Distillery Focus

Jack's No.7 heaven (Jack Daniel's)

Jack Daniel's is bucking the trend in many markets and going from strength to strength. Dominic Roskrow went to Lynchburg to find out why
By Dominic Roskrow
You start to get a sense of just how big Jack Daniel’s has become when you visit the main square of the pretty village of Lynchburg down the road from the distillery.It’s not that there’s anything small-scale about the distillery itself. It occupies land that stretches for acres. But because much of it is out of sight and out of mind, its geography gives little indication of its enormity, even when the tour guide puts in to context and rolls out the figures.But Lynchburg is another matter.Outwardly it’s nothing more than a small town in the American south, its wooden frame houses decorated with American flags, its white churches promoted by neon signs with messages such as ‘God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve,’ its perimeters lined with gas stations, fast food chains and cheap motels.Enter in to the town’s heart and its pretty central square, though, and we’re somewhere else again. It’s packed with shops selling Jack Daniel’s merchandise and that merchandise covers just about everything. Candles, mirrors, sauces, shirts, shorts, caps, bags, even a Harley Davidson for Heaven’s sake…if it has space for that distinctive and renowned black and white logo, then it’s on sale here.Through this iconic and distinctive whiskey the world has heard of Lynchburg and in true American style Lynchburg is cashing in. Meanwhile down the road, Jack Daniel’s operates in its own sedate way, and gets bigger and bigger by the year.If you think about it, it’s an odd partnership. Lynchburg is in a dry county so you can’t actually buy Jack here. That reminder of Prohibition, combined with the churches, Christian slogans and flag waving gives you the distinct impression that whiskey drinking isn’t the number one pastime in these parts. Unlike distillers in Kentucky, Jack isn’t surrounded by like minded friends.Yet talk to the local folk and they’re more lambs than lions. Many of them work at the distillery. They give you the impression they’re mighty proud of Jack and his successors for putting them on the map. So a love-hate relationship if ever there was one.The perceived small time nature of the distillery is, of course, a piece of clever deception. Jack Daniel’s has turned presenting big business as a cottage industry in to an art form of the highest order. From the good ol’ boy black and white adverts to the short film showing the manually-intensive bottling of the distillery’s single barrel whiskey the message is consistent and clear: this is still the small-time distillery that a teenage Jack Daniel opened way back in 1866.The truth is that it really is a charming and amiable place to be. The folk are typical of the region, where hospitality has a big capital H. The distillery itself is beautiful, immaculately maintained and well laid out.It’s just hard to throw off the notion you’re in a theme park. Even in winter you can imagine people strolling round the site, stopping for sandwiches by the statues of the distillery’s founder, enjoying the intense, steamy Tennessee sun.It certainly doesn’t feel like you’re at the home of the biggest selling whiskey in the world. The figures, though, are impressive.About 800,000 cases come to the United Kingdom alone. About 1.6 million casks are stored on the site which stretches across 1500 acres of land with 74 warehouses.The tax alone on the site would come in at a hefty $3.5 million.How did this happen?Not through any conventional means anyway. I once spoke to a marketing person who sold gas to pubs. He said it was the dream marketing job because he had to persuade licensees to buy an odourless, colourless invisible gas down the same supply route as his competitiors. Given that price allowed little or no flexibility, he said, he could judge his success directly because he was selling exactly the same product as his competitors.I think he was wrong. Surely the best marketing job is when you have to fly in the face of all conventional wisdom and market a product that stands out like a sore thumb. That is like nothing else and in theory at least, wouldn’t appeal to conventional tastes.Jack Daniel’s is a brown spirit, and brown spirits are in decline. It is a standard spirit rather than a premium one, and quantity brands are losing out to quality ones. It has all the subtlety of a heavy metal band at a strippers’ convention. It is to dominant world spirit vodka what the great white shark is to organic farming.Whether you love it or hate it, it’s a whiskey phenomenon. It shouts very loudly that it is a whiskey. It makes the case for strong tasting spirit, even if many of drinkers drown it in cola.Jasper Newton Daniel set up his distillery at the base of Cave Spring in 1866 having learned distilling during the Civil War. He judged the water source to be perfect, and the source can still be visited on the site today.Back then small distilleries were flourishing and there were many of them. But in 1909 Moore County, where Lynchburg is situated, pre-empted Prohibition by a year joined the growing number of anti-alcohol counties and went dry. Within years the hundreds of local distilleries were reduced to just a handful.Jack was to die young in 1911 in the bizarrest of circumstances. In a fit of anger at being unable to open the office safe he kicked it and broke his toe. But complications led to a series of amputations and