While Clark, Mason, and I were in Tennessee for the weekend of my brother Tom's wedding (22-24 Feb 2013), we decided we should at least do a little sight-seeing. Looking for something that fit our flight schedule and common interests (which, by the way, is not particularly easy when it's me and two teenagers), we settled on touring Jack Daniel's distillery in Lynchburg, Tennessee. I fondly remember touring the distillery when I was a kid. Having grown now to appreciate more fully the best qualities of good alcohol, I was sure it would be an interesting visit. The boys were a little skeptical but agreed, because Jack Daniel's beat walking down Nashville's Music Row. (Although we were in the heart of Country Music, USA, they steered clear of every element associated with country music while we were there. Maybe they were afraid it might rub off on them.)
So off we drove into the Tennessee countryside that morning. As we drove, I realized we needed to call my mother and adjust the tentative plans we had made the evening before to have a late breakfast with her that morning. I was pretty sure she wouldn't be up quite that early, so I decided to call closer to 9:00a, when we expected to arrive at the distillery. We cruised along admiring the huge trees and thick vegetation, all of which is a world apart from our region in Texas. Pulling up to the distillery, I picked up my phone, and we all realized simultaneously that we were indeed in another world: rural Tennessee where cell phone service is non-existent. No calling Karon that morning. We were lost in the 1860's now.
Since my last visit years ago, they've built a very nice visitors' center now. We paused outside to document our presence in photos. Just in case. The camera may have been the only remaining artifact found in the wilderness alongside our bodies if we failed to return to civilization and cell phone service. (Who lives in an area without cell phone service??? You couldn't help but feel a little sorry for those poor farmers and their land lines.)
Inside the visitors' center was a display explaining the basic steps to making Tennessee whiskey. Here's the details as I remember them.
- Mix the mash (corn, barley, malt, and yeast) with iron-free spring water.
- Ferment the mash for 6 days. No heat is applied, but the 2-story towers of mash bubbled furiously from the generated carbon dioxide as the sugars are converted to alcohol. Fermentation results in the mash having about a 24% alcohol level.
- Boil the mash and then cool the resulting vapor to extract the alcohol. The liquor is now 70% alcohol (140 proof), and just a small whiff will hit you like a bag of rocks!
- Slowly drip the liquor through 10 feet of maple charcoal to "mellow" the flavor. It is still 140 proof as it is collected from the bottom of the charcoal tower, but the sharpness is gone. As I understand it, only after this mellowing stage can the liquor be declared to be "Tennessee whiskey."
- Add spring water to cut the whisky to 80 proof (40% alcohol).
- Place in a charred oak barrel and age for at least 4 years in an unheated/uncooled warehouse. The changing temperatures push the whisky in and out of the pores in the oak barrel, extracting sugars and giving the whiskey its color.
- Pull the barrels and bottle!
Mason poses with the display.
Jack Daniel's founded the distillery around 1866, and the whisky is made the same way today. He was a short fella, though: 5 foot, 2 inches tall. Clark and Mason pose next to a life-size marble statue of Jack. The marble statue stood outside next to the spring until around 2001, when it was moved indoors to limit damage from the weather.
Out by the springs at the distillery, there is now another life-sized bronze statue of Jack. This one is supposed to be more resiliant to the weather. Just behind us is the cave from which the iron-free spring water used in Jack Daniel's whisky flows.
Mason strikes a pose, but Clark kept his cool.
Here's the outdoor oven area where ricks of sugar maple are turned into charcoal. The wood is subjected to a controlled burned for 3 or 4 hours to yield the charcoal used for mellowing the whisky. To start the fire, the distillery workers use 140 proof whiskey. They don't use gasoline or other petroleum chemicals because that would affect the flavor.
And here's what the charcoal looks like when the burning process is completed. To the right just below is Marlene, our tour guide that morning. She was terrific. The best discussion was about Jack Daniel's employee benefit known as "Good Friday": each employee (about 480, I think) receives a pint of whiskey once a month. The next day is often referred to as "Bad Saturday!"
Here is the original office of Mr. Jack Daniel. His photo hangs on the wall in the upper right of this picture. Towards the center bottom is the safe that ultimately led to his death in 1911. Jack grew frustrated with the safe because he couldn't get it opened after multiple tries. He flung a furious kick at the safe and broke his toe, which soon became gangrenous. He died 4 months later, around the age of 62.
Mr. Jack (bowtie, center right, 2nd row) with some of his workers. Early 1900s, I think.
Here is one of the many warehouses where the whiskey is stored to age. It is over a million gallons, stacked 21-barrels high: 7 stories, 3 barrels to a story. With no temperature controls in the building, the cool Tennessee winters and warm summers cause the pores of the wood barrels to open and close, pushing and pulling the whiskey in and out of the wood over the years. As the whiskey moves in and out of the charred oak barrel interior, it picks up sweetness and color. The barrels are checked when they have aged at least 4 years. If the whiskey is ready, as determined by a series of tasters and by the "Master Distiller" who oversees production, then the barrel is pulled for bottling.
The tour takes you inside of the actual production facilities. Unfortunately, the distillery does not permit photography inside the production buildings or the warehouses, so I can only describe the sights and smells. We saw the silos of grain and huge vats that hold the mash in the first building. Marlene opened a vent at the top of one of the 40,000 gallon fermentation tanks. The carbon dioxide that poured out of the opening would clear an elephant's sinuses! The mash looks like a soupy cornbread mix, and it bubbles as though it's boiling. There's no heat, just a tremendous amount of carbon dioxide being generated. That 40,000 gallons of mash will generate about 8,000 gallons of alcohol after 6 days.
We stopped for a moment in the building that houses the mellowing tanks. Marlene fanned the lid of one of the mellowing silos full of charcoal. Before the alcohol goes through the charcoal, it is definitely STRONG and SHARP! After it comes out the bottom, it is still clear in color but now has a much, much different aroma. From there we moved to one of the warehouses, which had this wonderfully flavorful bouquet about it. I asked Marlene if anyone ever got a contact high just from working in the warehouse. She said no, but not everyone could handle it. As she answered, a little boy of about 6 who'd been along on the tour declared he had to get out and dashed for the exit! I guess appreciation comes with age.
Mason and Clark both thoroughly enjoyed the tour. They both were keen to try a sample, but Lynchburg is in a dry county and therefore Jack Daniel's distillery cannot serve samples. You can drink alcohol there, but you can't buy it. We'll have to save their sampling for another day.
After we left the distillery, we took the scenic route back through my hometown of Manchester before catching the interstate to dash to the airport. By midday, we were on our plane headed back to Texas! We were all glad to have had a chance to tour Jack Daniel's, and we'd recommend without hesitation that you should do the same some day as well!