Jack Daniel’s, 1968

Jack Daniels 1968 Whiskey

I never really considered that tasting a Jack Daniel’s whiskey that was bottled in 1968 might be a possibility in the year 2016. Where would I find such a thing? How could it have escaped thirsty lips for nearly 50 years? How much would it even cost if I did find it? And, of course, how would it taste?

Well, I was recently given such an opportunity: a bottle of 1968 Jack Daniel’s, right in front of me. Clearly worn by time on the outside, but surely – hopefully – in wonderful spirit on the inside.

I didn’t find this bottle of Jack – it found me. I don’t know how it lived this long without being devoured. I have no idea how much it cost, nor the nature of any transaction involved. But I was soon about to find out how it tasted, and I quickly recognized that a bottle of Tennessee whiskey from 1968 should not just be considered in the sense of taste, but in the sense of time.

If you look at the history books, 1968 was not a particularly good year for this world, nor for Tennessee. Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated in my hometown of Memphis, Tennessee. Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated in Los Angeles just two months later. On the other side of the globe, North Vietnam launched the infamous Tet Offensive against South Vietnam and the United States. That’s a lot of awful for one span of 366 days (1968 was a leap year).

But, also in 1968, Star Trek treated American viewers to TV’s first interracial kiss. A bold (and controversial) act by three men in support of human rights took place on one of the world’s greatest stages – the Olympics. And the year came to an exhilarating finish with Apollo 8 orbiting the moon and offering the world an incredible look back at itself. So maybe it wasn’t all bad, after all.

In 1968, Jack Daniel’s (the distillery, not the man) was 102 years old, past the heralded Lem Motlow era, and well into the Brown-Forman years. Jack Daniel’s was already much-loved in Tennessee and throughout the United States. Thirteen years prior – in 1955 – Frank Sinatra had famously uttered onstage: “Ladies and gentlemen, this is Jack Daniel’s, and it is the nectar of the gods.” But Jack was not yet a global brand experiencing massive growth, nothing like the behemoth that it is today. That would start in earnest in the 1970’s.

So what would you expect of a bottle of Jack sent forward from 1968 into the future? Would you sense the tumult of history? Would there be a glimmering sensation that man was about to step foot on the moon after just having zoomed by for a good look? I had never asked myself those questions, but that changed last week when this bottle of 1968 Jack Daniel’s was set before me.

The setting for this taste of history was Nelson’s Green Brier Distillery in Nashville, itself a tribute to Tennessee’s whiskey past. Sean Brock, the executive chef and partner at Husk restaurants in Nashville and Charleston, was holding forth on the topic of Tennessee whiskey to a crowd gathered at the Southern Foodways Alliance summer symposium. He was joined by Charlie Nelson of Nelson’s Green Brier Distillery and Nashville journalist Jim Myers. And then they starting passing around little plastic cups of brown water. The gathered crowd had no idea what we were in store for.

Brock has earned something of a reputation as one of the nation’s foremost hunters of rare bourbon. He has dished on the drink with Anthony Bourdain on TV, and all you have to do is look at his cabinet of collectibles in the bar at Husk to know that he is serious about tracking down – and sharing – rare and yearned for bourbons. So maybe it shouldn’t have been a surprise that he had an unexpected bottle for us.

Like I said, I have no idea where Brock found this bottle – this 1968 Jack Daniel’s that was now before us. I have no idea how much he paid for it, or what dark closet floor it must have been inhabiting for decades. I was just thrilled to be given a chance to taste this whiskey that was born roughly a decade before I was, when stalks of corn harvested from Tennessee fields (at least I imagine so) soon met up with the limestone-rich spring waters of Lynchburg and artificial anything was nowhere in sight. GMO? What’s that? Fireball? Never heard of it. 

