Billed as “The South’s first family-friendly distillery,” The Ice Cream Distillery has opened in a new downtown Tullahoma storefront, selling handcrafted ice cream on site three days a week.
Owners Luke Bitton and Greg Thatcher said the idea came to them after a night out.
“We’ve been friends for a while and we go on date nights with our wives,” Bitton said. “There was one night when we were out and we wanted to go get some ice cream.”
Though they do enjoy the area’s fast food options, he said, that night they were looking for something more.
“I’ve always been an ice cream fanatic,” Bitton said. “I love ice cream. I’ve loved it since I was small.”
And that’s where the two friends saw a need.
“We don’t have any really good, hand-scooped hard ice cream shops,” he said. “We started thinking, ‘Why don’t we start making it?’ and it kind of spiraled.”
Soon, Bitton and Thatcher were studying the science of ice cream – learning and testing recipes and methods to arrive at what Bitton called “the perfect balance of water, air, fat and sugar.”
“We made our own flavors at home and started having people try it,” Bitton said. “Our family and friends loved it, so we decided to try selling it online and it’s kind of grown into this.”
They started selling in July, offering a choice of six flavors. Each flavor was hand-crafted to order, using local ingredients in small batches of three quarts or less. Orders placed online before noon on Wednesday were made ready for pickup at Muse Montessori School on Saturday mornings – or delivered directly to the customer.
They chose the name The Ice Cream Distillery to reflect the history of local whiskey distilleries in Tullahoma and Lynchburg.
“Our ice cream making process involves separating and combining substances from a liquid and putting that mixture through a boiling process, so we thought it was a great way to describe it.”
It’s a testament to the ice cream’s popularity that the business has now outgrown their home kitchens.
“We started using top-end home-based ice cream makers, but those were pretty much dying with the use we were putting on them,” Bitton said. “They weren’t designed for that, so we had to get some commercial equipment to keep up.”
Buying commercial equipment meant needing a place to set it up, and if they were going to set up a production shop anyway, Bitton said, they figured the time was right to open a storefront as well, so that regular customers could pick up their orders on site.
“We have quite a few people who come weekly or every two weeks,” Thatcher said, “But we’re hoping to really grow the customer base.”
And that’s something having a storefront can help with.
“Getting out in a storefront was one of our big goals – it will help people start to see us and help us be more recognized,” Bitton said.
Though the store’s hours are limited, curious new customers don’t have to place an order to try the product.
“It used to be, before we were here, everything was made to order,” Bitton said. “We’d get orders online, we’d make it during the week and it would be ready on Saturday. When we opened this up, we wanted to start keeping things in stock.”
All of The Ice Cream Distillery’s flavors start with a simple “sweet cream” base of heavy cream, all-natural milk, and sugar – either pure cane or brown sugar.
“Everything in our ice cream is made from scratch,” Bitton said. “We use cream, milk and our own personal recipes. We don’t use an ice cream mix.”
Their top selling flavor is brown butter praline.
“It’s kind of our take on butter pecan,” he said. “Instead of a brown butter flavoring, we actually melt down butter to get the butter fats so it’s got more of a nutty flavor and we praline our pecans.”
With the exception of the “chocolate cookie” that’s found in the grasshopper and cookies and cream flavors, they also make all the mix-ins themselves – including cookie dough.
“Chocolate chip cookie dough would definitely be our next best seller,” Bitton said. “Greg makes a lot of that one. There’s nothing worse than cookie dough ice cream when you don’t have bits of cookie dough, so he puts huge bits of cookie dough in there.”
“Grape sized,” Thatcher added.
“A lot of shops use artificial flavors,” Bitton said. “We try to use all-natural ingredients for everything we do. To flavor the dark chocolate, we melt down our chocolate and use cocoa. For the buckeye, we use all natural peanut butter. For the coffee, we get beans from a local source. We’re hoping to use as much from local source as much as possible.”
All that handcrafted, artisan goodness comes at a premium price: $8 a pint.
“A lot of the ice cream you get at the grocery store is so cheap because they whip so much air into it to get a lot more volume out of it. A lot of what you’re buying is air,” Bitton said. “Ours is kind of slower-churn. It’s denser. It costs more to make ice cream this way.”
The result, he said, is “rich, creamy delicious ice cream that we are proud to serve our customers and enjoy ourselves.”
In addition to the flavors already listed, The Ice Cream Distillery offers vanilla, sweet cream, cinnamon brown sugar, maple and mocha. Their newest flavor, chocolate sprinkle donut, debuted this week.
“You can order all 12 at any given time,” Greg said, adding that additional flavors may rotate in or out seasonally.
And, he said, “We make custom flavors.” Just ask “if you’ve got a flavor that you’ve always wanted or you had a long time ago and you don’t see in the ice cream section of the store.”
Ice Cream with a Cause
A portion of each Ice Cream Distillery sale goes to support nonprofit organizations that help meet the needs of children in foster care or that help them find adoptive homes – among them, the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption, One Simple Wish and Tennessee Alliance for Kids.
“I’m also a foster parent,” Bitton said, “So one thing that I wanted to do – and Greg was nice enough to go along with it right from the get-go – was put 50 cents from every pint or quart that we sell into a fund to donate to those foundations.”
Order or Stop By
The 131 W. Lincoln St. ice cream shop is open the three days a week – when Bitton and Thatcher are on site making it.
Production days are limited – the guys don’t plan to quit their day jobs just yet. For now, they’re in the shop on Tuesday and Thursday evenings and Saturday mornings; but they said they do hope to see their brand keep growing.
“Another reason we wanted to be commercial is so that we could then start maybe selling to some of the local restaurants and the local grocers,” Bitton said. “That’s our next goal.”
And then, Thatcher said, “We’re hoping to blow out these walls and make it a kind of scoop shop.”
Until that happens, there are three sizes of pre-packaged ice cream in the freezer to choose from and spoons on the counter for on-the-spot enjoyment.
“If you walk in, we offer cups, pints and quarts,” Thatcher said. “We usually try to have all our flavors available.”
Nobody leaves empty-handed, Bitton said: walk-in customers are offered a free taste of their favorite flavors.
And, yes, The Ice Cream Distillery still delivers. The minimum order to qualify is two pints.
“If you order two or three pints,” Thatcher said, “we’ll deliver within 48 hours. We don’t have to be open that day.”
Visit The Ice Cream Distillery, next to the Tullahoma Area Chamber of Commerce, between 5 and 9 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays or between 10 a.m. and noon on Saturdays.
To place an order online, visit the website at www.theicecreamdistillery.com. All orders placed online are ready for pickup on the next production day.