America’s oldest registered distillery turns 150 this year, marking a century and a half of one of the most valuable alcohol brands in the world.
The distillery was founded when Jasper Newton “Jack” Daniel ran away from home and started making whiskey with a Lutheran Minister when he was about seven years old.
“Church people started talking about how the minister was working for God on Sunday and then making liquor on Monday. In order to keep the church family happy the Minister sold the business to Jack for $25,” distillery tour guide Jesse James told Business Insider.
Every single drop of Jack Daniel’s is only manufactured in a 150-year-old distillery in Lynchburg, Tenn., a site named on the US Department of the Interior’s Register of Historic Places.
“I believe the endurance and success of Jack Daniel’s is the result of our ability to continue to operate according to Mr. Jack’s lifelong motto, ‘Every day we make it, we’ll make it the best we can,'” Jack Daniel’s president Mark McCallum said.
The 1,700-acre operation has around 435 workers, ships out 119 million bottles in a year, and is sold in more than 165 countries.
We took a tour to see how the whiskey is made.
The Jack Daniel Distillery is located in Lynchburg, Tenn., a dry county that's a 90 minute drive from Nashville.
There was already a crowd at 9 a.m. on a Saturday, with 1,300 guests expected over the course of the day.
The visitor center feels like a modern log cabin with high wooden ceilings, great natural light, and clean architecture.
They are really good at making use of old barrels, which are handmade at the distillery and only used once for whiskey.
'You only use your coffee filter once so why would you reuse a barrel? The first use is always the best so we can't fill the barrels more than once,' James said.
Our friendly Southern tour guide meets us by this statue of Jack Daniel in the center of the visitor center. His name really is Jesse James.
Our tour began at the rickyard, where a sign notes the 'Southern schedule' which means you have to wait. 'People aren't in a rush around here so we painted this sign to let farmers know that,' said James.
The giant open furnace is hard to miss. All of the sugar maple charcoal for the whiskey mellowing process is made right here.
... and then set to a blaze inside the furnace. Temperatures reach up to 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit, hotter than cremating a body or tempering steel.
We pass by a few retired fire trucks on our way to the cave spring. James tells us that the distillery has never lost a barrel due to a fire. He doesn't elaborate on other possible sources for missing barrels.
Next stop was the natural spring that provides water for making whiskey. The limestone rock removes iron from the water which can give whiskey an undesirable taste and colour.
The water stays at a chilly 56 degrees Fahrenheit year-round. This cave spring is the reason why the distillery is located in Lynchburg.
This is the 'Jack on the rocks' statue, which is deceiving because he appears much taller than he actually was. Jack and I are both 5 foot 2 inches.
In Jack Daniel's dingy office, we hear the story about how Jack died: He came into work early to get some paperwork done and was frustrated that he couldn't open the combination on the old safe ...
... so he kicked it and ended up getting an infected left toe which was amputated. Eventually, his entire left leg had to be removed. Jack died from this injury when he was 61 years old.
Before leaving Jack's office we are shown portraits of the Master Distillers. There has only been seven in the history of the distillery. Jack Daniel was the first (pictured left) and Jeff Arnett is the current Master Distiller.
Here are the three main ingredients in Jack Daniel's Tennessee Whiskey. Each raw ingredient is grated into a finer consistency as seen in the small glass containers.
Yellow corn is the primary grain used in Jack Daniel's. This is one of the many reasons why Jack Daniel's is a Tennessee Whiskey and not scotch.
Our tour is interrupted by 'Tennessee peacocks' which roam the distillery grounds. These turkeys snack on the extra corn around the grain silos.
Looking up at the hilltop you can see one of the 78 barrel houses. The barrel house pictured here holds about 1 million gallons of whiskey which is 20,000 barrels.
The room was deafening and super hot. This is where the alcohol steam from the sour mash is captured and turned into liquid form. The product is moonshine at this point. I wanted to get out of there because I was worried the ancient still would erupt.
The sour mash is made in one of 64 fermenters. Fine-grain yellow corn, barley, rye and yeast ferment for 4 -- 6 days. The smell was intense and made my eyes water. We all leaned in for a second sniff though.
Leaving the still house was one of my favourite parts of the tour because I noticed all the trees have a striking appearance. The bark is covered with a black mould that naturally occurs near distilleries.
The bridges, pipes, buildings, and trees are covered with this mould. It doesn't smell bad it just makes everything look a bit dirty.
This is the charcoal mellowing building that houses 72 vats. This room had the best aroma and you start to recognise Jack Daniel's in the air.
Every drop of Jack Daniel's whiskey drips through 10-feet of charcoal. Gentleman Jack is the only product that drips through the charcoal twice. This mellowing process is the reason why Jack Daniel's is not a bourbon.
We make our way to the oldest and smallest barrel house at the distillery which hold about 6,000 barrels.
Each barrel is rolled into place and weighs about 560-pounds. The temperature can reach up to 120 degrees Fahrenheit and drops to 40 degrees Fahrenheit in the winter. The barrels sit here for the next 4 to 7 years.
The barrel gives the whiskey all of its colour and some of its flavour. The premium Single Barrel Whiskey is kept on the top floor, Jack Daniel's Old No. 7 comes from the middle floor, and Jack Green Label is from the lowest floor.
The walls of this room are covered with name plaques of those who purchase a barrel of Jack Daniel's. The US military is the largest buyer of Jack Daniel's Single Barrel. Seal Team 6 bought a barrel after the successful raid of Osama Bin Laden.
When you buy Jack Daniel's Single Barrel you get the original whiskey barrel and 240 bottles of single barrel whiskey. This can cost you around 9 -- 12 thousand dollars since no two whiskey barrels have the same volume.
This small building was where Federal Tax Agents double checked the distillery's accounting books. 'They aren't there anymore. We operate on the honour system now,' James said.
Our tour is almost over as we head to the gift shop. The distillery is located in a dry county which means you can't purchase alcohol, but the distillery has a slight exception since they can sell commemorative bottles like these.
This statue of Jack is a true measure of his 5'2' stature. He wore a size 4 in men's shoe and sculptors were worried the statue would topple over since Jack had tiny feet.
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