LYNCHBURG, Tenn. (WKRN) – Jack Daniel’s is found worldwide in 170 different countries and every single drop is reliant on a special charcoal mellowing process.
News 2 went behind-the-scenes at the Lynchburg distillery as part of our special series, Art of the Craft.
“I think I’m going to start a rock band; call it ‘Whiskey for Destruction,” joked Jack Daniel’s Master Distiller, Jeff Arnett.
Arnett oversees all whiskey-making operations at the Lynchburg compound in Moore County. Every single drop is made right here in Middle Tennessee.
It takes about four years to make a bottle of Jack Daniel’s Old No. 7 and about nine years for Gentleman Jack.
The process starts with a huge bonfire.
“What we’re sitting and watching right now would be one of the biggest things that separates Jack Daniel’s, something that you see at Jack Daniel’s that you don’t see at other distilleries necessarily, and this is the science and the art of making charcoal. We use our own whiskey at 140 proof as the accelerant and turn it into a blowtorch, if you will, to get this lit,” explained Arnett.
“Every drop of Jack Daniel’s is going to be slowly dripped through hard sugar maple charcoal before it goes into the barrel and this is the distinct step that makes Jack Daniel’s Tennessee whiskey and not a bourbon,” he continued.
Arnett said that charcoal mellowing, or leaching as they used to call it, alters the smell and flavor of Jack, making every taste cleaner, softer and sweeter.
“And you’ve found a way to make every single drop of Jack Daniel’s taste the same, and it starts with this bonfire process; it’s amazing,” said News 2’s Brie Thiele.
“It does!” said Arnett. “You know, if I go back in our history, you know, why did Jack choose to do charcoal mellowing, I would tell you, clearly science has improved over the years. The basic formula, the grain build, the yeast culture that we use, none of those things have changed with Jack Daniel’s in the modern era, but charcoal is one of those things when probably at a time when it was difficult to make a consistent whiskey because there are so many different variables in it, that Jack figured out that if he would go through charcoal, the whiskey, day after day, season after season, made it more similar.”
Jack also fell in love with the water in Lynchburg, which is mineral-rich but iron-free.
“We make every drop of Jack Daniel’s in one place and it all really centers around this cave-spring hollow. But Jack didn’t start here, he spent years out at the call farm about four miles away from here, and probably on that property is where he learned the value of water. Having a consistent water source that was reliable and didn’t change with the seasons, and that’s what the cave-spring water provides for us. It also provides natural air conditioning so Jack was obviously smart enough to put his office right here, so this was built back in the 1870s,” explained Arnett.
And a few steps from Jack’s office is where it all comes together.
“This is the Jack Daniel’s distillery and pretty much every drop of Jack Daniel’s you’ve ever drunk in your life came from right here. This is cave-spring water, grains and yeast kind of completing at the end of the process here,” said Arnett.
“This is how Jack Daniel’s starts. Kind of hard to believe, it looks like soup but yeah, it’s nice and cool,” said Thiele. “It’ll be a little bit sour to the taste because all the sugars have been taken out of it and the alcohol is starting to form in it,” explained Arnett.
Prior to distillation, the pseudo corn chowder will sit for four to six days and ferment. That’s when the yeast takes all the starch and sugar out to make alcohol.
And remember that big bonfire?
“This looks random, but I promise you it is not. We have studied how liquids flow especially when gravity is controlling and what we want to do is wick. So we want the whiskey to wick its way through and take advantage of all this charcoal that’s in this cavity below it.”
With the process nearly complete, it’s time for the liquid to mature. Arnett told News 2 that nearly all the color, and half the flavor, comes from the barrel, which is why they make their own charred-oak barrels.
Hundreds of workers distill more than 40 million gallons of Tennessee whiskey, which is then pushed into a barrel and sent to one of 90 warehouses in the hills of Lynchburg. There it’ll sit for at least four years.
“Now we have the finished product in all its glory. After that long walk and that long talk, this is the fruit of our labors.” Arnett said, explaining the taste he’s going for. “Just rear of center on the palate, kind of tingles into the roof of the mouth. Sweet on the tip, oak in the back but balanced.”
The Jack Daniel’s Distillery is located in Lynchburg, Tennessee. The distillery offers daily tours from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.