Lynchburg is widely acknowledged as the home of Jack Daniels. The pride of Tennessee. Founded in 1866, by Jasper Newton Daniel. The story and legacy behind the Jack Daniels brand is a classic tale, the American dream. The story of an orphan who found safety with a preacher and moonshiner. Stories that are told with pride and passed from generation to generation. In October, I was invited to visit Jack Daniels, and their cooperage in Trinity Alabama, for trip of a lifetime.
Late August I received an email from my Brown Foreman rep, Brown Foreman bought the Jack Daniels brand in 1956. She made me privy to an essay contest being held with Jack Daniels. They would be picking several winners from all over the Midwest and sending us on a trip to see the inner workings of the whiskey giants themselves, Jack Daniels. I quickly logged on to the site.
After a small sign up portion, I was ready to go. There were a series of 8 questions and after reading through them a bit of horror sunk into my gut. What was seemingly the basis of every question was the difference between Tennessee whiskey and bourbon. Another strong pattern I noticed was why as a mixologist I prefer to use one over the other in specific cocktails. Of course I know the technical difference between Bourbon and Tennessee whiskey, we will get in to that later if you are not so aware, but this was an essay for Jack Daniels. In my personal opinion, I love bourbon. I lean to it every time I make a whiskey cocktail. And if I was to answer the questions truthfully, perhaps this contest was just a little out of my reach.
With a couple hours of writing, and thinking, and rewriting, I had my finished product. It was honest and factual. I believe it showed my appreciation for the brand of Jack Daniels, without being to partial. I hit send. And I waited. For 2 months I waited, certain I didn’t make the cut.
Then one morning I received the email, it was time to pack my bags, Nashville was calling. The Road to BBQ Hill was an event designed to bring mixologists from all over the country to come and learn about Jack Daniels. It was made for networking. It was a hands on trip to show that Jack Daniels was greater than just Old No. 7. And it worked. I returned with a new found appreciation of the brand and legacy that it instills in the people that work there.
The journey began on Sunday after noon in Nashville. Tired and jet lagged from early flights, 40 bartenders from all over the Midwest gathered in the lobby of the 21 C Hotel. Other than a couple people who were from similar cities, we were all strangers. Luckily, I struck up a conversation with a bartender from right over the Ohio River in Covington, Brandi (check out her food explorations on Instagram at @tastecincinnati ). As we walked to the hustling sidewalks of Broadway, we talked about whiskey, things we both love about Cincinnati, and how in the heck we got involved in this crazy trip. Before we knew it we were high in the sky, enjoying the views of Broadway, eating a delicious meal, and of course drinking Jack Daniels. An amazing welcome. But the bus for Alabama was leaving early, and this was a work trip after all.
Day 2, Hello Trinity Alabama. Home to the Jack Daniels Cooperage. We were able to walk trough the plant and see every step of the barrel making process. These people take pride in their work, and it shows. A well-oiled machine. They even make the staves (slats of the barrels) in this facility. At each stage of the process there were counters, digitally keeping track of the number of barrels the employees have had pass through their station. It was only around 11:00 in the morning and one station had already logged nearly 500 barrels. During the tour, we were told that production ran at an average of 1,500 a day. Impressive!
The day wasn’t over, it was now time to get back on the bus and travel to Lynchburg. This is what we had been waiting for. As they divided us up into groups we were warned there would be some areas we would not be permitted to take pictures in. They also began telling us the story of Mr. Jasper Daniels himself. After his father died, he became an orphan. He was taken in by a preacher whom dabbled a bit in moonshine. Combined with the expertise of a then Slave Nathaniel Green and the preacher, Jasper Daniels began to distill. After finding a limestone spring in Lynchburg, Jasper Daniels decided that would be the place he would build his empire. And it still sits on the same land today.
We were invited to see the area where they make the coal, incase you are wondering, the main difference between bourbon and Tennessee whiskey is the charcoal filter. We toured mash rooms, walked around fermenter tanks. We visited the spring that Jasper Daniels founded all those years ago. Our tour guide told us about the generations of his family that worked for Jack Daniels, and pride he felt when he was brought on to be a part the company.
The last leg of the tour, we entered a barrel house. Nestled in the back was a beautiful tasting room with a charming fella in overalls. I’ll never forget his welcoming southern draw as he spoke to us about the different whiskeys made by Jack Daniels. His information was matched with humor, and the way he described the spirits was personal. He wasn’t reading information from a script. It was him, the way he smelled the whiskey, the way he tasted it, the way he wanted us to remember it.
An hour later we were back on the bus, and we rode to the top of BBQ Hill to watch the sunset on the empire that Jasper Newton Daniels built so many years ago. As I sat in the rocking chair over looking the valley, I realized that this essay contest wasn’t at all about bourbon verses Tennessee Whiskey at all. It was a friendly reminder. It is our job as mixologist to keep pushing the creativity and boundaries when using Tennessee Whiskey. It was about 40 strangers turned friends bonding over a glass of Gentleman Jack, and stories they will tell when they return home.