The top-selling American whiskey in the world, Jack Daniel’s is a brand that often needs no introduction. While its most famous incarnation is a Jack and Coke, it’s a versatile bourbon whiskey with a trademark taste. Its eight variations drive the brand’s success across the globe.
Who is Jack Daniels?
While the brand is famous today, back in the 1800s, Jasper Newton Daniel’s whiskey didn’t start out that way. Through strategic market positioning and a commitment to the integrity of the product, Daniel embarked on an impressive business endeavor that now makes millions.
The Man Behind the Brand
Jasper Newton Daniel, Jack to his friends, started the brand in 1864 with Old No. 7, a charcoal-mellowed whiskey. He learned the art of whiskey making from a preacher and a man who was a slave at the time. Later, Jack hired the second man as the head distiller at the Lynchburg, Tennessee distillery.
In 1866, the Jack Daniel Distillery emerged as the first registered distillery in the United States. Jack built the facility along Cave Spring Hollow, the two-mile deep source of the distillery’s mineral-rich water. His Old No. 7 earned the first of seven gold medals a few years before his death. Unfortunately, Jack died following complications from an on-the-job injury.
During the prohibition period, Jack’s nephews Lem and Jess stored up the whiskey the distillery produced, keeping it in warehouses for years. Once prohibition ended, it was a few more years before the distillery started production again. The lag was due to both a shortage of supplies and the coming of World War II.
As the original concept grew and Jack Daniel’s passed through each family generation, beverage industry giant Brown-Forman Corporation purchased the brand in 1956. The trademark whiskey joined the corporation’s line of spirits, liqueurs, and wines but was able to retain its humble reputation.
Brown-Forman remains mostly family-owned, and its attention to the individual branding of each line of products enables it to saturate the liquor market.
Despite ownership by a multibillion-dollar parent company, the historic distillery remained at its original location, with expansion efforts working around the existing still. Employees continued to work during the renovations, accessing the machinery from open-air staircases and decks.
After prohibition ended, Jack Daniel’s soon regrew to pre-prohibition output. Meanwhile, Frank Sinatra (and other rock n’ roll greats) helped propel the brand to new heights. The whiskey soon became an American icon and graced bars and grocery stores across the country.
From the 80’s to early 2000’s, many variations on the original Jack grew the company’s share of the market. Today, there’s a flavor for each generation and subset of whiskey drinker, although each is a spinoff of the original formula.
Making the Whiskey
Although its product attracts fans worldwide, the birthplace of the famous whiskey is humble. The Lynchburg, Tennessee distillery has grown over the years, but the building itself is over 150 years old.
Because of its limited production facilities, the company experienced a skyrocketing demand for the whiskey when they were short of supplies in 1942. However, they were reluctant to speed up production and produce a lesser product simply due to demand.
The Lynchburg Distillery
According to Insider, the Jack Daniel’s whiskey distillery property spans 1,700 acres, while its Wikipedia page reports over 500 employees at that location. Millions of cases leave the distillery each year.
In addition to producing whiskey, the distillery also churns out hand-made barrels. Since each barrel houses only one batch of whiskey, the used ones become planters, chairs, tables, and other furniture all around the property.
The sugar maple charcoal which filters the whiskey is also on site, where employees tend to the charcoal under an open furnace. The cave spring that is the sole water source for the distillery contains limestone rocks, which remove the iron from the water and preserve the flavor of the whiskey.
78 barrel houses across the acreage store all the whiskey the distillery produces. It takes anywhere from four to seven years from the moment a barrel rolls into the barrel house to when it leaves, with various levels of the barrel houses storing different labels of whiskey.
The Manufacturing Process
Whiskey may take years to age, but it also takes a lot of time to source the ingredients and process them. A specific blend of grains, clean water, pure charcoal, quality wood barrels, and a leisurely maturation method contribute to the robust result.
