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Jack Daniels Master Distiller Jeff ArnettJack Daniels Master Distiller Jeff Arnett
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Pritchard Distillers Owner Phil PritchardPritchard Distillers Owner Phil Pritchard
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Whiskey Tasting GlassesWhiskey Tasting Glasses
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Jack Daniels Master Distiller Jeff ArnettJack Daniels Master Distiller Jeff Arnett
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Whiskey DistilleryWhiskey Distillery
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Whiskey BarrelsWhiskey Barrels
"Pick one,” he said, pointing to a stack of barrels in the corner. The white oak barrels to which Mike Williams referred contained Tennessee Whiskey, but we weren’t in Lynchburg or Tullahoma. This was the old Yazoo Brewery building, home of the Tennessee Distilling Company, makers of Collier and McKeel Tennessee Whiskey in Nashville.
I pointed to a heavily stained barrel, and Williams set two tasting glasses on the pallet next to it, then with a small, battery-powered drill began boring into the side of the keg.
“Some day I’m gonna buy a real drill,” he said with a chuckle as his drill strained. Eventually he penetrated the oak, unleashing a steady brown stream. Williams filled both glasses, then staunched the flow with a wooden plug.
The whiskey smelled oaky and sweet, and produced a pleasing peppery burn on my tongue. “This is 120-proof,” Williams said. “Barrel strength.” He bottles his whiskey at 86-proof, but a sip of this stronger concoction led me to asking why he didn’t bottle it just like this. “I’m thinking about it,” he replied.
We poured the remnants of the cask-strength whiskey on the floor near the drain, and re-filled our glasses from a bottle. The smooth character and vanilla were still there in the 86-proof, but the complexity was slower to emerge. Down the hatch, a pleasant bitterness lingered.
As we sipped our whiskey on that drizzly Wednesday morning, I was drawn to the two giant copper stills dominating the room, but Williams was more interested in an unassuming, vertical stainless steel cylinder nearby.
Clear moonshine whiskey, straight out of the still, is pumped through sugar maple charcoal in that cylinder. The charcoal grabs fatty acids, pulling them out of the whiskey and mellowing it, a process unique to Tennessee Whiskey known as the “Lincoln County Process”.
Williams’ whiskey story begins at the end of the eighteenth century when his family moved to Tennessee just after the Whiskey Rebellion proved the government’s ability to militarily defend its whiskey taxation. The “West”, as the Tennessee frontier was known at the time, was far enough removed from New England that the Feds had a hard time collecting their taxes, making it a perfect place for folks wanting to make whiskey without interference.
The family never became big production distillers, but whiskey was clearly in Williams’ blood. When he was 16 and putting off a science project that entailed creating a water map of Middle Tennessee, Williams’ father made an announcement. The family was to visit Jack Daniel’s Distillery, and along the way they would stop at every trickle of water for young Mike to collect samples.
When he tested the sample from the cave spring in Lynchburg, Williams found it to be identical in pH and composition to the water on the family property, and an idea was formed. Some years later, when Williams turned 50, he decided the time was right. He stole the name Tennessee Distilling Company from a company that moved to Indiana after Prohibition, and borrowed the name of his whiskey from the maiden names of his paternal grandmother and great-grandmother.
When the first Collier and McKeel Tennessee Whiskey left the distillery in the spring of 2011, the whole family had a hand in bottling, corking, sealing and labeling. At the end of the line, Williams put his thumbprint on every bottle.
When I arrived at Jack Daniel’s the next morning, a small crowd was already waiting. Promptly at 9 a.m., the doors were unlocked and we streamed inside, where Randall Fanning was looking for me. He led me out back to a fancy golf cart for a ride to the Revenuer’s Office—a small building where the Master Distiller hosts tastings. According to Fanning, that office once housed five government tax collectors—“three to watch us and two to watch the other three.”
The tasting room was warm and cozy with old plank floors, wooden tables, leather-backed chairs, and used whiskey barrels supporting nearly every horizontal surface.
Master Distiller Jeff Arnett, a trim, mid-forties man with a tightly cropped mustache and goatee was there to greet us, and we promptly sat down to an elegant presentation.
Tradition and history were clearly on Arnett’s mind as he talked about Jasper Newton Daniel, the five-foot-two gentleman with size four feet who is known to the world as “Jack”.
