We are curious travelers, and that includes being fascinated by cultural traditions, including food & drink. Recently we were driving through Tennessee and decided to take some beautiful backcountry roads and stop by the Jack Daniel’s Distillery in Lynchburg, Tennessee. Most of us are familiar with the name Jack Daniels, even if you aren’t a whiskey fan. We were really impressed by our experience, but one interesting fact that we learned is that the distillery is located in a dry county. So they are technically not even allowed to sell their whiskey product in the town where they make it. But don’t let that get in the way of stopping by for a visit. Visiting the Jack Daniel’s Distillery is well worth the trip, and don’t worry, you can get the whiskey if you really want it; you just have to buy the bottle.
Who Was Jack Daniel?
Jack Daniel was born in Tennessee in 1850 and died there in 1911. He was a small man, only 5 foot 2 inches but he loved to entertain. In fact, he was known to throw some pretty lavish events. He also loved music, especially the way that it brought people together during parities. Jack was also a man of style. It is said that one day he left for a mystery trip, and returned days later dressed in the finest. With a vest, a long coat with tails, and hat, Jack always made an impression with his appearance. Perhaps it was a part of his whiskey branding, or personal reputation. Given the fact that he was a small man in stature, he certainly made an impression.
Even though he never married, Jack was known to be quite the ladies man! He died the age of 61, and it is said that the 2 iron chairs in front of his grave was so that women wouldn’t need to thrown themselves onto his grave as they mourned. The story of Jack’s death is as memorable as Jack himself. Jack was frustrated one morning when the safe wouldn’t open for him. Losing his temper, he kicked it quite hard and ended up busting his big town and part of his foot. Being a bit stubborn and embarrassed, he didn’t go to the doctor or seek any treatment. Unfortunately, it did not heal right and became infected with gangrene. Doctors tried to save him by amputating his foot, then part of his leg, then all of his leg; but they couldn’t save him. The infection spread and he passed away.
The Boy Who Learned to Make Whiskey
Growing up in Tennessee, Jack Daniel learned how to make whiskey at a very young age, only 7 years old! He learned from a man in town who ran a small still, and who also happened to be a preacher. After some time, the whiskey became popular and the man began to be pressured to choose one over the other; after all, the congregation felt like a “man of god” shouldn’t be running a whiskey business on the side. So ultimately, he chose religion over whiskey and sold Jack the business. At 13, Jack Daniel officially owned his own whiskey business!
What is Jack Daniel’s Whiskey?
Whiskey is a spirit that is distilled from fermented grain mash. Having been around for quite some time, there are many different variations of whiskey. Jack Daniel’s whiskey is known not only for its unique flavor, but also for its unique square shaped bottle. This was intentional. In 1895 when they transitioned to glass bottles, Jack wanted something that would stand his product a part. He was also very big on providing the best value to his customers, and he believed that the square bottle represented his customers getting a “square deal.”
There are very few ingredients in whiskey; therefore, the quality of the ingredients are crucial. Jack was very particular. He had been known to send back a shipment of grain if it wasn’t up to his standards. There are 3 types of grain used to make Jack Daniel’s whiskey; corn, barley and rye. Other than that, there is just a bit of yeast, then the water – also a critical component.
One of the reasons that Jack chose this location for his distillery was because of Cave Spring. This natural spring comes right out of the Tennessee mountains provides all the water needed to make their product. Even more important, the limestone surrounding the water as it flows acts as a sponge that absorbs iron. So the water coming out of the spring is completely iron-free, a very important and unique element in this whiskey.
A Bit About the Jack Daniel’s Distillery Tour
There are a couple different tour options at the Jack Daniel’s facility. They do offer a free walking tour, which is quite thorough, and takes just more than an hour. However, they also offer a tasting tour that takes slightly longer – nearly 2 hours to complete. This is also a walking tour, so bring some good shoes. In the future, they are planning to expand and offer some additional tours. So be sure to check out their website for more information.
We went on the sampling tour, and our guide was Jason. His passion and humor made for a wonderful experience! The tour begins by riding a bus up the property, and then you walk your way back down to the main visitor center. The first stop is the Rickyard. This is a very important area – as it is the distinguishing element of Jack Daniel’s from other whiskey. They burn these stacks of sugar-maple (the same tree used for maple syrup) until it is perfect charcoal. Too little burning and you will get unusable chunks of wood, too much and it just becomes ash. Timing is everything. Then it is crushed to the size of a pea and used later in the flavoring process.
After exploring the rick stacks, the burning & the crushing areas, then we made our way down to the Cave Spring. With a continuous flow of 56 degree water year round, this spring is vital to the Jack Daniel’s product. This crisp flowing water cascades throughout the property. Not only is it beatiful to see the water flowing throughout the property, but we can tell that it is a constant reminder of the traditions that mean so much to this brand of whiskey.
