Jack Daniel’s IS Tennessee Whiskey (For Better or For Worse)

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.

Touring Tennessee Whiskey Country

In the hills and hollows around Lynchburg and Lincoln County, Tennessee, clear spring water and corn come together with sugar maple charcoal and charred white oak barrels to make some of the world’s most famous whiskies. Tennessee is a state rich in whiskey history, a pioneering state, a moonshining state, and, until a few years ago, a state with some of the most absurd laws possible regulating the opening and operation of distilleries.

The big boys – Jack Daniel’s and George Dickel – have been around since 1866 and 1870, respectively, though have both been through some twists and turns along the way, most prominently Prohibition (which started ten years early in Tennessee, in 1910) and mandatory shutdowns during World War II.  Jack and Dickel are about 15 miles away from each other as the crow flies, one in Lynchburg and the other in Cascade Hollow outside Tullahoma. They share rich histories, locations based on access to good water and corn, and similar charcoal mellowing techniques – “the Lincoln County process.” They also managed to get in early enough to have favorable consideration in Tennessee’s distillery laws, which made it near impossible for any new distilleries to open in the state in the twentieth century. Prichard’s, who opened up about 20 miles down the road from Lynchburg in Lincoln County about a decade ago, was the lone exception. Those laws were finally changed about two years ago, and we’re now seeing the results of that change – with Corsair Artisan jumping to a quick start in Nashville after being founded in Kentucky, Ole Smoky setting up in Gatlinburg, Collier & McKeel joining the Nashville scene, and more distilleries in the ramping up phase across the state.

We recently visited the distilleries that make their home in the state’s capital or in the nearby green rolling hills of central Tennessee. The differences among these are dramatic, from the nonstop small-batch experimentation in a converted old auto factory at Corsair Artisan, to the steady voluminous flow of whiskey over charcoal at Jack Daniel’s and their touring hordes of visitors from around the world. What all these distilleries share is a passion for making something great in the state of Tennessee. Today, we’ll give you the (very) short version on visiting them; and, in the next two weeks, we’ll follow up with individual features on each distillery. Enjoy the trip:

If you like the idea of a Whiskey Disney, with guides who are straight out of central casting delivering polished storytelling and a cute little town that was literally built on whiskey, go to Jack Daniel’s in Lynchburg. No tasting allowed in this dry county, unless you’re buying a full single barrel, which runs about $10,000.

If you like a humble sense of history, tranquil beauty, and a refreshing dose of honesty served up in an out-of-the-way honest-to-goodness Tennessee country hollow, go spend some time at George Dickel & Co. in Cascade Hollow outside Tullahoma. No tasting available with the tour or at the distillery, either.

If you want to visit a small family of dedicated distillers making the most of a country garage (actually school and community center) turned small batch distillery, and to taste a range of fine rums and whiskies that will expand your appreciation for Tennessee spirits, go to Prichard’s Distillery in Kelso. Call ahead.

If you favor madcap experimentation and geeky enthusiasm in a beautifully restored and converted old auto factory turned “creative community” on the fringe of downtown Nashville,  stop by Corsair Artisan’s taproom and distillery. Please call ahead, distillery visits by appointment only.

Finally, if you want to see firsthand a brand new take on traditional small batch Tennessee whiskey, which happens to be right next door to Corsair Artisan in that wonderful old building in Nashville, check out Collier & McKeel. Also by appointment only.

Check out our Tennessee Whiskey Tour for more on each of these fine Tennessee distilleries. Click here to see a map showing the location of the distilleries, as close as three and a half hours from Atlanta.


Grandpa and Tennessee Whiskey

Tennessee is where I grew up. Memphis, to be exact. It’s where my father was born and his father before him. Memphis is far from the heart of Tennessee whiskey country and, for that matter, moonshine country, too. But my grandfather was indeed a Jack Daniel’s man. He joined Jack Daniel’s early take on a super fan club, the Tennessee Squires, back in the 1960’s, which bestowed upon him a small plot of land in “The Hollow, Lynchburg” and honorary citizenship in Moore County, where Jack Daniels Distillery is situated. The language on the Deed he received is as flowery as charcoal is black, and surely, at that time, membership among the Tennessee Squires was seen as quite a big deal in Tennessee.

My grandfather grew up in the Depression, made a good living for himself and for his family as he got older, but always held on to a Depression-era mindset of spending money very carefully. In his seventies, one of his prized possessions was a bottle of Gentleman Jack. I don’t think I ever actually saw him drink it, it was simply too precious. But it was there, in the liquor cabinet, as a sign of allegiance to Tennessee.

Alas, the love of Jack Daniels was not passed down from generation to generation. My father fell for wine and hardly ever even touched whiskey, though I’ve recently introduced him to Pappy Van Winkle, and I am hopeful to knock some sense into him. As for me, I’ve never been a Jack Daniel’s man, but a love of bourbon and an eagerness to try whisk(e)y of all shapes and stripes has brought me back to Tennessee. And I’ve even been impressed by a few bottles of Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel Tennessee whiskey, which, to my surprise, competes well with many a fine bourbon as a premium sipping whiskey.

I recently spent two days driving the rolling hills of central Tennessee, visiting five of the state’s six operating distilleries (the sixth is in Gatlinburg – Ole Smoky Moonshine – which I’ve visited previously). The differences between Jack Daniel’s, the oldest registered distillery in these United States, and Collier & McKeel, one of the newest, is tremendous, but they both adhere to a noble view of what makes a whiskey a Tennessee whiskey. Between those two, George Dickel, Prichard’s, and Corsair Artisan are just as distinct, each forging a unique path in whiskey and other spirits, each making Tennessee their home and part of their story. Stay tuned for a recap and photo tour of my visits to these fine Tennessee distilleries.

(Update: and here it is – check out all the stops on our Tennessee whiskey tour.)