According to Arnett, “Jack” was all about great whiskey that didn’t taste like the competition. To that end, he used less rye than was typically found in bourbon, but really, “It’s all about the water,” he said, echoing Williams’ sentiment. To keep things consistent, the yeast at Jack Daniel’s is DNA-tested every year to make sure it hasn’t changed.
As for that traditional charcoal mellowing, Jack Daniels uses 72 giant vats packed with ten feet of charcoal each. The charcoal is replaced every three-to-six months at a cost of $10,000 per vat.
To illustrate the importance of that Lincoln County Process, Arnett poured glasses from bottles of 140-proof clear whiskey labeled “Before Charcoal Mellowing” and “After Charcoal Mellowing”. Anyone who has tasted moonshine can relate to the former. A hard bitter hit the back of my throat, and burned going down. But with the latter, the flavor was in the mouth, the finish remarkably smooth.
Three brown whiskeys in glasses in front of me looked pretty much identical, but the bottles of Gentleman Jack, Old No. 7, and Single Barrel Select told very different stories. From the screw top on No. 7 to the thick bottom on the Single Barrel bottle, it was obvious that I was looking at different classes of drink.
My assessment of Gentleman Jack as being “a little frou-frou,” was not well received, but Arnett acknowledged that this whiskey—which is run through the charcoal a second time after aging—is for somebody who “doesn’t have a strong tolerance for oak” and tends to sell to women and men who are not big whiskey drinkers.
Jack Daniel’s has nearly two million barrels of whiskey on hand, most of which is mixed for consistency to become Old No. 7. Single Barrel Select, however, is the result of individual barrels selected by the Master Distiller for their distinct character, then bottled in single barrel batches. As a result, each barrel is different and each bottle is labeled with a barrel number so that if a consumer likes a bottle, they can look for another one from the same barrel.
We tasted from barrel 11-5449, or the 5,449th barrel from the year 2011 and found it to be creamy and vanilla, with a very nice bitterness. I found this 94-proof Arnett categorized as “for a more discerning drinker,” to be head and shoulders above Old No. 7.
After our tasting, I joined a group of around 30 visitors for a tour with Jesse James (no kidding, that is his name). We followed the path of the whiskey from spring water to sour mash, from still to barrel, to bottling. A polished storyteller, James told us how Jack got into whiskey-making under the tutelage of a Lutheran minister who quit under pressure from his congregation and sold his still to his young apprentice, and how Jack broke his foot kicking a safe out of frustration, leading to infection, and ultimately, his death.
The distillation building at Jack was a maze of stainless steel and copper tanks, pots, lines, and gauges reminiscent of Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, and the workers (though not Oompah-Loompahs) efficiently monitored the system on a bank of brightly colored computer screens and seemed a world away from Williams and his little hand drill.
In Kelso, TN, I visited Prichard’s Distillery. Incorporated in 1997, Pritchard’s sold their first product in 2001, but it wasn’t Tennessee Whiskey. Those first bottles contained a spirit not usually associated with Tennessee: rum. Since then, Phil Pritchard has made quite a name for himself with a variety of flavored rums, sweet liqueur, bourbon—and Tennessee Whiskey.
Pritchard offered me a chair in front of his cluttered desk in an old classroom. Behind him, the original chalkboard and map of the world still hung on the wall. He seemed at first to be about making liquor and letting the product do the talking, but he quickly proved to have much to say.
In Nashville and Lynchburg, Tennessee Whiskey was defined for me as containing a minimum of 51 percent corn, produced in Tennessee, distilled at less than 160-proof, filtered through a bed of sugar maple charcoal, and aged for a minimum of two years in new charred barrels. But when I asked Pritchard about the Lincoln County Process he gave me a sideways look. Lifting a thick book from his desk, he said “I keep this here for people like you,” then opened it and began to read.
Directly from the Code of Federal Regulations, Pritchard shared definitions of bourbon and whiskey. Never did I hear the words Lincoln County Process or sugar maple charcoal. “Final authority?” he asked, adding, “If it ain’t in this book, it ain’t law.”
As far as Phil Pritchard was concerned, he was making a product as authentically Tennessee Whiskey as anybody, and federal law seems to support him. “Charcoal has an infinite appetite for oils that contain flavor,” he said in defense of his method. “You filter that out and you filter out flavor. We don’t filter anything out of our liquor.”
