Distillery Focus

Happy Birthday Mr Daniel

Over 6 million of Jack Daniel's Tennessee Whisky were sold last year. Stuart Maclean Ramsay takes a look at this phenomenon on the eve of the 150th birthday of the distillery's founder, Jack Daniel
By Stuart MacLean Ramsay
To celebrate the 4th of July I left behind the fireworks of urban American independence for a fishing trip down the winding Deschutes River in the high desert of Central Oregon. My companions were a Scottish nephew who was visiting America for the first time and several bottles from the Jack Daniel family.We would rise at an ungodly hour, fortify our morning coffee with a splash of Black Label and go in search of elusive trout. By dusk they had become more wary, thus necessitating a shot of twice-mellowed Gentleman Jack for the angler to become one with the fish. And when night time descended, we sat around the campfire under a sparkling blanket of desert sky with the scent of Ponderosa pine thick in the air - Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel embellishing our yarns and enhancing our cigars. With a desert theatre of howling coyotes and shooting stars for a backdrop, I asked my nephew what he thought of Tennessee sipping whiskey. “Och,” said 18 year-old Sean, “me and my pals, the cool ones, drink Jack and Coke every weekend in Edinburgh.”The square bottle (it doesn’t roll around in a fishing boat or a car) of Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Whiskey, with its old-fashioned black and white label, has become, over time, an American icon. A democratic spirit at ease with the yelps and hollers of rock music and traditional bluegrass as it is at a backyard barbecue or uptown bar. The best-selling premium spirit in the United States, Jack Daniel’s flows smoothly across all age groups and segments of American culture.This September the distillery that made Lynchburg (pop. 361) famous celebrates the 150th birthday of its founder, Jasper Newton ‘Jack’ Daniel. The actual birthdate of Mr. Jack, as he is called in the limestone hollers of Moore County, is unknown due to a town hall fire that destroyed the birth records. It turned out to be a fortuitous loss for the marketing arm of the distillery which is celebrating his birth with parties and concerts in America, and around the globe, during August and the entire month of September.Surprise celebrities and the hottest acts in rock music are to feature in the 20 parties that have been planned. The partying culminates on September 30 in Lynchburg where 361 ticket winners will be transported to Moore County to hear two of rock music’s most popular bands (for details on winning tickets, check the Jack Daniel website www.jackdaniels.com or participating Jack Daniel retailers). In addition, a bronze statue of Jack Daniel will be unveiled on September 2 outside the handsome new visitor centre at the distillery. And to commemorate his 150th birthday, a special 90 proof collector’s edition of Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Whiskey will be on sale.They started ‘em young in the volunteer state of Tennessee. Jack was a diminutive lad of seven years when he ran away from home after his mother died and his father remarried. He wound up doing chores and making whiskey for seventeen year-old Dan Call, a Lutheran lay preacher and farmer, who ran the local store and sold corn whiskey made from a wooden still. The Reverend Call decided to follow another spiritual god and sold the whiskey business to 14 year-old Jack Daniel. Call’s distiller was Nearest Green, a slave, and it was Nearest who taught Jack the craft of making whiskey. Jack eventually moved his still to the Cave Spring Hollow by Lynchburg, the site of the present distillery.When Jack Daniel secured the lease in the mid-1860s, the United States government had begun collecting taxes on American stills. In 1866 Mr. Jack became the first distiller to register a distillery, The Jack Daniel Distillery, in the United States. It was upon the very site of the area’s first distiller, Alfred Eaton, who began making whiskey around 1825. Eaton was reputed to have been the first distiller to employ the ‘leaching’ process of filtering spirit through sugar maple charcoal, known today as the ‘Lincoln County Process’ (Lynchburg was located in Lincoln County back in Eaton’s day), the refining process that legally distinguishes Tennessee whiskey from bourbon. The relocation was a canny move, it brought the distillery close to a railroad - the transportation system that would industrialise America in the decades to come. And the water that flowed at a constant 56 degrees from the Cave Spring had already gained a reputation as the foundation of fine whiskey. Mr. Jack, who stood a mere 5’ 2” tall, had become a gentleman distiller - always impeccably outfitted in a black frock coat, vest and high rolled planter’s hat. Like Tommy Dewar and James Buchanan, his flamboyant Scottish contemporaries who conquered the British Empire with their blended whisky, Jack Daniel was a quintessential marketing man, albeit on a regional basis. He sponsored a Silver Cornet band to open saloons and play at special events such as political rallies, handed out miniature bottles to the public and bought drinks for everyone in the local saloons. And like Dewar and Buchanan, he had the good sense to hire pragmatic managers and great distillers.One April morning in 1905 Jack hurt his foot after kicking the office safe in frustration after failing to remember the combination. Over time gangrene set in and Jack Daniel died in 1911 at the age of 61, six years after that fateful kick. Due to his failing health, Jack had sold the distillery to his nephew and distillery manager, Lem Motlow, in 1907. Lem proved to be an able proprietor and it was he who resurrected the Jack Daniel Distillery in 1938, after 29 years of Tennessee prohibition. His name still graces every label of Jack Daniel’s whiskey. Lem’s sons eventually sold the distillery in 1956 to the Brown-Forman family of Louisville, Kentucky, makers of Old Forester, Woodford Reserve bourbon and Early Times whiskey. The Brown-Forman company provided the necessary capital to update the distillery and have since introduced Mr. Jack to drinkers in more than 110 countries around the world.When I visited the Jack Daniel Distillery earlier this year I expected to find an industrial sized plant, given the 6 million cases of whiskey produced each year by the company. Instead, I found the pace to be admirably slow and the setting quite bucolic. The distillery buildings are tucked into a hilly terrain, about 500 acres on the other side of Mulberry Creek, blanketed with sugar maple trees and scented with honeysuckle. I was here to visit Jimmy Bedford, the Master Distiller for Jack Daniel’s.“The distillery is remarkably the same as when Jack Daniel was here,” Jimmy told me, “and I don’t think he’d find many surprises if he was here today. “We’re making it the same way Jack Daniel did 100 years ago and we’re maintaining his heritage. My grandmother knew him around the turn of the century and she told me he was a very accommodating man, donating money to schools and churches and the community. Our company carries on this tradition and all of the 400 people who work here is proud to represent Jack Daniel.”They have a pithy saying in Lynchburg: “Don’t ever kick a pullin’ mule.” It seems apt advice for a company that has inherited the legacy of Jack Daniel’s - whiskey as American as rock music and the 4th of July. Let the partying begin!