When I spoke with Jeff Arnett it was just days after tornadoes had ripped through Nashville and other parts of Tennessee, killing at least 25 people and destroying houses, businesses and livelihoods. It was the deadliest tornado outbreak in the state since 2011.
Thankfully the Jack Daniel’s distillery in Lynchburg, along with all its off-site warehousing, survived unscathed. “Most areas, if they did hear an alarm, they got about three minutes to find shelter,” says Arnett. “It was very quick and largely came out of nowhere. It took out a tremendous amount of property, but thankfully all my folk are ok.”
The Tennessee whiskey producer is the largest employer in Lynchburg, with 600 people working in production alone. For many residents, a life working at the distillery is in their blood: two-thirds of employees have had parents or grandparents who’ve also been employed by Jack Daniel’s. “People come to work here and they plan on retiring from here,” Arnett says proudly. “It’s all they ever wanted to do. It’s the best job in the area.”
I came into this job just hoping that I would get to put my stamp on it
Although he fancied himself as a mechanic – “I’ve always loved cars, anything with a motor and a steering wheel really” – Arnett himself joined the company in 2001 as a quality control manager, having spent several years with Proctor & Gamble making coffee, snacks and juice. As a member of Jack Daniel’s fan club the Tennessee Squires, he was already a huge follower of the brand. Just seven years after joining the business he became Jack Daniels’ seventh master distiller – and the first not related to Daniel or former owner Lem Motlow. “I felt like the luckiest guy on the planet. I felt like it then and I feel like it now.” For a guy in charge of making the world’s most popular American whiskey, which has become a globally recognised icon, name-checked extensively in popular culture, Arnett is modest. “I came into this job just hoping that I would get to put my stamp on it, but it’s been an exciting time to be in the whisky business,” he says.
A lot has changed for Jack Daniel’s since Arnett took the reins, and while the focus remains on the Old No. 7 Black Label, the “beating heart of this community”, there is no end to the innovation taking place in Lynchburg. When Arnett took on the role, the distillery produced three core expressions – it now has 10, including a rye and three flavoured whiskeys. In fact Tennessee Honey, released in 2012 as a blend of Jack Daniel’s and honey liqueur, was Arnett’s first innovation as master distiller. With the brand commanding such a vast and fiercely loyal following, Arnett admits he was “worried about how our fans would view it”. He needn’t have been. Honey is now the second largest expression in its portfolio, selling almost two million cases a year. Eight years on, is flavoured whiskey still as popular? “Yes, yes it is,” he sighs.
“And outpacing whisky overall. So, yeah, who would have thought that a honey product would be introduced and in four or five years be selling more than a million cases?”
Jack Daniel’s went on to introduce cinnamon-flavoured Tennessee Fire in 2016 as a challenger to the popular Fireball, although Arnett admits “cinnamon is a polarising flavour; it hasn’t gone into anywhere near as many markets”. He adds: “People typically love it or hate it, because that’s the nature of cinnamon.” The latest flavour to join the portfolio is Tennessee Apple, a ‘less sweet’ variant introduced at the end of last year, which Arnett expects to eventually be as popular as Honey because “apple is a very universally enjoyed drink”.
“Your whisky purists will look down on flavours but they’ve been critical for Jack Daniel’s to bring new people to the brand, to get them curious about us. Honey allowed us to launch a bigger net and find people who are potentially our next loyal fans. As their palate changes and they become more mature you can move them through things like Gentleman Jack, Black Label, single barrels and high proofs. The things I started out drinking when I was young are not the things I’m drinking now.”
So what did Arnett start out drinking? “Jack and coke. People ask if I hate seeing people putting my whiskey in coke and I say no, because that’s how I found it. You know, we heard that about 50 per cent of all the Jack Daniel’s sold around the world was in a Jack and coke. That’s huge. I don’t think I’d have become a big JD fan without it.”
Flavoured whiskeys and mixer serves aside, Jack Daniel’s is taking liquid innovation just as seriously as any other distillery. From maturation in maple barrels for No. 27 Gold, to carving grooves into barrel staves for Sinatra Select and even introducing its first new mashbill in its 134-year history for JD Rye, innovation permeates many of the brand’s core expressions. However, it’s in the distillery’s limited edition Tennessee Tasters series that many of its esoteric experiments are revealed. So far the series has featured an ex-Tennessee red wine finish, a Tennessee oatmeal stout finish, and whiskey matured in barrels containing charred hickory staves.
We want to be more surgical rather than shooting a shotgun at a wall
“We’re not necessarily working in one space,” Arnett explains. “We’re working across an array of new grains, flavours, barrels and higher proofs. We also want to plant a crop of corn because it’s an heirloom variety no one wants to grow anymore.” Despite taking a holistic approach, Arnett works closely with assistant master distiller Chris Fletcher to discern which specific areas of innovation to hone in on.
“We want to be more surgical rather than shooting a shotgun at a wall hoping something will stick. We don’t want to explode with a bunch of irrelevant offerings. Innovation is going to be a critical part of keeping the brand healthy and growing.”
And yet, for all its innovation and fame, there is still one basic characteristic of Jack Daniel’s that confuses people; it’s something Arnett is asked about on a regular basis. “It’s pretty common that people ask me if Jack is a Bourbon,” he sighs. “Jack Daniel’s is a Tennessee whiskey but I’d describe it as a special type of Bourbon that’s been charcoal mellowed.” By law, all products labelled as Tennessee whiskey must have been subjected to the Lincoln County process – the filtration of new-make spirit through maple charcoal, also known as charcoal mellowing. The difference in aroma, flavour and mouthfeel is clear, with those undergoing the process being noticeably softer as the charcoal extracts impurities from the spirit.
However, Arnett explains that charcoal mellowing isn’t a ‘one size fits all’ process, and that other Tennessee distillers have their own ‘recipe’. There are now 30 distilleries on the Tennessee whiskey trail making a range of products including rye and Bourbon. “If you look at the process we do and what they do just 20 miles up the road, they’re very different.”
Jack Daniels is by far the largest operation in the state, and having made a ‘substantial investment’ recently is prepared to meet rising global demand for American whiskey. “More people are looking at whisky than ever before, and even for an established brand like Jack, people will try it and say that’s great, now what’s next? Everybody wants to know what’s round the corner to try.” With innovations from flavours, to heritage grains and barrel finishes, it sounds like Arnett has plenty of surprises in store.