“… and you can have a shot of Jack Daniel’s,” our guide told us as we set off on our tour around the Jack Daniels Distillery in Lynchburg, Tennessee.
It was a joke, of course – a pun on the word “shot”: a jigger of alcohol or a picture.
No free tastings were available, as Lynchburg is still in a dry county – a holdover from the state-wide prohibition laws passed in 1910.
Even without a “shot” of the world-famous sour mash Tennessee whiskey, the guided walk around the premises, established as a distillery on this site in 1875, is an interesting and entertaining experience.
Small in stature but with a story larger than life, Jack Daniel himself is mythologised as a symbol of independence and pride in craftsmanship.
Born in a September, sometime between 1846 and 1850, Jasper Newton “Jack” Daniel was the one of ten or thirteen children fathered by Calaway Daniel with Lucinda Cook Daniel before she died in 1847. Calaway remarried and had several more children before he, too, died.
Jack was independent from a young age, and stories abound about how he started distilling. Accepted wisdom is that at age seven he apprenticed himself to Dan Call, a local preacher and storekeeper in Lincoln County, who also made and sold whiskey. When Jack was 13, Call was forced by his wife and congregation to choose between ministry and distilling; he chose the former, selling Jack the still and the rights to the whisky business.
Some time later, as the business grew, Jack found and established the current location in Moore County, with it’s limestone spring water and abundant maple trees: perfect for the charcoal-filterering process Call had developed. The Jack Daniel’s Distillery is the oldest registered distillery in America.
The earliest Tennessee whisky was sold in earthenware jugs, painted with “xxx”. Jack, however, was a clever marketer, keenly aware of branding. He was the first to stencil the distillery name onto the jugs, in effect promising a consistent standard and quality.
The move to glass bottles came soon and numerous bottle designs from over the years are on display in the visitor centre. In 1895, Jack was impressed with a prototype square bottle, quickly realizing that it was both distinctive and practical. It was also symbolic of his desired image as an honest and “square” dealer.
No one knows for sure what the now-famous “No. 7” stands for. The tale I heard was that it was the number on the only cask rescued from a river-transport accident; the more likely, but less engaging story is that it was the original district tax-assessment number for the distillery. Either way, like so much else about Jack Daniel, it is now part of the myth, and the number seven recurs in the story of the product and its sponsorships.
Jack always said his whisky was first rate. In 1904, he entered it in the St. Louis World’s Fair and won the Gold Medal for the Best Whiskey in the World against more established European products. After winning a magic seventh gold medal in 1981, this time from the Institut Pour Les Selections De La Qualite, Amsterdam, the distillery stopped entering competitions: “because it’s a number we happen to like.”
Jack branded himself as carefully as his product. Because he only grew to five foot one, he was often mistaken for a youngster. To counter this, he grew the goatee and drooping moustache that we see in all the pictures and sculptures. Carrying his silver-tipped walking stick, he dressed and acted the part of the southern gentleman.
But, he clearly loved his trade, and his passion for fine sipping whiskey has been passed on to those who work at the distillery today.
The moral of Jack’s story is: Never be the first person at work!
According to lore, when he beat his accountant in to work one morning, he couldn’t get the safe open because he had forgotten the code. He kicked the safe in frustration, broke his toe, and gangrene set in, eventually killing him in 1911.
The more mundane story is that he had diabetes… Contributed to by his alcohol consumption? The price of his pursuit of taste-testing excellence? Oh dear!
These days, of course, as is the case with the Irish Guinness, faceless corporate giants have taken over. But, the Jack Daniels employees assured us that they have been left to do things in the timeless, old-fashioned way – on the surface, at least. Just last month, it was announced that parent company Brown-Forman Corp. was investing $100 million to expand its distillery operations to meet increasing demand. Who knows what changes this will bring.
Although Lynchburg is a dry county, we were able to buy some commemorative Jack Daniel’s bottles after our tour…
Just our luck, they contained some fine sipping whiskey.
Jack still lives here…