In a world that strives for conformity and consistency, one of the surprising revelations that comes with drinking Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel whiskey is that no two barrels are really the same.
Master distiller Jeff Arnett has taken Business Insider to the top floor of a barrel house maturing the whiskey, on a hill above the famous distillery in Tennessee. The floor is home to around 20,000 American oak casks – about 380,000 million litres of whiskey – and one of 86 locations around the 800-hectare site where around 2.3 million barrels mature for around 5-6 years.
Down the bottom of the barrel house is cool, dark and musty. You can feel the temperature rise as you climb the stairs in an extraordinary piece of 20th Century timber engineering over several floors.
The total weight of this timber barn is equal to two of the world’s biggest cruise ships.
We head to the top floor because that’s where the Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel whiskey casks sit. In summer, the temperature often soars above 40°C in the top ricks, as they’re known. “We wouldn’t be staying up here for long,” Arnett says.
Temperature variation is important to maturation and producing the whiskey, he explains. “You want extreme cool and extreme heat. The more you expand and contract the whiskey, the more it’s going to interact with the barrels.”
The angel’s share
On the ground floor, the temperature is constant and the whiskey takes longer to mature. But the other thing those temperature swings do is increase what’s known as the “angel’s share”, or the part of the barrel that is lost to evaporation. The top floor is known as the “angel’s roost”. While evaporation rates are normally around 2% annually, up to 30% of the barrel’s contents can disappear during the 5-6 years it matures on the top floor.
For an idea of the heat’s impact up at the top floor, that process would normally take 15 to 20 years.
While Scotland loves selling the age of its scotch, Arnett takes a different view. He just wants to find whiskey at its peak and those top floor barrels mature quickly.
“That’s about as long as you want to leave it in there – don’t overbrew it,” he says.
Only a handful of the barrel houses have the conditions to produce the whiskey Arnett is looking for to produce Single Barrel.
The project began in 1997 after what he calls “the Old No. 7 faithful” kept asking for something with more flavour, more colour and higher proof – a “No. 7 on steroids”.
Most Jack Daniel’s is made by combining 200 different barrels together for consistency. Single Barrel is all about the differences.
“Every barrel is going to have its own unique set of properties,” Arnett says.
“I tell people the best thing about Single Barrel is every barrel’s different, the worst thing about Single Barrel is every barrel’s different.
“It’s not that they’re not going to taste like Jack Daniel’s, but one barrel can be very sweet, one can be really oaky, one can be a nice balance of the two.”
That’s why, if you decide to buy one, Arnett talks to about what you like in a whiskey first, then pulls out three barrels he thinks you might like to taste. He likes to throw in a wild card too – and it’s surprising how often that’s the one people choose.
“If you’re open to exploring, then it can be a little problematic. But if you’re a whiskey fanatic and you want to explore, there’s no better to do it than Single Barrel. It’s going to be the most complex, it’s going to be the most interesting.”
Jeff Arnett joined Jack Daniel’s in 2001 as quality control manager and cut his teeth on Single Barrel. For the first five years, he was just one of two people who tasted every barrel before it was released.
“I became a whiskey expert working off single barrel,” he says. “I came here as a fan of Old No. 7 Black Label, but I became to really perfect my palate and my understanding of the nuances barrel to barrel.”
Arnett, just the seventh man to be master distiller in the company’s 149-year history, pulls out a hand drill and gets to work on the barrel. He catches the 140-proof (70%) golden liquid in a sample bottle as it squirts from a small hole before plugging it with a cedar stopper.
We sample it: creamy, spicy, like a Christmas pudding, with dried fruit notes and ginger, some dried citrus peel and the banana scent the brand is famed for, plus oak. Despite the higher alcohol, it’s not too pronounced.
In the 1998, Jack Daniel’s launched its “buy the barrel” program, meaning customers can take the whiskey, lock, stock, bottled – and the actual barrel.
Getting your own barrel
A barrel (around 240-260, 700ml bottles) costs $A26,000 (most of which goes to the Australian government), putting it well above the US price of $US9,000 ($A12,000).
It comes with a range of perks – of course the chance to head to the distillery for a personal tour, and the chance to hang out with Arnett or assistant distiller Chris Fletcher, who’ll select the barrels for you to try and then take you through them while you make a choice.
If an Australian wanted to visit, he says, “I’ll make a point of being here” because it’s so far away.
The contents are hand bottled, individually numbered and come with a customised metal tag. The barrel is engraved and sent to you too (in the normal process they end up in Scotland being used in scotch).
The other thing that happens is your name goes up on a brass plaque in the Single Barrel Society room at the distillery. The first ever Single Barrel went to the Ritz Carlton.
Walking around the room looking at the names on the wall, it soon becomes apparent that the biggest buyers of Single Barrel are the US military. The names of pretty famous navy ships are there, as well as military bases, and the multiple barrels on the plaques, like notches on belt, demonstrate repeat custom.
France is the biggest national market outside of the US. About 10% of the total Single Barrels sales are bought as whole barrels – about 700 a year.
If you’re keen to own your own Single Barrel, get in touch with Jeff Arnett and the team at Jack Daniel’s via email at [email protected]
If you can’t make it to the US, he’ll send out three samples for you to try, but as he said “we’re always going to give you something that’s a curve ball or an outlier, so you can see the differences”.
“This is about their choice, not mine,” Arnett says.
Once you’ve made a choice it will take about three months before the whiskey lands on your doorstep in Australia, along with the barrel with your name on it.
Of course, if you’re just curious, you can pick up a single bottle for $80 to $100 at bottleshops and if you really want to try a little experiment, check the barrel number on the neck of the bottle and grab a couple of different ones to see if you can taste the differences.
So what does the man who’s made the whiskey from scratch like most about Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel?
“I like the movement. I like the fact that it’s not always the same. I can have barrels in different warehouses from different years that taste more alike than two barrels that entered the same warehouse on the same day.”
Jack really did live here - this is his original office, still standing on the distiller site nearly 150 years on.
The whiskey for Single Barrel comes from just a handful of warehouses on the 800 hectare site. This is one of them.
Jack Daniel's produces 1 million gallons of whiskey daily - this is it coming straight off the vertical copper stills.
While there's a mechanised bottler for the No. 7, Jack Daniel's Single Barrel is still bottled in small batches (about 250 bottles a barrel) by hand using an 82-year-old filler.
A personal tasting with master distiller Jeff Arnett. If you go to the trouble of coming from overseas, he'll do his best to be there to meet you.
The tasting starts with the raw distillate - you can taste the corn - then after it's been filtered (the black label), which strips out the bitterness revealing a sweeter flavour.
* Business Insider travelled to the distillery courtesy of Jack Daniel’s.
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