”

Photo by Jessica Gann Photography

The Boxcar Whiskey Program

Gate 11 recently began offering a customized whiskey program which they call Boxcar Whiskey.

“I think spirits production is shrouded in mystery and a lot of romance but in actuality, there’s a bunch of science behind it. We hope to show people that it’s not magic, so if you want to do a deep dive into what's in that glass that you love, then come to Gate 11 and be a part of our unique program.”

Customers can book a time to go behind the scenes at Gate 11 and create their own whiskey. The name ‘boxcar’ came from where they are storing the aging whiskey.

“We are small so we don’t have a lot of room for aging barrels. We looked at renting out a warehouse and even asked the Choo Choo if they had any available rail cars to rent us. Unfortunately they didn’t, but the Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum did, and they donated a boxcar to the effort in exchange for cross-promotion. We’re calling it the Boxcar Whiskey Program because the whiskey is aging inside a decommissioned boxcar.”

Each person that has participated in the Boxcar program has asked the same question: “How long is the whiskey going to be aged?” Lee says it may need to age for two years, but in one year there will be a tasting party for everyone who has participated in the program.

Your Biggest Success

“Every Saturday night when we see people come here to enjoy our craft cocktails and listen to live music, that tells me we’re doing something right,” Lee says. “People appreciate being in a social but safe setting and the Choo Choo has been a great setting for that. We have live music every Thursday, Friday and Saturday night.

Being nominated for Best New Craft Distillery by 10Best was a nice surprise too. Even though we didn’t win, it was still nice external validation by a panel of industry experts.”

How did the TSBDC help you?

“I had a lot of business experience, but I had not created a small business like this from scratch myself,” Lee says. “Even though I grew up here in this community, I hadn’t lived here in 30 years so I didn’t have much of a network, but luckily, Josh (with TSBDC) helped me get connected in the community with resources that were vital to getting Gate 11 going.”

What is the TSBDC?

The Small Business Development Center is part of a network of 15 offices in Tennessee, and nearly 1,000 locations across the United States. The TSBDC provides services to help for-profit businesses succeed by offering one-on-one counseling, seminars on a variety of business topics, market research tools, loan packaging assistance and more. The local SBDC is located inside the Hamilton County Business Development Center at 100 Cherokee Blvd., Suite 202. Find more information on the local TSBDC office here.

For more information on Gate 11 Distillery, visit their website or Facebook page.

Cover photo by Jessica Gann Photography. 

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