The email said to meet Jeff McCabe at the Welcome Center.
“Welcome center,” I thought, “at a distillery? OK.”
I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised. I’ve been to Maker’s Mark and Bulleit, and both of those places had welcome centers. Why not Hard Truth Hills?
We turned off of Old State Route 46 in Nashville, Indiana, and as soon as we entered the massive gates and followed the gently curved road to the top, I understood. This was no tiny operation.
Instead, it reminded me of Sierra Nevada in Asheville, North Carolina, an entertainment complex that’s so much more than just a brewery.
Inside the Welcome Center was a shop and a sales counter to the right, and to the left, a bar lined with people sipping on draft beers. Jeff greeted us, plied us with bacon bloody marys, and we began our tour.
Hannah was our guide, and although she was young, she knew her stuff. The tour started in a room lined with panels detailing the background of the three brands that make up Hard Truth Hills, the history of Brown County, and alcohol in general and beer, specifically.
Disclaimer: Hard Truth Hills hosted our tour, tasting, and lunch. All opinions are mine and have nothing to do with our initials on a barrel.
Hannah gave us a brief overview of Big Woods, Quaff ON, and Hard Truth and explained that these three brands are combined under one umbrella.
Hard Truth Hills is the culmination of a business that began in 2009. Three friends, Jeff, Tim O’Bryan (Jeff’s son-in-law), and Ed Ryan, started Big Woods, a small brewpub with just 24 seats, in a Nashville alley.
Opening a brewery might have been a risky proposition, especially when the beer of choice of one of the gents had been Bud Light until another introduced him to Bell’s Two Hearted Ale, but, they created a business they would want to patronize.
“If we can please ourselves,” goes the story, “we might please other people, too.”
They sold out of beer that first weekend and they’ve been pleasing people ever since.
In 2011, they opened Big Woods Pizza Company kitty-corner from the brewery. Locals quickly dubbed that part of Nashville “Big Woods Village.” The next year they needed even more beer, so they opened a production facility and named it Quaff ON! Brewing Company.
They kept pleasing people, and over the next few years, Big Woods Restaurants opened in Bloomington, Speedway, and Franklin.
During this growth, the trio added spirits to the mix and opened Hard Truth Distilling in 2015. Three years later, they unveiled the destination that combines them all, Hard Truth Hills.
It wasn’t always going to be the entertainment complex it is now. We sipped on our bacon bloody marys (ahhh, bacon) and I told Jeff that Hard Truth Hills reminded me of Sierra Nevada in Asheville, North Carolina.
“Funny you should say that,” he said. They had one plan for the site, but after a visit to the Asheville brewery, “everything changed.”
They returned from their North Carolina visit knowing the restaurant needed to be bigger, and they had to have a bar anywhere people could congregate, and they needed trails, and outdoor music.
They needed to be more than a distillery or a brewery. They needed to be a destination.
We continued our tour, learning tidbits like Frederick II, King of Prussia, imposed a high tax on coffee so more people would drink beer, “from which he derives a substantial revenue.” How Kentucky bourbon was a result of the elimination of the rum trade during the American Revolution.
I ogled a painting by Hoosier Salon artist Veraldo Giuseppe Cariani. The World War I vet had been a founding member of the Brown County Art Guild and a charter member of the Brown County Art Gallery Association, two institutions that are largely responsible for the county’s status as an arts mecca.
Related: read all about T.C. Steele State Historic Site, which preserves the legacy of one of Brown County’s most influential artists.
The tour continued to the next room, which contained barrels filled with the grains used in their beers and spirits and a pot still from the 1850s. Outside, we strolled past what would be their herb garden into the brewery and distillery itself. It’s a massive building that gives them the potential to be the largest distillery in Indiana.
Through it all, Jeff popped in and out, and it seemed like he was still in awe that they’d gone from that small brewpub to this destination on a hill, with multiple restaurants and more to come, in the span of ten years.
Our tour ended with a tasting of three beers and three spirits. Six Foot Blonde was an easy-drinking lawn-mowing beer. QTFO, a 6.5% ABV made with citra hops, reminded me of Founder’s All Day IPA. Their signature beer, Busted Knuckle, is a 7.2% ABV porter made with roasted barley and I wanted to take ALL of it home.
Next we tried the cinnamon vodka. I’d heard this was their best-seller, but I wasn’t convinced until I took a sip. Instead of tasting like a marketer’s idea of cinnamon, it tasted like the real deal.
That’s because it is.
The gin equally surprised us. London dry style, Hard Truth uses 12 botanicals in a method that goes back to the mid-19th century. It’s a smooth sipping gin, just like their bourbon, which is aged in rum barrels.
If you can’t tell, we were mightily impressed with Hard Truth Hills, and we hadn’t even had lunch yet.
We strolled to the restaurant and walked the giant wrap-around deck with Jeff. Scattered among the trees, picnic tables waited for warmer weather and for a band to take the stage down the slope.
Jeff and his partners would like to add lodging to Hard Truth Hills. In Jeff’s mind, that means tree houses that sway in the wind like a hammock, because sleeping in a hammock pleases him, and he hopes it would please others, too.
We sat down for a bite and my friend Chuck Wills joined us after we’d ordered. Chuck and I went to high school together; he’s lived in Brown County for more than a decade and is an involved member of the community.
Jeff’s also a friend of his, and Chuck knows the Big Woods menu well. When our pulled pork nachos arrived, he pointed to them and said, “That’s the best thing you’ll eat in Brown County.”
Chuck, that’s one of the best things I’ve eaten, anywhere.
I ordered the Brewer’s Wings with a chipotle-lime BBQ sauce and half a farmhouse salad (one of Jeff’s favorites), and we finished with the biggest warm apple bread pudding I’ve ever seen.
Two and half hours after we arrived, we said our goodbyes. We would have loved to stay and hike one of the trails, but we had another appointment.
Keep pleasing yourselves, Jeff, Tim, and Ed, because you sure are pleasing others.
Visiting Hard Truth Hills
Hard Truth Hills is located on 325 wooded acres at 418 Old State Road 46, Nashville, Indiana. Check their calendar for the summer concert series and festivals.
They offer three different tours:
- Delayed Gratification, a 60-minute tour that leaves hourly and includes history, tastings, and a walking tour of the distillery. (This is the tour we took.)
- Seek the Truth is a 30-minute tour, also departing hourly, that includes history and tastings.
- Get Lost is a 75-minute ATV tour of the grounds.
HARD TRUTH TOURS & TASTING HOURS:
Sunday – Wednesday 11a.m.-5p.m.
Friday – Saturday 11a.m. – 8p.m.
BIG WOODS AT HARD TRUTH HILLS RESTAURANT HOURS: