Distillery Focus

Mellowing in Lynchburgh

Davin de Kergommeaux gets under the skin of the Tennessee giant
By Davin de Kergommeaux
Might it have been tough love? Perhaps a premonition of his own impending premature death? Or was it simple exasperation with an overly-precocious 10 year old that in 1860 led one Calaway Daniel, of Moore County, Tennessee, to do the unthinkable. He deposited his youngest son, Jasper, on the doorstep of the Lutheran minister in Lynchburg. Maybe he would set the boy on the right path?

We can’t know Calaway’s motivation, but if the legend is true, young Jasper’s precocious nature is clearly evident in a defining action he took just three years later. When the minister’s wife finally convinced her husband to sell his distillery, Jack, as the 13 year old Jasper was now called, had both the acumen and remarkably, the wherewithal to purchase it.

That the minister, Reverend Dan Call, dispensed liquid corn spirits along with spiritual guidance was not unusual. Many a 19th century Southern preacher heard both calls. And if the success of his protégé, Jack Daniel, is any indication, Reverend Call was also quite a teacher. It was Call who showed Daniel the benefits of mellowing whiskey by filtering it through maple charcoal.

Although Jack Daniel’s whiskey today meets every requirement to be called straight bourbon, Call’s charcoal mellowing, known now as the Lincoln County process, is considered to impart distinctive enough softening of the flavour to merit its own category called ‘Tennessee Whiskey.’

“Consistent flavour is important at Jack Daniel distillery,” says Jeff Norman, Jack Daniel’s master taster. The distillery goes through hundreds of barrels a day and it’s Norman, the master taster, who has the final say on which barrels of Jack Daniel’s whiskey are ready for the bottling line. And how does he do that? Read it and weep – he tastes them!

“It’s funny to see the reaction I get from people when I tell them what I do,” says Norman, in his best Tennessee drawl. “I tell them that I taste whiskey each morning before I have my coffee, and that’s true. It’s a pretty cool job.”

Each day when he arrives at work, Norman heads straight for the new batch of samples that awaits him. “It’s mostly single barrel,” he tells me. “On an average day I’ll taste maybe 40 samples.” And he really does avoid coffee so he can keep his palate clean.

Norman comes by his duties honestly. Just like both his parents, he calls Lynchburg, Tennessee, and the Jack Daniel distillery home. But those credentials alone do not qualify him for what must be the best gig in the world. No, Jeff Norman is also Dr. Norman, environmental chemist. He’s got street smarts and book smarts, as they say in Tennessee.

After graduation, Norman worked in the still room at Jack Daniel’s, later moving to the warehouses and then into quality control. When the job of Master Taster opened up and it was offered to him, Norman leaped at the opportunity. And what does a master taster’s job description look like? “I never have the same day twice” is all he’ll tell me.
Norman takes his tastings very seriously. The millions of Jack Daniel’s drinkers in 130 countries around the world who together buy 120 million bottles of Jack Daniel’s every year wouldn’t tolerate anything less. Bikers, rock stars, week-end tailgaters – they all have their standards.

When it comes to icons of Americana Jack Daniel’s Tennessee whiskey is right there with the best of them. Jack Daniels is an authentic product, the American dream in a bottle, with its rags-to-riches, underdog-makes-good story that every misunderstood rebel can recognise.

But the Jack Daniel story is about to change. The label, which reads loquaciously, “Jack Daniel’s Old Time, Old No. 7 Brand, Quality Tennessee Sour Mash Whiskey, Distilled and Bottled by Jack Daniel Distillery, Lem Motlow, Proprietor, Lynchburg (Pop. 361), Tenn. U.S.A., Est. & Reg. in 1866” is about to be refined. Lem Motlow was Daniel’s nephew and heir. Motlow died in 1947 and his descendents eventually sold the distillery to Brown-Foreman. Motlow’s name will disappear from the label. The current population of Lynchburg (6,362) will not be mentioned, and the date of establishment and registration will be dropped, given that county records cannot confirm the existence of the distillery, nor its registration, until 1875. That would make young Jack Daniel 22 years of age, not 13, when he bought Call’s distillery.

However, some Lynchburg numbers are not disputed. Every day, 12 to 15 of 56 fermenters are filled with mash made from 80 per cent corn, eight per cent rye, and 12 per cent barley malt. Distillery-grown yeast, and a portion of spent mash from a previous batch begin ‘sour mash’ fermentation.

