Jack Daniel’s is the world’s highest-selling whiskey, critically acclaimed throughout its history and available in almost every bar you’d visit. Possibly like most whiskey drinkers, I started drinking Jack Daniel’s mixed with coke, which now seems absurd given the history and magnitude of the brand. Whilst visiting Nashville, a group of friends and I decided to take the one-hour and twenty-minute pilgrimage to Lynchburg, Tennessee, to visit Jack Daniel’s distillery.
The story of how Jack Daniel came to be is as fascinating as the liquid itself. Jack was one of ten children who eventually ran away from home and ended up living with a local preacher, Call, who peculiarly had an affinity with distilling moonshine. After Jack’s father died in 1875, Jack received a significant inheritance and founded a legally registered distilling business with Call, who eventually quit citing religious reasons. After becoming sole owner, Jack purchased land, coincidentally where the distillery is located today, and by 1885, Jack’s distillery was one of 15 operating within the county. After giving the distillery to one of his nephews due to his ill health, rumoured to be a result of kicking his safe and subsequently contracting blood poisoning, the distillery went from strength to strength and is now the best-selling whiskey in the world.
The distillery has always been on my hitlist amongst many Kentucky distilleries. Still, given the tight time frame and the requirement to drive 20+ hours the following day, my group and I settled for, arguably, the mecca of all whiskey distilleries. After the 80-minute journey and arriving shortly after the opening time, we were greeted with the news that the next available tour would not be available for another 90 minutes. So, with that, we took the opportunity to explore the mini-museum within the distillery’s entrance and walk around the picturesque grounds surrounding it; eighty minutes flew by. The group decided to opt for the ‘Flight of Jack Daniel’s Tour’, which was a “behind-the-scenes” look at how Jack Daniel’s is made, which included a stop at historic Barrelhouse 1 – 14, where we would sip a flight of five Jack products. Bizarrely, the distillery sits in a dry county, meaning no alcohol can be served in pubs or restaurants. Still, fortunately, there is a loophole which means we were appropriately catered for.
Our distillery tour started with a ten-minute bus journey to another part of the massive site. Our tour guide for the day conducted all of the usual formalities, and with that, we arrived at our first stop, the ‘Rickyard’. This is where Jack Daniel’s stacks and burns the charcoal used in its infamous charcoal filtering process (this is essentially why Jack Daniel’s is called Tennesse whiskey rather than bourbon, as this step is prohibited by law). Unfortunately, the burning was not occurring during our visit; however, we did enjoy our first sample of whiskey at this point, a 70% ABV lighter fluid (seriously!) which was sprayed onto our hands and was subsequently licked off…
A quick 5-minute walk led us to some limestone cave, which incredibly was the site of the original Jack Daniel’s distillery. Call’s teachings were clearly fundamental given the spot where Jack chose; the water is iron-free, temperature regulated by the cool climate and essentially perfect for whiskey making. Whether true or not, the sentiment that the sooty appearance of the cave roof was the soot as a result of Jack Daniel’s original distilling certainly made me reflect on the importance of history and the necessity for growth to become such a giant today.
On the way to the original cabin, which is the only original building there today, stood a statue of Jack, proudly surveying his creation today. The office is a fascinating spectacle; the walls adorn the company motto, “Every day we make it, we’ll make it the best we can,” which is a testament to the numerous awards Jack Daniel’s holds today. The office also contains the famous safe, which, as previously mentioned, was indirectly the cause of his unfortunate death. After hopefully not tempting fate, I subsequently gave the safe a boot in the hope of giving me some luck, rather than experiencing the same fate! We then moved indoors to see where the magic happens.
The distillery itself is by no means a picturesque spectacle; it’s built with a purpose. Jack Daniel’s is made nowhere else on earth; therefore, the fact that every bottle is made there requires a hefty industrial operation, which is subsequently what it looks like. There are no beautiful copper pot stills but tankers that look like they’ve been around for decades. Our guide later regurgitates the distilling process by explaining the heavy corn mash, which includes rye and barley to make the ‘sour mash.’ Rather unforgettably, we got to look inside the fermentation tank and smell the mash, which felt like the soul leaving my body, truly memorable. And with that, we visited the ‘mellowing’ chambers, where the whiskey is passed through 10 feet of charcoal filtering, adding several days to the process. After regaining my sense of smell post fermentation tank, we got to smell the charcoal filters, which was a beautiful sweetness of vanilla, caramel and honey; an exclusive but ultimately divisive step in the process.
After well and truly developing a heavy thirst, we made our way to a room which showed us the process of ‘cooperaging’ again, a process all done on-site. Similarly to bourbon, Jack Daniel’s uses American Oak casks for their spirit and then ultimately sends them to Scotland and Ireland, where they are used for subsequent finishes. Interestingly, there are around 80 barrel houses in Lynchburg which hold about a million gallons of whiskey. After the video, we finally got to visit one of the barrelhouses on site, where our tasting was due to take place. After taking a seat, we were presented a beautiful plinth with six tiny measures of different releases. The samples included: Old No.7, Gentleman Jack, Tennessee Apple, Tennessee Rye, Tennessee Fire and Tennessee honey. As I will not review these specific releases, I will say that the Tennessee Rye is worth a try, but the others are a poor example of the proud heritage and history; I think Jack himself would be doing a lot more safe-kicking if he knew his distillery was making Apple liqueur Tennessee whiskey.
