The Jack Daniel’s distillery is an alcoholic oasis in a desert of prohibition. PHIL LUTTON takes a detour to the tee-totalling town of Lynchburg to discover the secrets of its most famous drawcard.
There’s a quirky duality about Moore County, in southern Tennessee, that captures the Deep South in one petite pocket. Its residents are outgoing yet conservative, the epitome of southern hospitality but still cautious and wary behind the welcoming smiles. It’s middle class but not without its share of ramshackle huts, rickety fences and pick-up trucks that look like they rolled down from the mountains instead of being driven. It’s simple and complicated in one – the reason scribes have been fascinated with the social dynamics of this part of America for generations.
And the best mindfuck of all, in this tiny parcel of Tennessee, there’s still prohibition, despite the only reason anyone ever visits is to see the distillery of it’s favourite son – a man the world’s drinking public likes to call Jack Daniel.
On a dark wintry day, looking up from the town square of Moore County’s most famous town Lynchburg, the Jack Daniel’s distillery looks like an evil mansion perched on a wooded hill that the kids would only go near if they were dared. It’s a giant Boo Radley house that churns out one of the world’s most devoured drops, the ubiquitous Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Whiskey.
Funny thing is you won’t buy a bottle of the good stuff in any of Lynchburg’s souvenir shops, and given there are no bars, boozers or nightclubs by law, that’s going to be a dead end as well. Lynchburg, like the rest of Moore County, has been dry since 1909 and remains an alcohol Sahara to this day. The only drink on sale that packs more punch than coffee is cans of very, very light beer at gas stations and watered-down souvenir bottles at the distillery gift shop – and they were only allowed to be sold from 1998.
Lynchburg is a town addicted to sobriety making the rest of the world drunk. It truly is beautiful. If the Deep South is a country within a country, Moore County might well be a country within a country within a country. Whoa.
Like the advertising campaign gracing the walls of the tube might suggest, Lynchburg is off the beaten track, right in the heartland of the conservative South.
In nearby Giles County, the Ku Klux Klan was formed by disgruntled Confederate veterans after the Civil War. But while the freaks in white sheets might be the most infamous export of fair Giles, the folks of Moore County – and Lynchburg in particular – have been busy pumping out a more pleasing product since Jack registered his distillery in 1866.
It’s strange to think that in this unassuming caricature of small-town America that has one traffic light, a post office and a courthouse, one of the world’s most fabled hard liquors has its root.
Jack Daniel’s – a drink drunk by cowboys and rock stars – is made by mild-mannered country folk called Randy and Goose that were wearing trucker hats long before somebody decided they were in vogue.
Lynchburg is a curious and worthwhile detour for those driving from Nashville to Memphis. It’s a brilliant excuse to leave the interstate and the two-hour drive from Nashville takes you deep into the rural core of the state.
Lynchburg is as tiny as the JD marketing men promise. The distillery perches above the town, which is little more than four streets, a few knick-knack shops and the odd eatery which serve up the must-have southern delicacy, a pulled-pork sandwich with barbecue sauce.
Jack Daniel himself was the son of a Lutheran minister, Call Daniel, who ran a whiskey still and knew more about spirits than simply in the biblical sense. In 1863, with the wowser parishioners encouraging Call to stop distilling his whiskey, Call sportingly sold the still to Jack, who was all of 13 at the time. Jack was soon to learn the secret that the hosts of the Jack Daniel’s tour remind you of at every occasion – that the key to smooth whiskey is to mellow it through 10ft of hard maple charcoal, one drop at a time.
It was a common way of making the spirit in the early days but corner-cutting by the whiskey bigwigs meant Jack was one of only a handful of distillers that persevered with the art. The process is what also distinguishes Jack Daniel’s from the Tennessee sipping (sippin'”) whiskey that it is and a boring, gullet-scalding run-of-the-mill bourbon.
The distillery retains its old-school feel and is also a national heritage site. Jack’s original office is still in place and the iron-free water that runs out of the hills to be used in the distilling process still bubbles down from the mountain streams.
There are so many secret techniques and age-old adages that go into Jack Daniel’s, according to the tour guides, that it’s amazing to think it gets made at all. The good ol’ boys that tell the stories just add to the legend that Jack Daniel’s is still made the old-fashioned way. It’s not too far from the truth, and the same processes used from the outset are still used today, but the distillery has inevitably modernised over the years to cope with demand for its amber export.
The sights of the distillery are less impressive than its smells – raw mash on its way to the vats, the freshly burned charcoal ready to mellow its share of the liquor, ricks of timber waiting to go into the fire, the dank warehouses with white-oak whiskey barrels stacked to the ceiling.
Jack still lives there in the form of a statue to commemorate his efforts to put Lynchburg on the map. Even more impressive than Jack’s addition to the life of Lynchburg is his departure from it. Legend has it that in 1905, Jack forgot the combination of the safe in his office and lashed out with his boot, kicking it in frustration. The iron safe won hands down, breaking Jack’s toe and instigating the beginning of the end. He died in 1911 of blood poisoning.
If he knew that the most common way for people in 2006 to drink his beloved “sippin” whiskey was with coke and ice while chatting up some bird in the pub, he’d probably turn in his grave.
• For more information on the Jack Daniel’s distillery in Lynchburg, Tennessee, see www.jackdaniels.com. Tours run daily.”