Jack Daniel’s Distillery Tour

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Proximity, curiosity, and opportunity combined for me to visit the home of Jack Daniels, located in Lynchburg, TN.   While it’s hard not to maintain a certain cynicism for heavily marketed brands, the name Jack Daniel’s arrived honestly, as he indeed founded the company.  Jack Daniel’s is the nation’s oldest registered distillery, licensed in 1866.  Basically, that means from the beginning, they registered to pay their taxes, remaining compliant with US law ever since, including during Prohibition.

Today the company employs around 375, each of whom is said to get a free bottle of JD the first Friday of each month.  Otherwise, they’re busy distilling, packaging, marketing, and guiding visitors, amongst other things.  They’re currently producing 2,200 barrels per day, but they’re not at peak production.  Their website is informative, and it includes a virtual tour – well, once you get past the age verification screen.  If you explore the site, my comments will be largely redundant.

In my opinion, you don’t arrive in Lynchburg, TN by accident.  You have to intend Lynchburg, TN on going there.  It’s roughly an hour drive from I-24, through a very scenic countryside which offers a pleasant drive.  The faux Town welcome sign notes a population just above 300, but it’s actually about 5,500.  The road then descends to Small Town, USA, nestled amongst the low mountains.  The town’s rustic charm is actually deserving of the brewery’s fondness for recalling its history in “The Hollow,” which might otherwise seem a calculated marketing ploy. 

Upon arrival, the visitor’s center makes it clear that they can handle large crowds.  Parking seemed spacious, and the welcome center has ample exhibits capturing the process and the company’s history.

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Tours take about an hour, with a low intensity half mile walk around a portion of the property and within several buildings.  After an introductory video, visitors are taken on a short van ride uphill to the Rickyard, where a disappointingly logo-absent picture is taken (though for free).  The Rickyard is where they weather and burn white maple to make charcoal (more on that later).

On my visit, there were just five of us, including a couple from LaGrange, GA, a man from Mobile, AL, and a fellow from Britain who sought other entertainment after his skydiving trip was cancelled due to weather.  As it turns out, England is JD’s #1 export market.

A short walk after the photo-op, you arrive at Cave Springs.  This is a rather IMG_1260fetching cave opening with clear water flowing through it, found to be 56o F and iron-free.  They’ve traced the water for up to a mile but have still not found its source.  It has never run dry in the company’s history.

A new term for me was “cooperage.”  Jack Daniel’s is reportedly the only whiskey manufacturer in the U.S. who manufactures their own barrels.  These are made with 33 staves of various widths and are made from white oak.  They’re heated and charred with flames, which add eventually to the flavor of the whiskey.  The barrels are used only once or twice before being sold to other whiskey manufacturers and wineries, domestic and abroad.  They believe very strongly that their flavor is dependent on using new barrels, and it’s hard to argue against their success.   Unfortunately, the cooperage process is not seen during the tour other than some photos in the Visitor Center.

Other things can be seen but not photographed.  As alcohol is flammable, it’s not a good idea for cameras and cellphonesIMG_1247 to be active while touring the production areas.

However, the tour is definitely aromatic.  Two 40,000 gallon vats of “sour mash” are opened for viewing, in which carbon dioxide bubbles can be seen breaking through the surface of a very unappetizing brew of yellowish slime.  Still, the aromas remind you that you are at a distillery, and you manage to digest the fact that the yeasts are busy converting the barley, corn and rye to alcohol. 

Even more potent is the mellowing tank, in which a crossed pattern of pipes drip alcohol onto the surface of crushed white maple charcoal.  It takes 6 to 7 days for the drops to make their way through the 10’ tank, during which impurities are removed. This process is the unique step in terming a “Tennessee” whiskey.  Gentleman Jack, a smoother option to the more caustic No. 7, is passed a second time through the charcoal after it matures. 

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Properly mellowed, the alcohol is placed into kegs and moved to one of 77 barrelhouses, all of which are within 1.5 mile of the plant.  These structures are up to 7 stories in height and are not climate controlled.  Yet, they affect the flavor depending on the seasons and a barrel’s placement within the building.  The picture below shows the relative maturation of whiskey distilled on the same date, but located at different levels as indicated above in a barrelhouse.  Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel products are pulled from the higher regions.

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Speaking of which, for $9,000 to $12,000 (depending on taxes), you can buy a true Single Barrel.  For that tidy sum, you (plus other investors?) wouldIMG_1258 receive approximately 40 cases of whisky, plus the barrel in which they matured, delivered to your driveway on a pallet.  It’s recommended to be at home when it’s delivered…

Jack Daniels whiskey is made only in Lynchburg, TN.  There is no contract manufacturing, licensing, offshoring, or other perversions to the sanctity of their end product.  Even with 77 barrelhouses, all their eggs are pretty close to being in one basket.

A careful eye will note lightning IMG_1263protection rods on the roofs of their buildings (but not in these pictures).  JD hasn’t been struck by lightning, but Jim Beam lost a barrelhouse in 2003, including 800,000 gallons of bourbon.  Alcohol begets vapors; vapors ignite.  

Even their older barrelhouse, pictured below and included on the tour, is provided with a fire sprinkler system, but the system only provides a cooling mist in the event of an alarm.  As water isn’t a suitable extinguishing agent for alcohol, a foam truck would be summoned to extinguish the fire, the foam providing a barrier that prevents oxygen from reaching the alcohol (fuel).

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Jack Daniel’s further minimizes risk by mixing their stock in the barrelhouses.  Whiskey made within a year is stored in numerous barrelhouses, mixed with barrels of other vintages.  Should a barrelhouse be lost, they maintain adequate stores of barrels that would come of age to meet market demands, rather than losing all of one year’s product in a single loss, for example.   

Speaking of aging, there is no fixed formula for when the whiskey has matured to retail sale.  Probably the dream job of many would be that of the Master Distiller.  This gentleman taste tests each barrel to determine whether it is fit for sale.  Their recorded history of Distillers indicates that this, sadly, a very low turnover position.

There are a couple of surprising and refreshing points about the distillery tour.  First is the placement of 30 or so self-storage lockers – which are free.  IMG_1240Did I say free?  Wow, I did.  Free lockers. Free parking. Free tour.  Free photo at the Rickyard.  Is this any way to run a business?

Where’s the Capitalism?

Right. Following the tour, there is a relatively low-key post-tour sales effort.  Sure, you can buy from a handful of commemorative whiskeys (special glass bottle, box, and/or certificate), but what about the Grand Universe of licensed Jack Daniel’s logo products?

For this, you have to go to the ol’ town square, where 80% of the stores are IMG_1265counting on you to purchase just that sort of thing.  The courthouse might be used for those ticketed for leaving town without a purchase.

But one thing you can’t buy is a stiff drink.  Moore County is a Dry County, meaning no liquor can be legally sold.  For those used to taking tours of distilleries or breweries and sampling their product… you’re out of luck. 

 

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