Skip to comments.Whiskey's Kingdom (Pop. 361)
Posted on 03/17/2004 3:35:32 AM PST by Pharmboy
Julien Jourdes for The New York Times
Ali Shawn and the selection of whiskeys at Bemelman's Bar in the Carlyle in New York.
LYNCHBURG, Tenn. COULD this possibly be the place where the nation's and soon, perhaps, the world's best-selling whiskey is distilled? This cluster of anonymous, uninspiring buildings, not in Kentucky or in Scotland but in a remote, silent valley in Moore County, Tenn.?
Yes, indeed. As it has been since 1866, every single drop of Jack Daniel's, seven million cases a year, is made here in Cave Spring Hollow, amid the gentle hills about 75 miles south of Nashville. Trucks laden with grain roll off I-24 into Lynchburg (pop. 361, as attested on every bottle), and four years later aged whiskey is ready for shipment by truck, train, and ship all over the earth.
Lynchburg's pride, the preferred hootch of bikers and rockers, is familiar in England, Spain, South Korea and other countries, either sipped on its own or in mixed drinks like Jack and ginger. Only Johnnie Walker Red Label Scotch sells more, worldwide, and Jack Daniel's Old No. 7 is gaining fast, according to Frank Walters, senior vice president for research at M. Shanken Communications in New York, which publishes the beverage trade journals Impact and Market Watch.
Chris Berkey for The New York Times
FROM SOUR MASH Iron-free
water from a limestone cave in
Tennessee is one reason for the
distinctive taste of Jack Daniel's.
The dramatic story of Jack Daniel's, which accounts for better than half of the profits of the Brown-Forman Corporation, the Louisville company that owns it, epitomizes the continuing evolution of American and foreign tastes in whiskey.
While generic bourbon, an old-fogy, old-stogie drink, has lost ground in recent years, single-barrel and small-batch bourbons have scored huge gains in popularity. So have rye, the original, long-disdained American spirit, and Jack Daniel's, one of two Tennessee sour-mash whiskeys on the market, together with George Dickel.
Many Jack fans think that they are drinking bourbon when they are not, and Jack Daniel's is an anomaly in other ways as well. Not only has it beaten bourbon at its own game, outpacing Jim Beam, its nearest competitor, it has done so from a base in a dry county.
You can eat candied apples laced with Mr. Jack's best at Miss Mary Bobo's Boarding House, Lynchburg's best restaurant, but you cannot order a highball.
I got a taste of the country-boy approach that has served Jack Daniel's so well when I went to see Roger Brashears, the whiskey's spokesman.
Stocky and rubicund, wearing a gray brush cut and red galluses, he sat at a desk piled high with papers that all but engulfed a computer. On a nearby conference table, a second, larger mound of papers was crowned with an ax handle, a battered old Rolodex, a box of cigars and a new biography of Andrew Carnegie.
Why, I asked, has the company stuck so close to its roots? "We don't believe in kicking pulling mules," he answered, making the dubious assumption that a city-bred stiff like me knew about pulling mules.
In fact, there are hard-headed business reasons. Like their colleagues everywhere in Ireland, Scotland, Canada and Kentucky master distillers here consider water crucial to the quality of their product. Theirs, iron-free, flows downhill from a limestone cave at a constant 56 degrees.
Jack Daniel's is made from a recipe not very different from those used in most bourbons: 80 percent corn, 12 percent malted barley, 8 percent rye. What sets it apart is a special charcoal filtration method developed in the 19th century, before Moore County existed. At that time, Lynchburg was in Lincoln County, so the mellowing is called "the Lincoln County process."
Rye whiskey is different, in that it contains at least 51 percent rye, usually with lesser amounts of corn and malted barley, which gives it a delicacy, a spiciness and often a crisp, tart edge that bourbon and Tennessee whiskey lack.
It dates back to the very earliest days of the Republic. George Washington made it at Mount Vernon, and he provoked the Whiskey Rebellion in Pennsylvania by imposing a tax on rye in 1791.
During the 19th century and part of the 20th, rye produced in Pennsylvania (known as Monongahela rye) and in Maryland competed vigorously with bourbon for Americans' affection. In 1874, it gained new popularity as the main ingredient in a now-classic cocktail, the Manhattan. The new drink was created at the Manhattan Club in New York at the behest of Jenny Jerome, a socialite better known in later years as the mother of Winston Churchill, for an elaborate party celebrating the election of Samuel J. Tilden as governor.
BUT Prohibition clobbered American rye. Supple, easy-drinking Canadian whiskey, which was easily smuggled across the border, by land or by sea, became the tipple of choice on the Eastern Seaboard for those who did not drink bathtub gin, and after Repeal the domestic product never recovered. Americans began referring to blended Canadian whiskey as rye, whether or not it contained rye, and using it (or bourbon) to mix Manhattans and old-fashioneds.
Only a few die-hards, widely caricatured as lushes and rubes, stuck to American rye. Don McLean gave the traditional stuff a brief mention in his song "American Pie" "good ole boys were drinkin' whiskey and rye" but otherwise it was forgotten.