Pritchard also emphasized the importance of using white corn in his whiskey. “The sugar content is higher than in the feed corn most distillers are using.”
Eventually we made our way to another room in the old schoolhouse for tasting. An assortment of souvenir glasses and T-shirts adorned one wall, on a table at the end of the room stood an array of open bottles.
Pritchard was right about his Tennessee Whiskey being different. The oak was there, and the sweetness of the white corn was strong, but like the clear “Before” product I had sampled earlier in the day, Pritchard’s whiskey had a bite, and called into question what Tennessee Whiskey really is.
Eager for me to sample all of his products, Pritchard filled little plastic tasting cups faster than I could taste them. As I sampled the offerings, trying to keep them straight, Pritchard’s phone rang repeatedly with a Dixie ring tone. This Southern entrepreneur CEO had nobody screening his calls for him. When he had to leave the room for a moment, he gestured to the bottles. “Help yourself,” he offered. “I’ll be right back.”
Later I asked about the motto I saw printed on all his products: Torav Cyn Plygav. “You’ll have to break me before I yield,” he said with a smile. As we left the tasting room, he offered to autograph a bottle of his Double Barreled Bourbon.
He signed a bottle with a fancy gold paint pen then took me outside and pointed down the road. “Head out this way,” he said. “Turn left just after the river. It’ll save you ten minutes. Once you get to Tullahoma, you’re on your own.”
I understood Pritchard’s directions as I wandered through a Tullahoma neighborhood looking for Dickel. Eventually I found the sign I had missed and reached my destination just before closing time and was struck by the sign out front.
George A. Dickel
Tennessee’s Finest Quality Sippin’ Whisky.
Whisky. Canada and Scotland spell it one way, the rest of us the other, but it was important to George Dickel to use the traditional Scottish spelling as he claimed his whiskey to be as good as any Scotch.
Master Distiller John Lunn was in Kentucky on the day of my visit, but tour guide Stephen Sharketti met me in the visitors’ center and quickly proved to be a very knowledgeable and entertaining guide. We began at a display showing exactly how Dickel is made, emphasizing the now familiar (and slightly controversial) Lincoln County Process.
Like Jack, George had only one recipe for his family of whiskies and they strictly follow old traditions. Unique to Dickel, is the practice of chilling the whisky to 40 degrees before mellowing. Fats, said Sharketti, are more easily “grabbed” by the charcoal if they are congealed, and Dickel believed that winter produced finer whisky.
Sharketti also told me about the “Angel’s Share”—the amount of whisky that evaporates out of the barrels during aging. Tradition says it goes to the angels, but Sharketti told me not to believe it. “That was made up by a couple of drunk Irish guys in the warehouse,” said the fair-skinned redhead with a laugh.
Sharketti is one of only 34 people employed by Dickel, and just six are distillers—something he expressed pride in. Ironically, however, Dickel is owned by Diagio, a British conglomerate that employs more than 20,000 people, and has offices in 80 countries.”
Yet Dickel feels as homespun as any Tennessee distiller, something Sharketti attributes to the philosophy of their parent. “They buy companies because they are successful the way they are,” he said. “They don’t try to change them.”
I was struck by the openness of the tour. I was encouraged to walk right up to open vats of bubbling mash, and allowed to take pictures all along the way.
Always telling stories, Sharketti was eager to share with me how deeply engrained in our pop culture Dickel is. He showed me a photo of Frank Sinatra on the night of his Sands premiere with commemorative Dickel bottles on all the visible tables, and talked about Captain Kirk’s dark alter ego drinking it.
My favorite story from the tour was the legend of how Dickel’s Old No. 8 whisky got its name. According to Sharketti, in the 1800s George and Jack were making whiskies in the same county. When Jack went to the government for his license, he was granted the seventh one issued. The next man through the door was George.
If I learned anything about Tennessee Whiskey that day, it was the importance of story. All four companies I visited use corn, barley, rye, and the “best limestone spring water”. They all age their liquor in new charred oak barrels, and they all take great pride in that stuff called Tennessee Whiskey, but behind all these commonalities, the individuals, histories, and claims could not have been more different.