Nashville and Memphis are important cradles of American music, most notably blues, country and rock 'n' roll. Tennessee is also home to Graceland, final resting place of Elvis Presley. The legendary performer was born in Tupelo, Mississippi, but moved to Memphis at the age of 19 to record with the famous Sun Label and lived there until his untimely death in 1977.
BB King started his career in Memphis when he followed his uncle Bukka White, leaving the Mississippi Delta. Nashville, with its Grand Ole Opry and eponymous live radio show, presented many legendary country singers such as Hank Williams, Patsy Cline, Dolly Parton and Garth Brooks. Many musicians enjoy a good dram of whiskey and Tennessee was the place to get it, with one of the most famous distilleries in the world on their doorstep: Jack Daniel's.
But, who was the man who gave his name to the best selling single brand in the world? According to legend the story begins in 1860 with the birth of Jasper Newton Daniel. At age six he ran away from home - a one room country shack - because he could not get along with his evil stepmother, which actually makes a good start for a fairy tale.
At first he was given shelter by an uncle but soon started to work on the farm of Dan Call, a wealthy farmer and part-time lay preacher in Lynchburg. In his spare time Call distilled whiskey in a nearby barn. For a while he combined things well, until his congregation forced him to choose between the one and the other spirit. Call chose The Word, handed his distilling operation to 15-year-old Jack, allegedly saying: "You'll become the best whisky maker in the world." And Jack took that literally.
He was a living legend - small, creative, vain, short-fused, a huge womaniser and a lifetime bachelor - a rock 'n' roll artist avant la lettre. An enigma too. Whoever compares the birthdate on his gravestone with the dates on his mother's tombstone, will see that he was born one-and-a-half years after she passed away!
The cause of his demise is fodder for a rocker's biography as well. One day Jack went to his office to get some money from the vault. When it refused to open, he became so angry that he violently kicked it. As a result Jack broke his big toe, neglected the injury and subsequently died from gangrene and blood poisoning, aged 60. His nephew Lem Motlow, whose name adorned each bottle of JD for many years, inherited lock, stock and barrel. He was instrumental in the worldwide growth of the brand. Lem, like his uncle, was a remarkable and rather dominant personality. After World War II his four sons took over the business and ran it until 1956, when the old and respected Brown-Forman firm acquired the distillery. They left a Motlow in the Board of Directors, honouring the southern motto: "If it ain't broke, don't fix it."
Around that time the worldwide demand for JD had skyrocketed, partly because many celebrities in the music and showbiz domain, led by Frank Sinatra and his Rat Pack, took to the drink and were not afraid to show it. JD also started collecting prizes at international drinks competitions. In short, Jack rocked around the clock and around the world.
When the end of the 1960s saw the international break-through of the Rolling Stones, Jack Daniel's got a free walking billboard. Keith Richards never went without JD Old No 7, photographed many times holding the distinctive square bottle with the black-and-white label.
Lynchburg annually hosts the Barbecue World Championships; the charming little rural town with its roughly 3,000 inhabitants is then temporarily flooded by tens of thousands of hard core JD fans, Harley Davidson bikers and rockers alike. And all of that because an angry little boy ran away from home in the middle of the 19th century. Talk about fairy tales.
Jack Daniel's new-make spirit, called 'white dog' in the US, is filtered through sugar maple charcoal before being matured in charred casks. This filtering method is also known as the Lincoln County Process. Since by law bourbon may not contain other flavouring agents than coming from the cask itself, Jack cannot be named bourbon. Hence the moniker Tennessee Whiskey. Apart from Old No 7, the distillery bottles two other standard expressions: Jack Daniel's Single Barrel and Gentleman Jack. The latter is filtered not only before entering the cask but also after maturation. Recently an un-aged Rye and a honey flavoured Jack, containing Tennessee honey, bottled at 35% ABV, were added to the core range. Limited releases appear on a regular basis. Recently the Frank Sinatra Edition was launched.
An urban legend tells the name of this little town is derived from a man of small stature named Mr. Lynch. In earlier times he was supposed to flog arrested criminals. Hence the word 'lynching'.
Dry county, thirsty throat
In Moore County, where Jack Daniel's distillery is located, Prohibition (1920-1933) was never repealed. So the grounds where the whiskey is made are dry and you cannot buy a bottle in Jack's hometown. Two miles to the west is the county line. When you cross it, you'll see a trailer with the sign "liquor store". Buy your stash, return to Lynchburg and enjoy. You are allowed to drink it there. Who knows, you might run into former distillery manager Jimmy Bedford's cousin Woodye Bedford, a local farmer, who once introduced himself to me with the words: "My cousin Jimmy might be the master distiller at Jack Daniel's, but I am the master consumer!" The current master distiller is Jeff Arnett.
Tennessee whiskey beyond Jack
About twenty miles from Lynchburg you can find George Dickel Distillery, in Cascade Hollow, Tullahoma. It produces a similar type of whiskey. The annual output is roughly a tenth of JD. Near Kelso one can find Prichard's, a micro distillery that produces all kinds of whiskies alongside rum. Corsair Artisan Distillers is located in Nashville.