In a one-stoplight town in the south-central part of Tennessee, you’ll find the home of the top-selling American whiskey brand in the world.
Photograph: Michael Dietsch
In November, I attended a press trip to the Jack Daniel Distillery, where I saw how the iconic brand is produced, aged, and bottled. We even got our hands dirty helping out a little around the distillery. And I learned some curious and interesting facts about the brand’s history and production.
Drier Than the Sahara
One thing that’s quite unusual about Jack is that you can’t drink much of it on the official tour, not even a full ounce per sample. You see, Lynchburg sits in a dry county and even the small amount you can drink required a special exemption.
Now, you might have heard this story once upon a time, about how crazy it is that one of the largest-selling whiskey brands in the world is made in a dry county. What you might not know, though, is why the county chooses to remain dry all these decades after the repeal of Prohibition. Daniel’s brings in a lot of tourism, to the tune of 250,000 visitors a year. Imagine 250,000 people a year coming into a small town like Lynchburg, touring the distillery, and then sticking around well after dark to have a drink or twelve. Lynchburg fears, probably rightly so, becoming the Vegas of the South. I’m all for less Prohibition, and right now please, but I don’t live in their community, and I can mostly see their point.
Charcoal: Not Just for Grilling Out
Not much distinguishes Tennessee whiskey from bourbon, and in fact, Jack Daniel’s could legally call itself a bourbon if the company wished to do so. The main difference between Jack and bourbon is that Jack uses a charcoal-filtering process to smooth out the whiskey prior to aging. Here’s how it works.
First, the company brings in sugar maple, grown sustainably in the region. The sugar maple comes to Jack cut into long, thin planks, or ricks. Jack employs a couple of guys whose job it is to burn the ricks of sugar maple into charcoal. First, they douse the sugar maple with an accelerant to help it burn quickly and efficiently. The accelerant isn’t gasoline or kerosene, either of which would impart an off taste to the final product. Instead, it’s high-proof unaged Jack Daniel’s, straight off the still.
Here’s a photo of a guy setting the sugar maple on fire. He’s not one of the aforementioned employees, but just a chump who got the chance to do something fun once.
Photograph: Jack Daniel Distillery
After the sugar maple burns, it resembles the stuff you’d buy if you got a bag of hardwood lump charcoal–not the briquettes, but the natural stuff you can get at specialty grocers. I used to grill out using lump charcoal all the time, and I loved the way it burned–clean, without the binders and other gunk you get from briquettes. (I asked whether anyone had ever taken some of the sugar-maple charcoal lumps home to grill with, and I don’t think our host understood me because he mentioned the Jack Daniel’s brand briquettes you can buy.)
That aside, Jack doesn’t use this lump charcoal to filter its whiskey. Instead, they grind up the charcoal into fine pellets, which they use to fill giant tanks inside the facility. The unaged distillate is pumped to spouts atop the tanks, where it dribbles out of the spouts and down onto the charcoal below. In a process that takes weeks, the whiskey slowly trickles through the tanks of charcoal pellets, until it emerges at the bottom, stripped of some of the chemical compounds that would otherwise make the whiskey taste bitter or tart. When the charcoal pellets are at the end of their lifespan, they’re ground up further, into dust, and used to make Jack’s charcoal briquettes, thus ensuring that no part of the sugar maple goes to waste. To make the even-smoother Gentleman Jack, the company filters the aged product through the charcoal one more time, thus mellowing it even further.
Sundown in Nashville
Before our group went to Jack, however, we spent a night in Nashville. I arrived early on a Monday afternoon, checked into my hotel, and grabbed a cab to get lunch. I chose a meat-and-three place, which are pretty common in Nashville. They’re cafeteria-style joints, usually mom-n-pop places, that sell you a lunch of some kind of meaty main dish, with up to three sides. (Hence, “meat-and-three.”) The most famous in Nashville is Arnold’s Country Kitchen, about seven minutes out of downtown. I was lucky; you can always find roast beef on the mains at Arnold’s, but the rest of the mains rotate through the week, and on the day I was there, one of the choices was fried chicken. I ordered that, and I was very pleased.
I also spent sometime at the Country Music Hall of Fame; I probably would have gone there anyway, but they were having an exhibition on Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, and the influence of Nashville musicians on rock albums of the late 1960s and 1970s. A large group of talented session musicians set in on those recordings, contributing a unique sound to music of the era and helping to revitalize the country genre at the same time Outlaw Country was coming up. The exhibit was great, and I’m glad I had the time to go, but I wish I could have stayed longer at the museum and seen more.