Regardless, I went for something a little more refined and less common when I visited the slightly underwhelming shop after the tour had finished. I caveat this by saying a better and much larger shop exists ten minutes away in Lynchburg town, where you pick up your ‘free shot glass’ after spending 10 dollars…go figure. Anyway, my purchase in the shop was the latest two releases, which celebrate Jack Daniel’s “innovation in craftsmanship” from the period before the Bottled-in-Bond Act of 1897. The two releases, “Bonded” and “Triple Mash”, would hopefully be an upgrade. Additionally, I will review Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel cask strength, which, albeit not available at the distillery, would also surely showcase the better side of Jack Daniel’s.
The tour ended rather disappointingly after what was an underwhelming tasting. We ventured into Lynchburg town and visited Jack Daniel’s ‘hardware shop’, which I found was an overpriced utopia of all things Jack Daniel’s. We left empty-handed but grabbed a Jack Daniel’s ice cream for the walk back to the distillery car park, a refreshing treat in the enduring heat. Although I was slightly disappointed overall, the distillery is still a must to visit. It’s a part of distilling history and a landmark for the history of the state and the country. Worth it for the history and insights, not so much for the liquid.
Jack Daniel’s Bonded Series: Bonded Tennessee Whiskey
A nod to the bottled-in-bond act which means that a single distiller distils it during one distillation season, matures within a government bonded warehouse for at least four years and is finally bottled at 50%.
Price: £44.95 (Master of Malt)
Nose: a very pronounced sweetness, toffee crisp, caramel sauce and a dollop of vanilla cream. There’s freshly sawn oak, some wine gums and also molasses. There’s a gentle Madagascan vanilla building too, very subtle but laced with honey.
Palate: Straight away, there’s a massive hint of crème brûlée covered in maple syrup. More spice comes through this time, plenty of cinnamon and a little black pepper to warm the cockles. Quite nutty, roasted hazelnuts and more oak.
Finish: for a 50% whiskey, there’s a decent finish, up to medium in length and full of flavour still. More caramel and honey notes, but roasted coffee beans come through to give it some depth right towards the end.
Jack Daniel’s Bonded Series: Triple Mash Tennessee Whiskey
Part of the bottled-in-bond series, but it differs slightly in that it is a blend of three straight Bottled-in-Bond Whiskeys – Jack Daniel’s American Malt, Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Rye and Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Whiskey.
Price: £44.49 (Master of Malt)
Nose: lots of hot sweet honey, melted lion bar chunks and drizzled maple syrup. Sawn maple with some slight hints of lime zest gives it an interesting perception and uniqueness.
Palate: there’s an exciting combination of flat coke and cinnamon lozenges fighting for dominance on my palate. Not quite fizzy, but spicier, which continuously develops as time goes on. Not much variety and it is hard to discern past the spice.
Finish: More heat, dry this time with a peppery hint—medium length.
Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel
Essentially, Jack Daniel’s drawn from a single barrel, at cask strength…interesting.
Price: £64.90 (Amazon)
Nose: A burst full of gingerbread biscuits, burnt caramel and sweet honey. For a hefty ABV, the nose is subtle at that; some cedar wood shavings covered in maple syrup with a sprinkling of cinnamon. Slight sweetness as well reminiscent of toffee apples and fresh popcorn.
Palate: a serious mouth coater; thick treacle and molasses all over. Lots of warmth is generated by the chocolate ginger snaps and cinnamon lozenges; the depth is excellent. There’s some burnt honeycomb and spiced vanilla to conclude an exciting palate.
Finish: It should be no surprise that the finish goes on forever with an ABV like that; the burn isn’t overwhelming; it’s measured and gradually generates a lovely warmth throughout. There are some dark roast coffee beans thrown in for good measure too.
Well, that’s surprising! After feeling somewhat deflated after the ‘Taste of Jack’, my faith has indeed been re-established. The real stand-out for me has to be the Single Barrel. I feel this is a decent dram for the price point, especially given its exclusive nature. There are the typical notes you’d associate with a Tennessee whiskey or a bourbon, but this feels like it gives you more; it’s a cut above Old Number 7, that’s for sure.
The bottled-in-bond series are undoubtedly interesting and much better than the Old Number 7 staple. I can’t help but feel it’s slightly gimmicky in that they’re trying to create something that coincided with the bottled-in-bond act. I fully appreciate that history has a significant part to play in distilling practices and heritage, but from what I’ve seen and tasted, Jack Daniel’s is capable of much more.
Unless you’re into liqueurs and a serious Jack Daniel’s collector, don’t bother with any Fire, Apple or Honey. I get that brands have to expand and cater for new tastebuds and new markets, but again, the distillery is wholly experienced in producing decent liquid.
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