Straight Up: Tennessee Whiskey

We sat down with filmmaker Eric Byford to discuss his debut documentary, Straight Up: Tennessee Whiskey, which premieres Saturday, September 14 at the Nashville Whiskey Festival. Watch the trailer above.

What inspired you to pursue film?

I was a broadcast major in college and quickly fell in love with the camera. When I graduated, I said, “I should go to film school,” but never did until last fall. I asked myself, “If I could choose a job, what would it be?” After a lot of thought, I decided that I would go back and scratch that film school itch. I realized I wasn’t getting any younger, and if I ever wanted to teach my sons to pursue their dreams, this was the time to do it.

This started out as a class project. How did it make its way into a documentary? Why a documentary about whiskey?

As part of our class requirements, we had to do five projects—one being a documentary. It had to be five to ten minutes long. I originally chose a documentary on moonshine, but I soon realized there was so much more to its story than I originally thought. Moonshine led to the beginnings of the state and what we know these days as “Tennessee Whiskey.” There was no way I could tell that whole story in five to ten minutes.

What has been your biggest challenge in this process?

As a film student juggling various other school projects for classmates, time was scarce. Getting my crew—Caleb Watson, Matthew Voss, Zach Montanari, and Thax Christianson—to visit all the distilleries and politicians was the hardest part. Famed whiskey writer, Chuck Cowdery,was the hardest to get to, since he lives in Chicago.

What did you find most surprising during your research?

The passion of the distillers we interviewed, first and foremost. Secondly, how much whiskey has played a role in Tennessee’s history. It takes a special person to take on the insane amount of time, money, and labor it takes to make good whiskey. Until I undertook this project, I didn’t realize how much whiskey was tied to the formation of this state and its economy. At one point, it was the biggest economic engine of Tennessee, but for theological reasons, it was destroyed overnight. I never knew how many distilleries there actually were here, either. Growing up, all you’d hear was Jack Daniel’s and George Dickel. Before Prohibition, there were over 170 registered distilleries and an unknown amount of unregistered.

The impact of whiskey on this state’s economy is beyond comprehension, and that’s the underlying message of my film. From moonshiners that supported the local economy by buying copper and local farmers’ crops, to Jack Daniel’s leading the world in whiskey sales, to the new craft distilleries opening up since the law change of 2009, whiskey has created more jobs than the Tennessee government initiative TNInvestco, according to Sen. Bill Ketron. People need to know that whether they drink or not, supporting local distilleries can give your neighbors jobs and create more tax revenue, which leads to better roads, better schools, better parks—better everything.

How did living in California and the importance of the wine industry inspire you to bring attention to whiskey making in Tennessee?

It’s a means of job creation and tax revenue, but more importantly, it gave me insight into how much pride Californians have in their wine industry. It was amazing to see the way Californians lend themselves to supporting local.

After watching Hillbilly: The Real Story, I did some research on Popcorn Sutton. He poured into his operation pride, time, and money, like the wine makers in Sonoma and Napa. I thought, Why doesn’t Tennessee take the same approach to whiskey making? If Tennesseans look back to their ancestors, there is probably someone in their family tied to whiskey making in one way or another. This lead me to believe that Tennesseans should know this story and take pride in getting back to their roots.

Do you have any other film projects in the works?

Oddly enough, I just got the green light to start another documentary in California. It’s based on—you guessed it—whiskey. This one tells the story from California, which is known for wine, not whiskey. It involves an American icon’s son trying to stand on his own two feet and get out of his famous dad’s shadow through his own film career and his unique approach to making whiskey.

Another project I’ve been working on is an action-filled biker movie I’ve named Dead Flowers—it’s being filmed here in Nashville. I started writing it as a school project short, but I decided to go ahead and write it as a full-length feature.

What is one documentary that you would recommend everyone to watch?

What a tough question. I really like Food Matters, Waiting for Superman, Religulous, and Popcorn Sutton’s documentary, The Last Dam Run of Likker I’ll Ever Make. But if I had to name one, it would be Gasland. I was truly moved by this movie and regardless of your stance on fracking, kudos to Josh Fox for telling this story in such a hands-on, profound way.