Mash is the term for the recipe of the whiskey, a compilation of specific grains that give unique flavor. Jack Daniel’s uses 80 percent corn, 12 percent barley, and 8 percent rye in its formula, with a high grade of corn for the best flavor.
Distillation starts with using “starter” yeast from a previous batch of whiskey and then the mash ferments for six days. The copper still then vaporizes and condenses the whiskey. Copper reacts with the sulfur from the fermented yeast on a molecular level, reducing the sulfur taste in the final product.
Each whiskey starts its journey in the form of clear cave spring water with a low iron content. 800 gallons per minute emerges from the ground at the spring site, and the water temperature stays a cool 56 degrees all year round.
Because the limestone rock in the cave removes iron from the water, it’s left with natural minerals that result in a flavorful yet mild whiskey.
Charcoal mellowing, or “The Extra Blessing,” as they call it in Lynchburg, is the most crucial step in the making of each whiskey variety. It’s the original process that Jack himself devised, and this step is what makes the whiskey a whiskey rather than bourbon.
Master Distiller Jeff Arnett says that the charcoal step also enhances the taste of the whiskey, an addition that takes years in a barrel. Due to the importance of the charcoal to the overall whiskey-making process, the facility uses 2,000-degree fires to burn sugar maple to create its own charcoal on-site.
The distinctive colors and flavors of each of the whiskey varieties come from the containers the distillery uses. Those containers use 33 staves each of American White Oak wood pieces. The pieces come together like a puzzle, without any glue or nails to hold them together.
Since the assembly process is too intricate for machinery to manage, human workers must assemble each barrel. Then they toast and char the interior of each barrel to elicit the natural sugars out and caramelize them, resulting in a flavor that is distinctly Jack Daniel’s.
Because it’s impossible for the distillery to reuse every barrel it produces, the company also sells its used barrels to hot sauce makers, beer brewers, and Scotch whiskey distillers who reuse barrels multiple times.
Although each floor of the barrel houses equates to differences in flavor and color in each barrel of whiskey, the distillery doesn’t use dates to determine when a batch is ready. In fact, an entire team of Master Tasters is responsible for deciding when a barrel is ready for bottling.
Eight varieties of whiskey make up the product line, and each undergoes a separate process to curate flavor and color. Those eight categories are:
- Old No. 7, with a sweet and “oaky” flavor
- Tennessee Rye, a 70 percent rye blend
- Single Barrel Collection. Which includes Single Barrel Select, Single Barrel Rye, Single Barrel Barrel Proof, and Single Barrel 100 Proof
- Gentleman Jack, which has a balanced oak flavor and notes of caramel and vanilla
- Tennessee Honey, with subtle honey notes
- Tennessee Fire, with smooth cinnamon heat
- Winter Jack, which combines apple cider liqueur, Old No. 7, and holiday spices
- Sinatra Select, a bold and smooth, classic flavor
Popularity by the Numbers
In 2012, the brand sold over 11 million cases of whiskey from its distillery in Tennessee, and the numbers continue to grow. In fact, the Jack line is the flagship product of Brown-Forman, and it ranked third in a global contest in 2013.
Careers at Jack Daniel’s
There are more jobs at the Lynchburg distillery than Master Tasters or still workers. The facility offers tours that are open to the public and staffs a visitor center, which requires a host of hospitality workers. Although the county it resides in is a “dry” one, there are still bottles of commemorative alcohol available for sale in the site’s gift shop, necessitating sales staff as well.
While the position of Master Distiller only comes open every few decades, current Master Distiller Jeff Arnett joined the company in 2001. He is only the seventh Master Distiller in the company’s history, and his predecessor held the position for two decades.
Even with its growth, the company pays homage to the legacy of its founder through numerous statues on the property, historical preservation of his former office, and adherence to his methods of producing exceptional whiskey with personality. From the iconic square whiskey bottles to its timeless black and white label, Jack Daniel’s is an American icon that has withheld the test of time.