If you’ve been reading Thirsty South lately, you may have noticed that I recently hit the Tennessee whiskey trail and reminisced about how my Grandpa was a Jack Daniel’s man. Now we’re going to provide a stronger taste of each of the five Tennessee distilleries we visited on this trip, starting off with none other than Jack Daniel’s.
For better or worse, to most of the world, Jack Daniel’s IS Tennessee Whiskey. I don’t mean to disparage them. They are the oldest. The biggest. The mother-blastin-money-makin-est. They pay about $16 million in taxes every single WEEK, so our government is mighty thankful for their success. They are the most secretive (no photos allowed in the production facilities!). They are the closest thing to Disney World that Tennessee has (outside Dollywood, of course, and Graceland). And visitors do pour in from around the world to get a glimpse of the making of Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Whiskey – though not a taste, since the county in which Jack Daniel’s is made is famously a dry county (unless, that is, you are buying a whole single barrel, approximately $10,000, in which case they will offer you samples from the barrel to help you choose).
Jack Daniel’s Distillery is set in the little town of Lynchburg, Tennessee, a town that looks like a set out of a movie being made about Jack Daniel’s. There’s a cute little town square dominated by Jack Daniel’s memorabilia, and a fabulous Southern experience of a restaurant that goes by the name of Miss Mary Bobo’s Boarding House, which first opened its doors in 1908 (and is now owned by none other than the Jack Daniel’s Distillery).
The distillery itself is a mess of old buildings and a nice new visitor center plopped down in a bucolic setting of streams and trees and hills. After all, the distillery made its way to Lynchburg for the “cave spring water” that still flows by today. The visitor center is an informative little museum of Jack Daniel’s history, and the starting point for frequent free tours of the property. The tour guides are real deal local Jack Daniel’s-bleedin’ Tennesseans schooled in storytelling and are likely to be wearing overalls and a cap and go by a name like “Goose” (who can take you through a virtual tour online, seriously, check it out after you read this), and they know their lines by heart.
The tour begins with a quick bus ride to the “rickyard” and what is probably the most impressive fireplace you will ever see – the place where sugar maple wood is turned into the charcoal that is used to mellow the whiskey (the famous “Lincoln County Process” that most Tennessee whiskey is known for). The neat stacks of wood, built up like a mighty massive game of Jinga, are doused with 140 proof unaged whiskey to help the fire get going, and it burns HOT until nice piles of charcoal are all that remain. Even standing 50 yards away, you get a blast of heat from that fire. (Note: the fires are not always burning, our tour happened to get lucky and come at the right time.)
The tour continues on foot, by the cave spring and the statue of Jack Daniel himself perched on a rocky stand, which is the only place in the county where you can get a shot of Jack on the rocks. (Get it? A SHOT of Jack, on the rocks! As in a “photo” of Jack, standing on some rocks!? Not my joke, that’s written on the base of the statue, actually.)
Before moving on to the production process, you get to see the little old office that Jack used to run the distillery, along with the safe that supposedly led to his death (one of many long stories on the tour). You then go by the grain mill where grain is held before going into the mash, into the still house where the grain mash is distilled into whiskey, up and into the mellowing building where the whiskey is dripped through charcoal, then into the barrel house where the whiskey is aged. By the way, our guide informed us that good old Jack Daniel’s No. 7 typically ages about 4 to 4.5 years, and the Single Barrel product ages about 6 years – these are not age labeled, and the distillery insists that every barrel makes its way into the bottle at the right time.
It’s actually a good and interesting tour that gives you the basics quite well, told with character and love for all things Jack. You also get a quick video on the barrel making process (they make their own), and a push to be one of the lucky few who get to select a whole single barrel for purchase. Which leads us to…. the fact that I was fortunate enough to be with a group of friends who were buying one of those said barrels. More on that in a second. First, some food.
After our tour ended with a sip of lemonade at the (dry) bar, we took a stroll into town for “dinner” (that’s what they call “lunch”) at Miss Mary Bobo’s. The food was great, and so was the experience. Dinner is served only at appointed times, and you need a reservation. Crowds of tourists and locals alike congregate in the halls and rooms of the old house as Lynne Tolley, current proprietress and great-grandniece of Jack Daniel, begins to call out names. You are introduced to your hostess, who will join you at your family-style table for the meal and will make you feel quite at home. Sweet tea is obligatory, and the food is brought out and put on a “lazy Susan” which is carefully spun around to make sure everyone can serve themselves a portion of whatever they like. And the food is good. At our table, we had good Southern fried chicken, succulent pork loin with a peppery gravy, crisp fried okra, a rich squash casserole (do I detect Cream of Chicken soup?), green beans with smokey ham, a sweet and spicy tomato salsa-like salad, and sweet cinnamon apples (a house specialty which includes a touch of Jack Daniel’s whiskey). Dessert was a stunningly decadent slice of “Tennessee chess pie” made with coconut and a bit of orange juice for a tangy sweetness. Stories were told around the table, of drunken nights, and wildfires, and bootlegging beer in a big rig up a steep country road with a police car passing by. I’m not naming any names, but the stories were as good as the food.
So, sated with Southern supper, we headed back across the little bridge to Jack Daniel’s for a private tasting of three barrel samples – one of which would be my group’s Single Barrel purchase. As noted earlier, a single barrel will run you somewhere between $9 and $12 thousand, actually based on where you’re having the bottled whiskey shipped to from the distillery (taxes, y’all). A single barrel will produce approximately 240 bottles, sometimes a bit more depending on the individual rate of evaporation for that barrel – AKA “The Angel’s Share,” so the price is not the draw (it’s about equal to buying it at retail). The draw is the ability to pick your own barrel, to have it specially marked, and then to have it to share with friends and family. And it’s amazing how different the nuances of single barrels of Jack Daniel’s can be. Jeff Norman, one of Jack Daniel’s “Master Tasters,” helped choose three barrel samples for us, all from the same batch of whiskey that was originally put in the barrel on July 6, 2005, just over six years ago. All of these samples were deemed good enough for consideration (and worthy of the “Single Barrel” designation), and six years in a barrel is plenty of time for the mingling of this whiskey and charred American white oak that determines so much of the character of the finished product.
I’m not a huge fan of old No. 7, but Jack can make a fine single barrel whiskey once it’s aged a bit more. Our three different barrel samples were all quite good, but after smelling and tasting, the individuals in our group almost all came to the same conclusion that two of them were significantly better than the third. So we narrowed our contenders to two. The losing sample came across a bit more harsh than the others, a bit smokier, simply less compelling for mysterious reasons. The other two were not far apart from each other, but, again, there was near unanimous agreement on which was “best” after spending some time with each of them. One was a bit more round, robust, with soft caramel on the nose and an almost buttery texture leading into a pleasant lingering burn (clocking in around 94 proof). The other had a more subdued nose, flatter, and a spicier kick in the mouth that felt slightly out of balance, at least relative to its sibling. After time, it was an easy call and a happy decision. We had our barrel, and I my minor 5% share of that barrel, about a dozen bottles that I look forward to sharing.
I know most folks won’t be buying their own barrel, but that last hour and a half we spent tasting and talking with Jeff (the Master Taster!) was the best part of our visit to Jack Daniel’s, and an illuminating look into how aged Tennessee whiskey develops character and distinctions, from barrel to barrel. I’m happy to have those bottles on their way to my home bar. And I’m proud to share a home state with (my Grandpa) and Jack Daniel’s.
While you’re here, also check out all the stops on our Tennessee whiskey tour.