The small town of Lynchburg Tennessee was founded, and named after Thomas Lynch. But it might not exist today were it not for Jack Daniel’s, the oldest registered distillery in the United States and the county’s largest employer.
Being the home of a distillery is an interesting phenomenon for a town that has been dry since 1909, well before nationwide Prohibition. The then 43-year old company was not only exempted from the law, it was even allowed to give each employee one bottle of its mainstay “#7” whiskey per month, a practice that continues to this day. It was also allowed to offer tastings and to sell its whiskey from its distillery.
The History of Jack Daniel’s
Jack Daniel was born in very modest circumstances. As his family could not afford to raise him, they gave him to a local judge’s family to raise. The judge owned a still—one of more than 12,000 in the country in the late 19th century. The judge’s distillery was run by a recently emancipated slave Nearest (Nathan) Green.
Young Jack was fascinated by the still and spent every waking hour working with and learning from Nearest. Once Jack grew up, he asked the judge if he could buy the still, which the judge sold him on very favorable payout terms. Jack hired Nearest as his first Master Distiller. While he paid Nearest well, Nearest was not given a share of the company. The rest, as they say, is history.
Jack began with a small operation and became one of the first distillers (and the oldest still operating) to register his distillery with the government, which required the payment of taxes. He purposely limited his production to a level that required 99 bushels of corn which provides six barrels of whiskey per day. Why not more? Because above this level required additional taxes and more government oversight…which he did not want.
He soon established his distillery at the entrance of a limestone cave with an underground spring from which the company continues to draw all its water today.
Jack Daniel’s Angel’s Share Tour
Jack Daniel’s offers several tours of its facilities. We took the Angel’s Share Tour which provides a behind-the-scenes look at the whiskey-making process.
The reception waiting area offers displays of the process we would be seeing as well as some interesting information about Jack Daniel.
Our tour began on a chilly morning with an optional cup of delicious hot chocolate spiked with a shot of the company’s 73-proof Tennessee Fire cinnamon spice liqueur. Our first stop was at the outdoor furnace. Here the company makes the charcoal (from sugar maple wood) that it used to filter the whiskey—a requirement for it to be called Tennessee Whiskey rather than the more generic bourbon.
We then proceed to the mouth of the limestone cave whose pure, iron-free, 57-degree water is ideal for making whiskey.
Then we stopped at Jack’s original office before being guided through the distillery.
The Making of Tennessee Whiskey
We then went into the buildings (pictures not allowed) to learn how Tennessee whiskey is made. Our first stop was at the pumps that carry and distill the water. Then we moved to the massive digesters in which the blend of 79 percent corn, 13 percent malted barley, and 8 percent rye (for spice) are cooked to produce the mash. The mash, along with a small amount from a previous batch and water is channeled via a continuous, gravity-fed process to giant fermentation tanks where proprietary yeast is added to convert the grains’ sugars into alcohol. Since the process would, on its own, produce enough heat to kill the yeast and stop fermentation, they use cooling coils to keep it at an optimum temperature of 85 degrees.
After three or four days, fermentation is stopped. The mash, which amounts to about 300,000 pounds per day, is removed and recycled. It is mostly given to local farmers for cattle feed or is used to generate power for its own plants. The liquid is piped to giant copper distillers where the alcohol evaporates and then cools to convert it to liquid form.
The resultant 140-proof alcohol “White Lighting” (which we sniffed, but didn’t taste) is then gravity-fed to mellowing tanks, where it then goes literally one drip at a time through holes at the top of the pipe into charcoal tanks. The liquid takes an entire day to filter through 10 feet of charcoal which removes oils and smoothes the taste. Spring water is added to bring it to the proper proof (see below).
Next up is for the liquid to go into single-use, heavily charred (to caramelize the wood’s sugars) oak barrels (which the company makes in its own cooperates) and stored in seven-story warehouses.
The barrels sit relatively undisturbed for between four and six years. The time varies depending on where in the warehouse they are stored. The barrels at the top of the warehouse are heated by summer sun and temperatures and require less aging than those stored lower in the warehouse. Over this time, about a quarter inch of the liquid into the oak which imparts the flavor and color that we associate with these whiskeys.
The empty barrels are sold. Some go to Scotch and Irish whiskey and port producers which prefer used barrels or to pepper sauce producers. Stores (such as Lynchburg’s own Barrel Shop) also sell directly to customers through its barrel shop.
Tasting the Whiskey
Then came the fun part—tasting. We selected the tasting of the distillery’s single-labeled whiskeys. We began with the standard, vaguely caramel-tasting, 80-proof No. 7 whiskey for reference. Next came four single-barrel whiskeys which come from barrels stored at the top of the warehouses which had deeper colors, bolder flavors, and smoother finishes:
- Single Barrel Select Tennessee Whiskey. The 94-proof whiskey has more vanilla tones and was much smoother than No. 7 and was our favorite of the tasting;
- Single Barrel Single Proof Tennessee Whiskey. As it has less added water, it is a higher proof—126. It has more vanilla notes and was quite smooth, although it had a bit too much heat for our palettes.
Then came two rye whiskeys which are made with 70 percent rye, 18 percent corn, and 12 percent malted barley.
- Single Barrel Select Rye Whiskey. The 94 proof has fruity notes at the front of the palate with the rye’s peppery tastes coming at the middle and a smooth finish.
- Single Barrel Single Proof Rye Whiskey which like its Tennessee whiskey cousin is 126-proof. It has a similar taste to the Select, but as with the Tennessee whiskey, is too hot for us.
Miss Mary Bobo’s Boarding House
Lynchburg has another interesting stop: Miss Mary Bobo’s Boarding house. A Jack Daniel’s relative originally built it in 1867. It is known for its Southern cuisine and charm. Although we hoped to enjoy one of its famous lunches, its seating schedule would not work with our travel schedule. But we did stop in for a brief look.
Barrel Shop Barbeque
We ended up eating at one of the town’s two barbeque places which is a branch of the Barrel Shop (although in a separate building). We shared a half rack of ribs with baked beans and sweet potato casserole and a very huge pulled pork sandwich. The meals came with a selection of three times of BBQ sauce and both were enjoyable.