Saying that Jack Daniel’s is made by a ‘sour mash’ process is akin to saying that it is ‘matured in oak’–it’s stating the obvious. Bourbon distillers, and Tennessee whiskey makers too, make much of their limestone water. And limestone water is important because it contains minerals that are essential to the action of the barley malt enzymes that convert corn starches into fermentable sugars.

Barley enzymes are great for barley, but they are not endogenous to corn, that is they are not produced by the corn itself. They need all the help they can get to ensure an efficient conversion of corn starch, which is a little bit different from barley starch.

It favours enzyme action, but limestone water inhibits the action of yeast, because it is too alkaline. So, the acidic leftovers of a previous fermentation are added to each new mash to reduce this alkalinity and allow a healthy fermentation to proceed. “Yeast has to compete with other organisms, and lower pH lets yeast get a head start,” explains Norman. This is the secret of sour mash whiskey and the reason why every major distiller in America, Jack Daniel’s included, uses the sour mash process.

Six days after fermentation begins, the distillers’ beer is ready for double distillation in copper column stills. The first pass through a beer still, a relatively short column, removes the spent grains and much of the water. A second pass through a rectifying column separates out the alcohol and more flavourful congeners, yielding white whiskey with an alcohol content of 140 proof, 70%ABV. This is then diluted to 125 proof before being filled into brand new charred white oak barrels from Brown-Forman Cooperage in Louisville, Kentucky.

The whiskey matures in the warehouse for an average of four and a half years.

Honey barrels that mature more quickly in the ‘sweet spots’ in the rick houses are generally left for six and a half years and used for single barrel bottlings. The Jack Daniel distillery welcomes visitors but there’s no sampling as Moore County is dry. However, well-heeled visitors with the inclination, can have Jeff Norman help them sample three of those honey barrels and then select the one to have bottled and take home with them.

Ten million cases a year may sound like a production line, but Norman assures me that at Jack Daniel distillery this is not the case. “Whiskey is like fruit on a tree,” Norman tells me, “you let it mature until it is ready.”

Tasting notes

Jack Daniel’s

Old No. 7 (80 proof – 40% ABV)
Vanilla, clover honey, coal soot, tannic oak, and hot white pepper. Hints of exotic wood with a short vaguely citric finish. Robust, simple and to the point.

Gentleman Jack

(80 proof – 40% ABV)
Twice filtered and noticeably smooth. The same vanilla as Old No. 7, but muted by spicy cloves, cinnamon and nutmeg. Sweet and sour citric fruit and almost jammy. Toasted oak caramels but no woody notes. Again, hot white pepper.

Jack Daniel’s

Single Barrel (90 proof – 45% ABV)
Toffee, caramel, with waxy wild honey. Dried
glazed citric rinds. Hot white pepper and generic baking spices. Rich and succulent with a fading finish. Every barrel differs.

Jack Daniel’s

Tennessee Honey (80 proof – 40% ABV)
Sweet to the point of being unctuous. The Jack Daniel’s citrus notes move to the fore as does hot white pepper. There is a familiar Jack Daniel’s spiciness and just hints of oak, but the vanilla is lost in a sea of liquid honey. A bourbon lover’s liqueur.

Process info


four continuous cookers - 20 minute cooking time.

Mash bill

80% corn 12 barley malt, 8% rye grain Fermenters: 48 – 40,000 gallons; 6 – 80,000 gallons Fermentation: 6 days –sometimes less (called short beers).


five copper beer stills and five copper rectifying columns Barrels: Brown-Forman Cooperage, Louisville, Kentucky – new charred white oak.

Batch size

40,000 gallons of mash make 8,000 gallons of whiskey to fill 150 barrels.


Old No. 7 – 4½ years average; Single Barrel – 6½ years average Bottled without chill filtration.

Distillery info

Jack Daniel Distillery, Established 1866 (or so)

Region: Tennessee, U.S.A.
Production capacity: Ten million 9-litre cases annually
Grain source: Corn, rye and barley malt from across the American mid-west
Water Source: On-site limestone cave spring

Contact info

Owner: Brown-Forman
Address: 182 Lynchburg Highway, Lynchburg, Tennessee 37352 Telephone: (931) 759-6357
Nearest Airport: Nashville, Tennessee
Website: www.jackdaniels.com
Tours: Hourly or more often, depending on demand. No charge; no samples.