Next we stop by Jack’s original office, where he worked each day. Still in that office is the very safe which ultimately caused his death (pictured below). After Jack’s passing the business was run by family and friends for quite some time, but the business is now owned by Brown-Forman, an organization with an expansive portfolio of wine and spirits. However, the Jack Daniel’s product accounts for a significant portion of their revenue!
The Still House & Bubbles of Fermentation!
The next destination on the tour was the still house, where the product is distilled down to 140 proof – and boy could we smell it! At this point, it is basically moonshine or white-lightning! We were also lucky enough to visit the fermentation area and actually look inside and see the fermentation taking place! It was wild to see this chemical reaction taking place. After taking the “mash” of grains & water, they add yeast. Then we were able to witness the thick mass as it popped and bubbled while the fermentation process released carbon dioxide into the air! This is a really cool process that we had never gotten to see before.
At this point, we were able to move onto another very importatnt part of the process – the unique aspect that makes Jack Daniel’s different than any other.
Why is Jack Daniel’s Unique from Bourbon and Other Whiskies?
This is a very special part of the process, and not too many details are revealed (for good reason). Basically, they take the perfectly crushed up sugar maple charcoal (that was made up at our first stop – the Rickyard) and they drip the 140 proof liquid into the coals. It soaks through, slowly purifying and flavoring the liquid. After about 6 days, the liquid has finished making its way through the charcoal. It is tasted, and if right, collected for the barrels. We were able to barely open the containers to get a whiff of the product. And just smelling it was enough to knock you backwards!
Jack Daniel’s Makes their Own Barrels – and Only Uses Them Once!
The barrels are also another important part of the Jack Daniel’s process. Jack Daniel’s is the only distillery that makes its own barrels! This is another very careful process of building, and toasting the barrels just right. Another unique fact is that they only use their barrels once! After use, these barrels are sent off for a variety of uses. Some are turned into product for sale, such as planters, chairs, etc. in the gift shops, while others are sent off for use in other industries. For example, Jack Daniel’s barrels are used to make Tabasco sauce, and they are also sent off to wineries and other liquor distilleries around the world – including Mexico and Scotland!
The whiskey is stored in the barrels for 4-6 years, or until the color and taste are right. There isn’t a certain amount of time – it really depends. This is why their tasters are so important to keeping the quality of the product consistent. Also, even though ALL Jack Daniel’s whiskey is made at this facility in Lynchburg, barrels are sent to a variety of places for aging. This is just in case there is some kind of distaster, they will not lose all the product.
The Success of Jack Daniel’s
Prohibition took a toll on the distillery, as it did many other businesses. Jack passed away in 1911 – just 2 years after prohibition began. So unfortunately, he never knew that production continued. His family kept the business alive through other ventures during prohibition, but afterwards, they sunk their life savings into bringing the brand back to life. Even after prohibition, their county in Tennessee remained dry; however, the Jack Daniel’s owners persuaded the public to pass a law allowing them to continue producing whiskey because of the promise of jobs to the area.
So as mentioned, they cannot technically sell you the whiskey at the distillery. However, there is a bit of a loophole; they will sell you the bottle…and the whiskey comes in it for free.
High Rolling? Buy Yourself a Barrel!
If you are a real Jack fan and want to have the experience of a lifetime, then you can actually pick and buy your own barrel of Jack Daniels product. Make an appointment and they will roll out the red carpet for you! With a flag raised in your honor, you will be escorted to a special tasting room where you will get to sample whiskey direct from various barrels. Once you find the whiskey you like, they will roll that barrel into the bottling area and bottle it for you! They will also customize it with your name on the bottle, and you will get your name on their wall with a plaque. This is an amazing experience, but it will cost you a pretty penny! These custom bottles of whiskey make for great gifts, after all, it would take you quite a while to go through a whole barrel yourself.
Tasting the Jack Daniel’s Product
Since we were on the tasting tour of the Jack Daniel’s Facility, our last stop was the tasting room. This is where we got to learn all about the proper way to taste whiskey, which does not include shooting it. Gently sipping it and washing it around the front of your tongue, as well as pressing it to the roof of your mouth will release the flavor. And it is a great flavor!
But then when you swallow it, that is when you can taste the alcohol — and that is the rough part, at least for those of us not used to drinking straight whiskey. Jason walked us through 3 different types of Jack Daniel’s Whiskey that we got the chance to taste. Only small samples, and quite a bit of water for those of us who need the chaser.
Visiting Jack Daniel’s Facility
Last year, over 265,000 people visited the Jack Daniel’s distillery. An impressive number. It is also listed on the National Register of Historic places. Even if you are not a whiskey fan, visiting the distillery is a must. It is a fascinating process and you will appreciate the love and care that goes into each bottle. In fact, we were continuously impressed with the passion and dedication to the traditions of the Jack Daniel’s brand, and whenever we see that bottle in the future, we will be reminded of the love that goes into each one.