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Jack Daniel's Distillery shares art, history of Tennessee whiskey-making

Heide Brandes / Red Dirt Report
A copper still at Jack Daniel Distillery.
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LYNCHBURG, Tenn.- I’m not drunk, but I should be.

Surrounded by millions of gallons of some of the world’s most famous Tennessee whiskey, I am as sober as a gopher and not at all happy about the fact. Here I am, smack in the middle of the Jack Daniel’s Distillery in Lynchburg, Tenn., and a drop of whiskey has yet to pass my parched and yearning lips.

I am full, however, of everything I could ever possibly want to know about the history of America’s popular Tennessee whiskey and how it is made. I gazed down at the pure spring water from the cave where ol’ Jack himself collected the water that truly made all the difference in his whiskey.

I saw the storage towers where barrels of pure moonshine seeped in and out of the wood in order to get that whiskey taste and coloring, and I watched corn mash sizzle and stew in giant vats before dripping down through layers of charcoal.

I even kissed Jack (or at least a bronze statue of the whiskey god himself) on the cheek. 

For those who love Tennessee’s most famous whiskey, a tour of the Jack Daniels Distillery is a journey through history and the fine art of distilling, not a drunken romp in the woods. Although we were treated to a tasting at the end of the tour, the experience is one of learning about what makes whiskey so very American and so very… Tennessee.

The statue of Jack Daniel (Heide Brandes / Red Dirt Report) 

A SHOT OF HISTORY

Tucked in the rolling green mountains of south central Tennessee, Lynchburg is the home to Jack Daniel Distillery, a product marketed worldwide from a town with only one stoplight. Ironically enough, Lynchburg is also located in a dry county, which means you can’t legally buy alcohol in the county.

Thanks to a recent change in Tennessee law, the distillery has a loophole in which visitors can purchase whiskey, some variations of which can only be found in Tennessee if it is a “souvenir.”

Tennessee is the home of whiskey making, which was a big business in the late 1880s. Hundreds of distillers set up shop across the state, but Prohibition nearly killed the entire industry. Jack Daniel’s Distillery took a 29-year break but began making whiskey again in 1938.

Thanks to a 2013 state law, the legal definition of Tennessee whiskey was put in place. The sticking point - which differentiates “Tennessee Whiskey” from “whiskey made in Tennessee” is a process called the “Lincoln County Process,” which requires the liquor to be filtered through charcoal made of maple and aged in new, charred oak barrels.

The story of Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Whiskey began with a young boy in 1864 who left his home to live with the Rev. Dan Call. While living at the Call farm, he learned to make whiskey from the preacher and a black slave named Nathan “Nearest” Green, though our tour guide Ben shares that Mr. Green was truly the art behind the whiskey making. In fact, Jack would later hire Green as the Jack Daniel Distillery’s head distiller.

In 1866, Jack officially opened his distillery next to the Cave Spring Hollow, the source of the water that makes Jack Daniel’s whiskey what it is today. For a slightly over $2,000 investment, Jack purchased the land and the distillery was the first registered distillery within the U.S.

The cave itself still shimmers with 800 gallons of water pulled from the heart of the limestone earth. To this day, every bottle of Jack Daniel’s is made with this water.

Jack himself was a dashing sort of fellow, even being as short as he was. Turns out ol’ Jack and I are of the same height - 5’2” - but he had a personality that was giant.

Sadly, that big personality would be his downfall. After arriving at work early and unable to open his safe, Jack kicked it out of frustration and broke his toe. That broken toe worsens, goes septic, and eventually kills him.

In 1907, with no wife or heirs, Jack left his land and distillery to his nephew, Lem Motlow, who carried on the whiskey empire through Prohibition. In the 1960s, Master Distillers Jess Gamble and Frank Bobo helped with Old No. 7’s transformation from little-known regional whiskey to a world-famous brand.

TOUR OF BOOZE

Our tour guide Ben is a hyper fellow, local to the area, and steeped in the knowledge of all things Jack Daniel’s. We walk through the area where charcoal is made, he points to the seven-story barrel storage buildings, explaining that the different temperatures in the non-air-conditioned buildings help expand and contract the wood in the barrels, allowing the pure corn whiskey moonshine seep in and out of the wood.

The barrels on the top floor get the warmest, so the whiskey there becomes the strongest and darkest of the liquor.

