Hit the Road Jack... Daniel's

An obsession with Tennessee whiskey
By Hans Offringa
Some people just fall in love with a brand of whisky and start collecting it. Other people not only collect, but a particular brand becomes a way of life for them. Such a collector is Edwin Raaphorst, 46 years old, an Operations Manager at a logistics company in The Netherlands. He owns a huge collection of different bottles and paraphernalia from Jack Daniel's (JD).

How did that come about?

"In my early twenties I got acquainted with whisky, in a way that has happened with so many among us. When out in town I often drank a beer but soon exchanged that habit for another one - enjoying a mature distillate from grain, water and yeast, which spent years in an oak barrel beforehand. One of my first experiences was with JD, often mistaken for a Bourbon, but actually it is a Tennessee whiskey, because of the filtering through sugar maple charcoal."

Edwin got intrigued by the brand and started to gather information. "At the time JD wasn't that well-known and in my country people didn't drink it as much as they do now." His first object was a replica of an earthenware jug with the brand name on it. "That was what really started my collection and I became more and more curious about the history of that distillery in Lynchburg, Tennessee."

For Edwin, JD is more than just a label, or a drink. "It's a way of life. I drink JD in many situations and like all the different expressions. Neat, with water or in a mix with cola. The history inspires me as well as the great stories behind the brand. I got in touch with like-minded people in The Netherlands and abroad. I've been down to Lynchburg a couple of times and made friends for life in the international circle of JD collectors. When a brand has got a grip on you like JD does, it won't let you go that easily and will be part of your daily life from then on."

We are talking with a real aficionado here. Who influenced him in particular?

"When I started my quest for JD I got in touch with a certain Jean Paul Schuurbiers via the internet. When Googling 'Jack Daniel's' I hit upon his website and a world opened itself to me. Jean Paul, a Dutch guy nicknamed JeePee, was to become my great inspiration. Because of his cystic fibrosis he spent a lot of time connected to a machine to help him breathe. Instead of being a patient he became very active on the internet researching and learning about JD. All this knowledge, he shared on his website, giving others the chance to learn all about his favourite brand. His website is still a true treasure trove for JD fans around the world. He certainly was one of the pioneers in this field. We didn't live around the corner from each other and most contact was via the web or phone. Among other things he showed me was how I could purchase particular JD bottles via Ebay and linked me to several of his contacts in the USA. Usually we visited each other once or twice a year and enjoyed a few JDs responsibly.

"Alas, JeePee lost the battle against cystic fibrosis and passed away a few years ago, and was one of the longest living patients with cystic fibrosis - ever. I still miss him. Every year, on the 10 May we raise a glass of JD with collectors worldwide to honour him.

"Over the course of many years, through JD I made a lot of friends all over the world. I try to attend the yearly meetings in Germany, England, Belgium and France, whenever I can. There is a hardcore group you will see everywhere, time and time again.

"The atmosphere is very convivial - we taste, trade and discuss JD at length in a relaxed setting and never get bored of it. With collectors in the Netherlands and Belgium we regularly buy specific bottles jointly via our contacts worldwide. With forums and websites, we keep each other informed about what to get where for the right price and the right quality. That way of communication has become more and more important, since various 'dealers' have infiltrated the group of collectors and unfortunately try to drive the prices up.

"There are joint initiatives to strengthen the bond of our brotherhood. For instance to honour JeePee posthumously, we decided to buy a whole barrel of JD with aficionados all over the world, have it bottled and sold among collectors worldwide. The proceeds went to a cystic fibrosis charity. As I was in the lucky position to know my way around in logistics, I was personally able to arrange that the empty barrel, the sample bottle and the snifters were delivered to the Netherlands, to the home of JeePee's widow!"

It shows how one brand can connect people all over the world and forge friendships for life. Another initiative in which Edwin is involved is Jimmy's Ride, a JD fundraiser that started in Lynchburg and has just had its second Ride in Europe as we speak.

Jimmy's Ride

In 2009 the American whiskey industry lost one of its great icons. Jimmy Bedford, legendary Master Distiller of Jack Daniel's Tennessee whiskey, unexpectedly passed away at 69 after a sudden heart attack, shortly following his retirement. His only daughter Alice soon found out that her father had donated silently to many causes over the years of his working life. His home was a farm in Lynchburg, Tennessee, a mere 1.5 miles from the distillery, where he maintained several hundred acres and a herd of 100 cattle in his spare time. Jimmy always helped people and was well respected in the whiskey world, having been a great brand ambassador for JD around the globe. Jimmy also had another passion besides making whiskey - riding his Harley Davidson, a passion shared with his daughter and son-in-law. When Alice Bedford had overcome her initial grief, she started thinking how her father could best be remembered, especially seen in the light of his philanthropic activities. To honour his good deeds and to remember him, Alice and her husband decided to organise a special 'ride' and collect money for charity. Money to benefit the community of Lynchburg, which Jimmy had loved so much.

"Jimmy's Ride has been held annually since 2010. It started with a few friends and now over a hundred people join the ride. Alice's activities gained attention in other parts of the world, especially in Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands. Ton and Ineke Blokland, great JD and Harley fans in Europe, were seriously interested in organising the first European Jimmy's Ride, so they contacted Alice. That first ride in 2015 was a great success, with more than 40 people participating, so we went again this year on 18 June with an even larger group. The proceeds go to local charities in both our countries and after the ride we get together for a great BBQ and a few responsible drinks."

When asked about the most amazing piece in his collection Edwin hesitates. "Is it the oldest bottle, the one with a remarkable characteristic, or the one with a particular story? Difficult to answer. Various bottles I own tell a story. Especially the way in which I acquired each piece is a little story in itself. Every time a new one is added to the collection, it comes with a story. But, if forced to make a choice, I'd probably go for the Cameo Boxes issued in the 1960s and 1970s. Not many are in good shape anymore.

"But my cylinders are special, too. They date back to 1900 and were the first bottles ever used by the distillery after they discarded the earthenware jugs. Or I might choose my 4/5 quart green label paper seal bottle from 1958, or..."

I get the point and ask Edwin about his favourite expression. "So far my favourites have always been the Single Barrel and the Gentleman Jack. More recently I was pleasantly surprised by the launch of the Gold 27, twice filtered and matured in two different types of barrels. I find this one milder than its siblings, with hints of maple, caramel, honey, walnut and a whiff of smoke. At the moment my ultimate favourite in JD's extended family of bottlings."

And then there is the squire thing. What about that? "In 1956 the Motlow brothers, then owners of the distillery, sold JD to Brown-Forman. To mark that event the Tennessee Squire Association was founded. It is a community of friends who want to drink JD responsibly and carry friendship and good conduct high. Only Tennessee Squires can nominate people to become a squire. If you pass the ballot you will get a lifetime membership and a small piece of land (about a square inch) in Lynchburg's immediate surroundings."

My companion shifts on his seat and becomes a tad anxious after all the talking. I can see he'd love to go to Tennessee immediately, to his favourite distillery, to Jack Daniel's. Ok then...

Hit the road, Edwin!