Few American spirits have as much clout as Jack Daniel’s. Since 1866, the Tennessee whiskey has been produced in its hometown of Lynchburg, a hamlet located within a dry county 70 miles southeast of Nashville. Despite the prohibition of alcohol sales in Moore County, the Jack Daniel’s Distillery offers year-round tours that include tastings of the caramel elixir and access to the official bottle shop—not to be confused as a liquor store—with “commemorative” bottles available for purchase and imbibing at home.
The town of less than 500 residents sees 280,000+ annual visitors to the Jack Daniel’s Distillery—the oldest registered distillery in the United States, also listed on the National Register of Historic Places. For those who seek insight into the formidable Jack Daniel’s whiskey empire, five thematic tours dive into various corners of the compound from a behind-the-scenes look into the whiskey-making process and flight sampling to an enhanced culinary experience with a Southern-style lunch at Miss Mary Bobo’s Boarding House.
Accompanied by captivating storytelling, guests time travel through the distillery as they pass a recreation of Jasper “Jack” Daniel’s first office, his prohibition-era White Rabbit Saloon, and the Barrelhouse 1-14, which today houses over 20,000 barrels. Infused with the tales of Lynchburg’s past are lessons in what sets Tennessee whiskey apart from bourbon—and how Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Whiskeys achieved legacy status.
First-ever Assistant Master Distiller Chris Fletcher explains that the principal differentiator is charcoal mellowing, a process that begins in the distillery’s rickyard, where cords of hard sugar maple wood are burned to charcoal. The blackened chips are then densely layered into 10-foot vats, through which the pre-barreled whiskey is mellowed, drop by drop. The liquid that emerges has a maple-influenced sweetness and complexity that’s further enhanced when maturing in its final home, an American white oak barrel.
Fletcher’s approachability on the distillery grounds comes from his growing up there. He’s the grandson of Bobo, Jack Daniel’s fifth master distiller, whom he shadowed making sour mash and operating the pot stills in between frolics through the grounds. “I used to play on that fire truck,” he recalls, with a finger pointing to the bright red vintage truck near the rickyard, “and pick spent grain to feed to the ducks by the stream.”
Unlike the unfounded claim that New York tap water is what makes New York bagels superb, Jack Daniel’s water source does in fact play an inimitable role, creating every bottle of the brand’s whiskey supply. From the underground Cave Spring Hollow, 800 gallons of water passes through daily at a constant 56 degrees—the same water that spurred Jack Daniel to purchase the hollow exclusively for his whiskey production. Standing underneath its mossy cliffs, one can hear whistles of cold air blowing through the limestone cavern, through which the spring water is filtered and rendered iron-free and pleasant tasting.
At the Jack Daniel’s Distillery, guides conduct their tours with a refreshing transparency on product-making and with a remarkable hospitality that stems from 95% of employees being local to Lynchburg—many of them multigenerational. What might be assumed as trade secrets are discussed pretty liberally. For instance, the microbiology team eagerly shares what would otherwise be proprietary chemistry behind the product: the advantage of lactic souring in the sour mash development process versus the commercial enzymes used by craft distillers.
It all trickles down from Master Distiller Jeff Arnett, whose supervision spans the entire whiskey-making process, including milling, yeasting, fermentation, distillation, charcoal mellowing, and maturation. Arnett speaks freely about his passion not just for making whiskeys, but also marketing them—including the challenging ideation process of catering new Jack Daniel’s labels to certain international markets. But of all the steps, he sees maturation of the whiskey as what perfects the Jack Daniel’s product.
All Jack Daniel’s whiskeys are matured in barrels from its private cooperage in Trinity, Alabama, a near-two-hour drive from the distillery. Opened in 2014, the state-of-the-art facility assembles up to 1,200 white oak barrels daily, including toasting and charring their interiors to extract natural sugars from the wood. New technological innovations make this a remarkably efficient product, most notably the automatic measuring and uniform cutting of the 33 staves that comprise each barrel.
Knowing the Jack Daniel’s philosophy, consistency and tradition could never be sacrificed when concocting America’s holiest whiskey, the barrels are still assembled by hand. According to Arnett, it’s these barrels that are responsible for all the color of Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Whiskey, and more than half of its flavor and character. A visit here embodies that Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Whiskey saying, “Every day we make it, we’ll make it the best we can.”
Images by Paul Jebara