“There’s no climate control, there’s no insulation, so the temperature does whatever it wants to do,” Ben said. “It causes the barrels to expand and contract. Picture the barrels breathing. When it gets hot, that whiskey goes into the wood, and eventually when the wood cools down, it contracts and pushes that whiskey back out to the barrel. Over and over, it’s doing that. That’s where you get all the color and most of the flavor. It’s all mother nature.”

We stroll from the cave of sparkling water to the buildings where the sour mash is made, the air filled with that baking bread smell of fermentation. We peek inside the giant fermenters, the corn mash glowing like liquid gold as the yeast does its magic.

When ready, that stew of alcohol is poured through copper column continuous flow through 40-foot tall stills made of 100 percent copper. As the mash goes down, the steam heats the alcohol into vapor, goes through the copper piping, condenses and comes out the bottom as pure, clear whiskey.

It’s 140 proof.

Once distilled to 140-proof, the clear, un-aged whiskey goes on a painstaking journey. Drop by drop, it crawls through the handcrafted charcoal at a pace dictated by gravity and nothing else. The trip takes over a week to complete and once it’s done, the whiskey is transformed.

The distillery bottles on average 1,500 barrels a day or 20,000 barrels in roughly two and a half weeks, but the charcoal is the key, Ben said.

“Making whiskey is an art and science, and making charcoal for whiskey is very much an art and craft as well,” he said, adding that the two master “rickers” have a combined 30 years of experience in making the charcoal between them.

At the Jack Daniel Distillery, two men take logs of maple wood, pile them up under a huge metal hood onsite in a very particular manner, and use the pure distilled moonshine from the distillery itself to burn it down to charcoal. These two men are the masters, and they have their own apprentices who may or may not take over the process one day.

“Charcoal does a huge job. It smooths, balances and mellows out the whiskey because it takes out about 80 percent of the corn oil and additives. Of the five Tennessee whiskey makers in the world, only two of us make our own charcoal,” Ben said.

Jack Daniel's Tour Guide Ben and the barrels of whiskey.  (Heide Brandes / Red Dirt Report) 

TASTE OF TENNESSEE

The Angel’s Share is named for the leakage that inevitably happens in the whiskey oak barrels. Along the seams, dark whiskey seeps out, staining the wood and evaporating in the air.

“We lose a rough amount of 10 percent per barrel. It’s called the Angel’s Share,” Ben said. “It’s just part of the process.”

Our “Angel Share” tour ended with a tasting of the Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel Collection and a limited edition whiskey.

Now we’re talking! After the story-filled, high-energy guided tour by Ben, we were able to sit and sip at the Barrel House 1-14.

As Ben explained the different whiskeys, we sipped on No. 27 Gold, Single Barrel Select, Single Barrel Rye, Single Barrel Barrel Proof and Single Barrel Sinatra.

The Sinatra Select is made with the “Sinatra Barrels,” which have deep grooves carved into the staves to expose the whiskey to extra layers of toasted oak. These grooves allow more exposure to the wood and results in a bold flavor that’s both smoky and smooth with a hint of vanilla.

My favorite was the Barrel Proof, a spicy whiskey that peppered like firecrackers in the mouth. The Barrel proof is bottled straight from the barrel at its full proof, which can be anywhere from 125 to 140 proof. For something as strong, it’s surprisingly smooth and easy to drink.

“Our biggest seller is the original Black Label No. 7,” Ben said. “Roughly that’s about 97 percent of what we sell. The very newest products are the Barrel Proof and the Rye.”

Five samples later, and two personal monogrammed bottles in the bag, I leave with my own Angel’s Share and a deeper appreciation for the world’s favorite Tennessee whiskey.

For more information on Jack Daniels or a tour, visit www.www.jackdaniels.com.

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About the Author

Heide Brandes

Heide Brandes is an award-winning journalist and editor with more than 18 years of experience....

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About Red Dirt Report

Red Dirt Report was launched July 4, 2007 as an independent news website covering all manner of news, culture, entertainment and lifestyle stories that affect and interest Oklahoma readers and readers outside of our state. Our mission is to educate, promote civic engagement and discourse on public policy, government and politics. Our experienced journalists provided balanced in-depth coverage of news stories that affect Oklahomans. Our opinion/editorial stories come from a wide range of political view points. We carry out our mission by reporting, writing, and posting news and information. read more

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