In their 1995 book "Bourbon and Other Fine American Whiskies," Gary and Mardee Haidin Regan could find only four straight ryes to mention.
Now a baker's dozen are on the market, and perhaps more, although some are difficult to find. The biggest seller, if hardly the favorite of connoisseurs, is Jim Beam rye from Fortune Brands, which comes with a distinctive yellow label. The same company makes Old Overholt, an intricate, full-bodied rye, which originated at a Pennsylvania distillery founded in 1812. Both are now produced in Kentucky. Another rye with clout is green-labeled Wild Turkey Rye, bottled at 101 proof by Austin, Nichols & Company in Lawrenceburg, Ky.
Heaven Hill Distilleries produces Rittenhouse, a Monongahela-style rye that I find a little overwhelming, and Pikesville Supreme, a spare and spicy Potomac- or Maryland-style rye. Pikesville is the last survivor of a distilling tradition that once embraced dozens of brands, including Chesapeake, Preakness, Pimlico and Hunt Cup. H. L. Mencken, the sage of Baltimore, took the odd sip of Maryland whiskey in his time, and wrote that his father, August, started every day with "a hooker of rye."
The rye that may come closest to what our ancestors drank is Old Potrero, distilled a continent away in San Francisco by Fritz Maytag, whose other good works include Anchor Steam beer. It is produced in tiny quantities in a small copper pot still like those used in Cognac, from a mash that is 100 percent rye. One version, aged for a year in new oak barrels, exhibits a certain (no doubt authentic) rawness; another, with three years in charred oak barrels, is hot on the palate as well, but smoother. It is best diluted with water.
Enthusiasts of older whiskies will want to know about Michter's, a legendary distillery that operated under one name or another in Schaefferstown, Pa., near Reading, from 1753 until finally closing in 1988. Its brand now appears on a buttery, vanilla-scented Small Batch Unblended American Whiskey, which by law cannot be labeled bourbon because it is aged in used bourbon casks (whence the vanilla), instead of new, charred white oak barrels. Modern Michter's is a joint venture of Chatham Imports, New York, which sells it, and Kentucky Bourbon Distillers, of Bardstown, which makes it.
Michter's also produces a velvety 10-year-old rye, a competitor for Van Winkle's deliciously creamy 13-year-old rye and Sazerac's chewy, perfectly balanced 18-year-old. In a snifter, these can rival good Cognac in taste, aroma and in price as well.
JACK DANIEL'S has had only six master distillers in its 138-year history. The current one, Jimmy Bedford, a lean and laconic native Tennesseean, showed me around the operation, centered on the indispensable spring. Like almost all distilleries, the Lynchburg buildings have a coating of gray fungus, the result of vapors escaping from the barrels, known as "the angels' share." Evaporation raises the whiskey's proof and lowers the volume.
The distillery itself contains open-top stainless steel fermenters, which turn the mash into a weak brew known as "beer," and five steam-heated column stills, which convert the "beer" into whiskey. Impurities are then removed by reboiling in a large kettle called a doubler, leaving a clear, rough whiskey a bit like moonshine.
After distillation, the new whiskey is chilled to 60 degrees and pumped through copper pipes to a building where it drips into huge vats, 8 feet in diameter and 14 feet tall, filled with charcoal made on the property by burning hard sugar-maple two-by-two's in a controlled bonfire. It takes four to six days for the liquid to seep through 10 feet of charcoal flakes, each about the size of a fingernail. In the process it acquires its sooty, sweet, faintly peppery taste.
Scattered around town are 70 bonded warehouses, holding 20,160 barrels each. The whiskey in one warehouse represents $13.75 million in federal taxes, Mr. Bedford said; no wonder they are padlocked.
Four years of aging are required to complete the production of Jack Daniel's green label, less sophisticated (and cheaper) than its big brother; Jack Daniel's black label, 80 proof and richer in the caramel flavors imparted by the barrel, and Gentleman Jack, a supersmooth superpremium whiskey that passes through the charcoal filter a second time before bottling.
Some distillers move barrels around their warehouses, from the warmer parts to the cooler ones, to assure uniformity in the final product. Others, including Jack Daniel's, leave them in one place the entire time, relying on "melding" the appropriate barrels to achieve the desired flavor.
As I walked around with Mr. Bedford, a deliciously sour smell pervaded the air, stirring my appetite, which was just as well. I had a lunch date at Mary Bobo's, owned by the distillery, with Mary Motlow, the granddaughter of Lem Motlow, Jack Daniel's nephew, whose name appears on every bottle of the local booze, and her two daughters.
A dinner date, actually: in keeping with Southern rural tradition, that's what they call the midday meal. By any name, it was copious: Southern fried chicken, of course, along with stuffed peppers, catfish, country-style green beans, deep-fried okra, macaroni and cheese, mashed potatoes, candied apples, bread pudding and pecan pie, passed twice or even three times.
"We think the folksiness of Lynchburg is a key element in Jack Daniel's image," Mrs. Motlow said. "It emphasizes that this is a local product, with guaranteed integrity."
(Anyone who thinks Jack Daniel's is a Bourbon is unfamiliar with both.)