eventual death. As he had never married his nephew Lem Motlow took over.His solution to Prohibition? He moved the distillery to St Louis, Missouri, where it remained in production until Tennessee had a change of heart in 1938 and the distillery, now established and making a name for itself, moved home.But the county stayed dry and so the love-hate relationship between the God-fearing folk of Lynchburg and Jack Daniel’s was established. Go to the big Jack Daniel’s barbecue held every year and nobody’ll openly admit to sipping a Jack or two. But the authorities turn a blind eye and a few hours in to the event it’s pretty obvious that the whiskey’s been flowing.For the last 40 years or so Jack Daniel’s has been owned by Brown-Forman, a company with a proud history in the American whisky industry, particularly in Kentucky. Under its guidance Jack has become the worldwide success it is today.The distillery tour itself is pretty much straightforward and as you’d expect. But it does highlight the two main aspects of production that make the whiskey stand apart from all of its competitors.The first is the wood burning area, where the charcoal used in the whiskey’s production process is made.The key difference between bourbon and Tennessee whiskey lies in the charcoal. Pouring White Dog – new make American whiskey – through charcoal disqualifies it as a bourbon. But in Tennessee charcoal filtering – known as the Lincoln County Process.– was recognised in 1941 as part of the essential production process for Tennessee whiskey.Unsurprisingly the whiskey makers at Jack Daniel’s have turned this in to an art form.Planks of sweet local Maplewood are stacked up under what look like giant oven hoods.They lean inwards slightly to each other so that as they burn they fall in to each other.Then, when the charcoal is at exactly the right consistency, it is doused with water.New whiskey will take days to pass through a charcoal wall, which will be built to more than three metres high. At the bottom it will pass through a blanket of white wool. The process removes some of the heavier compounds of the whiskey, giving it the distinctive smoothness for which it is famous.So how come we still talk of Jack as having such an unsubtle and powerful taste? The answer to that lies in the distilling room. For truth be told, charcoal filtering might trap the heaviest oils and congeners and mellow the whiskey, but there are plenty of others which make their way through. And that’s because Jack has plenty of flavours to play with.Why? Because for all intents and purposes it is single distilled, and that means that many of the heaviest, flavoursome and arguably nasty oils and congeners make it to the finished spirit. You’ll find a doubler – the system used for second distillation in many American distilleries – under the beer stills in the process, but it’s not used for secondary distillation. What that means is that the charcoal filtering process is to all intents the only gate between the raw new make and a drinkable whiskey. It makes it a pretty unusual production process and explains Jack’s distinctive taste.After the tour you wander back to the visitor centre where you can buy special distillery-only bottles of whiskey. Our group is taken off for a tutored tasting but had we not been, I think I’d have been disappointed by the experience as a whisky enthusiast on the one hand, but impressed by the air of excitement among the visitors who have made their way to this small corner of the world and the positive atmosphere and the beauty of the site.That’s the Jack experience in a nutshell really: seemingly of limited value to the whisky aficionado but an important contributor to whisk(e)y overall – ignored by the zealots and adored by the masses: an ambassador for whisky across the world.I’d have drunk to that – if I had been allowed to.TASTING
New make before and after charcoal filtering
Originally the new make is fierce fire water, with lots of dominant liquorice flavours and a sharp bite. After charcoal it is softer and fruitier and nowhere near as chewy.Jack Daniel’s No 7
Nose: Unsubtle, aggressive, sweet and rich. Distinctive and the liquorice is still there
Palate: Aged for more than five years and the oak has gone to work here, stripping out many of the aggressive notes of the new make. It’s surprisingly clean and uncluttered, with the fiery taste giving way to wood, fruit and vanilla.
Harsher than many bourbons, though.
Finish: Long and sticky, with sweetness and oak staying on the inside of the mouth Gentleman Jack
Nose: Much lighter than the No 7. Some zesty and citrusy notes. Not expected at all.
Palate: This is a mix of whiskey ages put through the charcoal filtration process for a second time, making it a lighter and more understated whiskey. The liquorice is still there but less pronounced. One in the eye for those that say Jack can’t be sophisticated.
Finish: As it says on the label. A gentleman. Trademark Jack oil, wood and liquorice are all here and the finish is long but well-mannered.Single Barrel
Nose: Darker than the other samples, this has more recognisably bourbon notes. Bolder oak, tobacco and confectionery notes. Can it deliver on the palate?
Palate.Wow. Lordy mama, can it ever! This is heavy world class stuff: full bodied, with pecan nuts, butterscotch, cocoa and spices
Finish: Rich, long and warming. A fine example of American whiskey. They say they only use honey barrels from the ‘Buzzard Roost’ at the top of the warehouse for this. Nothing suggests they’re fibbing. Wonderful.