We smelled. We sipped. We savored from our small plastic cups. The 1968 Jack tasted unmistakably… Jack. If you’ve ever had Jack Daniel’s, you know what I mean. If not, feel free to remedy the situation in the near future. But the 1968 Jack also tasted unmistakably… long-lived. It had a haze of elusive maturity to it, not deeper, or richer, or even necessarily better than typical Jack. But it was more full of character. Actually, yes, it was better than typical Jack. Much better. If I had to peg the age-added notes dancing on my tongue, I’d lean towards almond extract or even baked almond meringues. But this tasting wasn’t about the tasting notes.

We turned our thoughts from almond aromas, and notes of caramel, to timelines and Tennessee.  We thought about what 1968 took from us, and what it left behind. We pondered the extent to which the world has taken in the lessons of 1968, of Martin Luther King, Jr., of trips to the moon. If only a glass of whiskey contained enough wisdom to answer any of that.

Closer to home, my mind turned from the historical landscape of Tennessee to one particular geographic corner – Memphis – where my late grandfather had already reached 55 years of age in 1968. I remembered being told that he had long ago joined the Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Squires association, which bestowed upon him a small plot of land in “the Hollow, Lynchburg.” That may seem gimmicky today, but I have to think that Jack Daniel’s in 1968 was simply a source of Tennessee pride in the midst of sometimes shameful times. Maybe it still is.

Either way, there’s little doubt that my grandfather sipped some 1968 Jack Daniel’s back in his day. That very same year, my father turned 21 while studying at Memphis State University, and had his first opportunity to legally take a pour. So, as I sat in a Nashville distillery, three generations of my family shared a symbolic sip, looking at once back in time and towards the future, through the amber lens of Tennessee whiskey.

Nelson's Green Brier Distillery Nashville Tennessee

Jack and Evan, two singles looking to have some fun #whiskey

Jack Daniels and Evan WilliamsI posted this on Instagram the other day – having a little fun with the names of these two whiskeys and the fact that they’re both single barrel selections – “Jack and Evan, two singles looking to have some fun.” These were the two bottles I picked out to take with me on holiday. Both fun whiskeys. Both single barrel offerings.

The Jack was a single barrel selection I helped choose myself, a real “honey barrel” (AKA hitting the sweet spot of where this particular whiskey can go) if I must says myself. The Evan was one of a handful of bottles I picked up four years ago, in what I thought was a particularly good year (2010 release of bourbon put in the barrel in 2000) for the annual Evan Williams Single Barrel release.

The past couple nights, I’ve been tasting these side by side. And, dang, they are neck and neck in my book. Both great sips (I like them both with a single ice cube, but they do well neat, too). The Jack is indeed a touch mellower, with that charcoal filtering and all. The Evan is indeed a bit richer, a bit more toasty oak, a bit more brown sugar. (It’s worth pointing out that the Jack was roughly six years old, vs. ten years on the Evan Williams.)

But these are differences at the very edge of two fine whiskeys. I can’t help but think that, yes, despite all the madness around chasing rare releases – the Pappys and the Buffalo Trace Antique Collections and the this and that… we are blessed with a bounty of fine whiskey in the US of A, sitting on a shelf near you. Whether it comes from Tennessee or Kentucky, or maybe even somewhere else.

Happy holidays, and a happy new year.

Giving Thanks

I am thankful for so many things, one of the smallest of which is the camaraderie, conversation and just plain fun that has come of sharing the Thirsty South. On our table there will be a very good bottle of the single barrel Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Whiskey that was picked out for my father-in-law’s 85th birthday on a recent trip to Tennessee whiskey country. And a turkey that is still sitting peacefully in a lemon/herb brine in the fridge. Wishing everyone a happy Thanksgiving. Cheers!

Dickel’s For Drinking: A Visit To George Dickel’s Cascade Hollow Distillery

George Dickel is like Jack Daniel’s less popular little brother. Quieter, calmer, a bit more likely to sit back and watch things develop rather than to seek the spotlight. Contrasting a visit to George Dickel’s Cascade Hollow Distillery to the choreographed show that is a Jack Daniel’s visit says everything about the distinctions between these two Tennessee titans of whisk(e)y. Jack is an entertainer, Dickel is a quiet companion.

