Fletcher can see both of them from his desk, a handsome, well-worn piece of furniture that once belonged to the man in the ad, whose name is Frank Bobo. He was Jack Daniel’s head distiller, from 1966 through 1989, and Chris’s grandfather.
When I caught Chris on a video call on a Monday in early November, he swiveled his chair at one point in our conversation and grabbed an old bottle of Jack Daniel’s Old No. 7, the brand’s touchstone. A friend of his who lives near Boston had sent it to him. It was produced in the 1960s, Chris said, inspecting the underside of the bottle, which means it was distilled when Frank was running the historic Lynchburg facility. He’s not sure when he’ll finish the few pours remaining in the bottle. I got the sense he didn’t necessarily want to. Keeping it around is a nice way to stay connected with his lineage.
When Chris assumed the master distiller role at Brown-Forman’s Jack Daniel’s in October, it wasn’t something he’d been gunning since he was five years old, when he’d accompany his grandfather to work. Back then, he had no interest in grain bills or barrel making or proprietary yeast. His only ambition was sneaking away to splash around in the chilly spring water in the caves that famously supply the water to the distillery. Those caves, as anyone who’s visited the Lynchburg destination soon learns, were a primary reason the distillery was built on the property in the 1800s. There was no city water back then, after all. But the whiskey’s historic legacy and the grandeur of his granddad’s job was of little consequence to a five-year-old kid.
“I grew up around it. I’d just go to the distillery with granddad. I didn’t understand what was going on,” he told me. “Lynchburg is a small town, and lots of people’s parents and grandparents worked there. All I knew was my granddad was in charge of making whiskey.”
Frank had been casually offered a job at the distillery’s still house by Reagor Motlow, Jack Daniel’s grandnephew, who was known for giving Frank a nickel whenever he saw him at the Bobo family’s grocery store. Chris has similarly worked his way up the ranks. He started with the company when he was 19, taking a summer gig as a tour guide, mostly because he promised his parents he’d get a job while he was home from college, he admits now. But it wasn’t until he studied chemistry over the next few years that he seriously considered a career in the whiskey industry.
In 2003, freshly minted with a chemistry degree, he went off to neighboring Kentucky to land his first full-time job in the R&D department at a Brown-Forman Bourbon distillery. He spent most of his time in a lab working as an entry-level chemist learning methods to analyse different spirits. Over the years he hopped around to other Bourbon distilleries, working in yeast labs, learning quality assurance responsibilities and acquainting himself with the endlessly complex dark art of process of barrel ageing. Then in 2014, Jeff Arnett, master distiller at the time, summoned Chris back to his hometown.
In his new role, he takes the reins from Arnett, to whom he worked as an assistant for six years, all the while having his grandfather to turn to when questions came up. Frank passed away in January at the age of 90. Chris still has the notebooks Frank filled while studying chemistry at night-school after working in the stillhouse all day.
“I sometimes reference his distillery notebooks,” Chris told me. “I like to draw on our past at the distillery as I look towards innovation. I think it gives us an incredible advantage to draw on that here at Jack.”
During Arnett’s stewardship, the brand earned the distinction of top-selling whiskey in the world.
But it wasn’t always that way. Jack was actually an allocated brand from the 1950s through the 1980s. There were waiting lists for Old No. 7, Chris said. The brand’s herky-jerky restart after Prohibition has a lot to do with that. It had been shut completely and didn’t resume production until 1938, while other American whiskey distilleries had been producing spirit for medicinal purposes all along. Once the 1950s rolled around and Frank Sinatra declared Old No. 7 the “nectar of the gods” and essentially adopted the brand as his own, it was off to the races.
“We were the original hard-to-find brand,” says Chris, who still marvels over how many years it took the company to catch up with demand.
Jack Daniel’s has fared quite well this year, despite the pandemic, proving that in times of crises, people seek comfort in the familiar. But nevertheless, the craft distilling boom of recent years and big companies’ interest in buying smaller brands show that a significant contingent of drinkers are after something they haven’t tried before, too. Jack Daniel’s has hitched its wagon – albeit a very small one – to the experimental star, launching the Tennessee Tasters’ Selection series, limited-edition releases, each featuring some kind of experimental ageing element. The latest release, Jamaican Allspice, is aged in barrels with staves of pimento wood, which is what’s used to cook the island’s famous jerk chicken. It imbues the whiskey with a unique smoked hickory flavour. Chris the chemist is very interested in tinkering with wood and other aspects of production elements.
“The important thing is how we balance it. Old No. 7 cannot change. It’s the whiskey my grandfather made. It’s the whiskey a lot of people’s grandparents made in Lynchburg over the years. We’re the second-smallest county in the state. Families have been making this generationally for 150-plus years. Tradition and expectation are to be held to that standard – it’ll always be the same method, the same process,” he said assuredly. “That being understood, when it comes to innovation, the American whiskey drinker wants to try different flavours, different things, and that couldn’t be better for us.”
The thing is, Jack Daniel’s is rather unique among American whiskey brands in that it has its own cooperage. It also operates its own stave mills, so the company buys bark-on whole logs, all of which will eventually end up as a barrel in a warehouse. They also have their own yeast strain purified from a mother culture. It’s grown fresh at the distillery every week. Their water source is on-site. They don’t use any additives in the mashing process, all the enzymes come directly from the malted barley. They even make their own charcoal from scratch, burning hard maple for a few days until it’s a hard lump, then grinding it down; the key to the charcoal filtering process.
All that’s to say that when you don’t outsource, when you have such a well-established, time-tested system and you rely on nobody but yourself for every aspect of production, you have easy access to resources when you want to modify something.
“Our capability is our benefit. With our success over the last 60 or 70 years, we’ve been able to reinvest with our process and with the people who run the process,” Chris told me. “Our employees have their hands on every log. We have great microbiologists in the lab making sure the yeast today is the same as what my granddad had all those years ago. That all lends itself to our capability to innovate. We’ll do small experimental runs and continue to investigate. We can learn from experiments and hopefully scale up to larger batches if we need to. We’re in the crosshairs here, and we’re excited to bring out more whiskies.”
But don’t get too excited, dear reader. That’s not a promise, it’s a hedge. For now, Chris’s focus is on holding steady and moving the brand further ahead.
“We have to do what’s right for Jack Daniel’s. Are we gonna send whisky to the moon? I feel like we have to do things that are a little more tried and true and authentic.”
As far as things go for Chris, he’ll be spending his days in the distillery until the world returns to some degree of normalcy and he can travel again and meet with Jack fans around the world as 21st-century master distillers do.
“When my grandfather was here, a distiller made whiskey and nothing else. You’d go to the stillhouse and they’d lock you up for 10 or 12 hours at a time,” he said matter-of-factly. “I get to try some other stuff, too.”