Sweet with a Slow Burn: The Birth of an American Brand
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Saturday, July 29, 2017
By Austin Rese
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When considering all-American brands, one might quickly think of: Ford, Levi’s, Hershey’s, etc. -- Each has their own unique story and place in the founding of America’s industry and commerce. Sadly, many iconic American brands have heeded the call of greed and left our shores. An American brand that is firmly rooted in US history and remains of domestic manufacture is that of Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Whiskey. A trip to Lynchburg, Tennessee, revealed more than I had ever expected.

 

Lynchburg is the epitome of bucolic America. The Victorian homes and store fronts are right out of a history book. Pure charm. The town seems to be corralled by horse farms and fields of baled hay. One would expect Norman Rockwell’s brush had created the entire scene.

 

Born in 1850, Jasper Newton Daniel (“Jack” as he became known), left home before his teenage years to work on the farm of Reverend Dan Call. This Lutheran minister’s business was located in Lois, Tennessee. The Reverend Call also owned a distillery which was managed by Nathan Green, a slave on the farm. Jack soon took an interest in the craft of whiskey making, befriending Nathan as a mentor.

 

After the Civil War, the Reverend’s wife gave Dan the ultimatum to either choose the life of a minister or make the flagrant choice of being a whiskey-maker... he chose the ministry. Subsequently, he sold the distillery to Jack. In turn, Jack hired the newly-freed Nathan to be the first head distiller. Soon, he moved the operation to Lynchburg.

 

Why Lynchburg? Jack came upon Cove Spring Hollow. This is a natural spring that would become the source for one of the brand’s key ingredients: water. Over 800 gallons of water a day come from miles below the earth’s surface, being filtered by layers of Tennessee limestone. No iron. No impurities. Crystal clear. A high price was required for this land and Jack paid it. It was a wise investment.

 

Soon the business was up and running. Jack understood the importance of presentation. Fearing his diminutive size of merely 5’-2” in height, he chose to dress himself as a true gentleman with all of the accoutrements of successful attire. It wasn't long before his top coat, waist coat, tie, and hat became his trademark.

 

In 1866, at the ripe ole’ age of 16, he traveled to Washington, DC, to register his brand. Although making the government aware of his business would result in paying taxes, it also raised the level of authority of his product above the rather picaresque industry of bootlegging.  No one could oppugn its legitimacy.

 

Jack held firm to the process of making fine whiskey. Never rushed. To this day, the process is exactly the same. This includes the distillation of the mash (a mixture of corn, barely, and rye) over a bed of fine charcoal, which is derived from burnt pallets of sugar maple wood. It is this very slow process which separates it from another libation, bourbon. This charcoal mellowing is often referred to as the “Lincoln County Process”.

 

A team of highly-skilled coopers create each barrel, from 33 unique staves of white oak. No glue. No nails. A perfect fit, tightened only by the pressure of assembly.  Each barrel is then toasted to bring out the natural sugars of the wood. This is the source for the whiskey’s golden color and flavor. The mixture sits within the barrel for a minimum of 4 years. Each barrel holding approximately 240 bottles of the finest Tennessee whiskey.

 

Ironically, Jack’s patience in producing the finest liquor, did not extend to his own life. Upon attempting to open the company’s safe without success, his temper got the best of him. He simply hauled off and kicked it. Unbeknownst to him, he broke his toe. Since he did not appropriately attend to his injury, gangrene set in. Over a period of 5 years, this negligence resulted in the amputation of his toe---then his foot----then his leg---then, blood poisoning took his life in 1911, at the age of 61.

 

Without a wife or any children, Jack willed his business to a nephew, Lem Motlow. It is he who saw the business through America’s prohibition years and recessions. Today, it is sold throughout the USA and in over 100 foreign countries.

 

Jack’s infatuation with presentation is most evident in the tours of his facility which are given today. First class in every aspect. I was simply in awe of how well the tour was detailed and the story shared.  The facility, itself, is quite impressive.

 

The Angel Tour concluded with a tasting of 5 variations of the brand which are presently offered on the market. The state-of-the-art tasting room has a sophisticated designer appeal. Very cutting-edge. The tasting was administered in an articulated manner. I was able to fully experience the difference of each variety. My nose cleared. My tongue danced. My throat burned.  

 

Contemplation ensued:

…I am not a patron of whiskey. I believe it is an acquired taste. Personally, it would fall into a category similar to kale or beets. Perhaps, the more you try it, the more it becomes one with your taste buds…

 

I left Lynchburg smiling. I knew that I had just experienced the passion of a true American entrepreneur. One who believed in his dream. One who accepted nothing but the best.  I believe he would be very proud of how the company has continued these same standards.

 

Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Whiskey: an all-American brand, indeed.

 

 

 

This was A Moment in America.

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