Cascade Hollow sits off a rural road outside Tullahoma, Tennessee. Surrounded by deep green trees and hills, it’s a lovely setting for a distillery; it’s a lovely setting for anything for that matter. The visitor center is a bit like a country cabin, rustic, uncluttered, full of old stuff. There’s a quaint little post office on site, a relic of an earlier time. A short stroll over the creek and across the street takes you to the distillery itself, a place where everything seems a bit slower and more quiet than the other distillery down in Lynchburg.

There are a total of 33 employees here in Cascade Hollow, about 1/10 the number at the distillery down the street. The tour itself is straightforward, you get to see the full distillation process, and they’ll answer just about any question you can throw at them. They know to point out the distinctions between George Dickel and Jack Daniel’s – both of which use charcoal mellowing as a calling card, both of which call Tennessee home.

The main distinctions are thus:

1) Dickel employs a combination column still then pot still distillation process, closer to what you’ll see in Scotland than Lynchburg. (They also use the Scottish spelling “whisky” rather than the more traditional American spelling “whiskey.”)

2) Dickel likes to simulate their original approach of distilling in winter by cooling down their newly distilled whisky to about 40 degrees F before charcoal mellowing.

3) When it comes to charcoal mellowing, Dickel does a couple things differently (though the use of sugar maple charcoal is the same as Jack) – Dickel places virgin wool blankets at the top and bottom of their charcoal mellowing tank to act as a filter, and they have metal plates that more evenly distribute the whiskey as it drips down. At Dickel, the whisky spends about 10-15 days to drip through 13 feet of sugar maple charcoal, vs. the 6 days or so it takes at Jack to drip through 10 feet of charcoal.

4) Dickel ages their barrels in single story barrelhouses up on the hill, in the belief that a single story approach yields more consistent results. While this does result in a more consistently aged product, it also means that aging Dickel barrels on average will be a “slower” process than aging barrels at a multi-story barrelhouse (like most whiskey producers use). Jack Daniel’s actually makes a point of showing how different the same batch of whiskey will look after a few years from the top of a barrelhouse vs. the bottom of the barrelhouse. It is significant. The greater temperature variation at the top of a tall space, especially in a warm summer, will produce greater interaction between the barrel and the whiskey.

5) So, in part at least due to single story aging approach… Dickel is aged a bit longer than Jack, though neither labels their products by age. According to my guide at Dickel, Dickel No. 8 sees about seven years in the barrel (vs. four years or so for Jack’s Old No. 7), Dickel No. 12 sees about nine years, and the Dickel Barrel Select clocks in at 10+ years (vs. six years or so for Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel.) Again, older does not necessarily mean better, it just reflects a slightly different whisk(e)y philosophy.

I must say that, while Jack impresses, and their Single Barrel whiskey is a darn good drink, Dickel is the one more likely to win my heart. From the low key approach, to the longer aging, even to the fact that their parent company (Diageo) treats them like a forgotten child, Dickel is the underdog that deserves rooting for. Now, don’t come to Cascade Hollow expecting to taste the goods. You’ll have to do that elsewhere. But once you do, you’re likely to find that the less popular little brother of Tennessee whisk(e)y is the one you’d rather have by your side on a peaceful evening.

Related Posts:
A Visit to Jack Daniel’s Distillery
Touring Tennessee Whiskey Country

(For a nice comparison of Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel and George Dickel’s Barrel Select, check out the tasting notes at Sour Mash Manifesto. It’s worth pointing out, though, that single barrel bottlings and small batch bottlings are inherently variable – you will find differences from bottle to bottle.)

And while you’re here, also check out all the stops on our Tennessee whiskey tour.