Jack Daniel's Old No. 7

Features - Cover Story

In its 7th generation, under the guidance of its 7th master distiller, Old No. 7 is still made as Jack decreed: “Every day we make it, we’ll make it the best we can.”

February 17, 2012

In 1863, at the age of 13, Jack Daniel owned his first whiskey still. In 1866, the Lynchburg, Tenn., distillery became the first to be licensed in the U.S. Despite the fact that the county has been dry since prohibition, that same distillery—with a “few” additions and enhancements—is the same site where Jack Daniel’s whiskeys are still made today.

With few food safety concerns involved in the distilling of whiskey, Jack Daniel’s can prioritize quality. Quality is a focus that originated with Jack himself, who stated, “Every day we make it, we’ll make it the best we can,” and through it, Jack Daniel’s has become the top-selling whiskey in the U.S.

So is it as good today as it was when Jack made it?

According to Master Distiller Jeff Arnett, “It’s better. We make the whiskey that speaks to what Jack would have wanted.”

With advancements in fermentation science, testing procedures, and electronic quality systems, Jack Daniel’s has continually updated its systems, while at the same time, maintained the essential process and recipe that Jack used.

Although the distillery is almost 150 years old, Arnett is only its seventh master distiller, holding responsibility to oversee the entire whiskey-making process of milling, yeasting, fermentation, distillation, charcoal mellowing, and maturation.

As the guide on our private five-hour tour of the nine-acre hollow, Arnett led us from the brickyard where Jack Daniel’s burns wood to create its own whiskey-mellowing charcoal through the distilling process to the sampling room where whiskey bottles holding samples of every batch made in the last two years are stored.

It Starts with the Charcoal. The 10 feet of hard sugar maple charcoal through which Jack Daniel’s drips is the reason that it is a Tennessee Whiskey and not a bourbon. To ensure the intrinsic quality of each coal, the wood is burned on-site, with constant monitoring by two specialists who make all the charcoal.

Once burned, the coals are ground, then hand-packed into vats through which the whiskey will drip. The charcoal absorbs the bitterness of the grains, and mellows the resulting whiskey. To maximize this mellowing drip, the size of the coals needs to be consistent. “We don’t want lots of large or fine pieces,” Arnett said. “We want it to be free flowing from top to bottom—through all 10 feet.”

Whiskey is also mellowed through its barreling process, but the charcoal drip gives a “two-year head start” to the barrel mellowing, Arnett explained.

Jack Daniel originated the process because, said Manager of Quality Control and Technical Services Kevin Smith, “At the time, it was difficult to make a consistent whiskey, so Jack used charcoal to do that.” Today the whiskey flows through the charcoal in one of 72 vats, with the output of the vats joined, or “married,“ to form the organoleptic traits that are Jack Daniel’s.

Although no one knows for sure why Jack originally chose sugar maple for the charcoal, speculation is that its indigenous area growth and clear, complete burn were two primary reasons. And along with these, the unique characteristics it imparts to Jack Daniel’s whiskeys is the primary motivation behind its continued use today. “It defines Jack Daniel’s uniqueness and consistency,” said Manager of ISO Compliance and Lab Services Rosemary Dubois.

The charcoal-burning fire also makes for a unique safety need for the distillery, for which it has 30 full-time employees who are state-certified firefighters. “We have to assume that if we have a fire, we will lose the whole warehouse, so the goal is to keep it from spreading,” Arnett said. With such a brigade of its own, Jack Daniel’s also maintains a mutual-aid agreement with the city of Lynchburg, to provide back-up assistance should either have need.

Cool Spring Water. All Jack Daniel’s whiskey is made from the cool, iron-free, cave-spring water in Jack Daniel’s Hollow. In fact, Arnett said, “This is why the distillery is here.” And the presence of such springs is why Tennessee and Kentucky are the home of most U.S.-made whiskeys and bourbons. “To make a good whiskey, you need limestone spring water,” Arnett said.

Set within a cave and running completely underground, the spring water stays at 56°F year round and has minimal bacterial growth. Prior to use, however, the water is run through filtration, primarily to clear out any leaves, stones, or other natural contaminants.

To maintain the purity of the underground spring, Jack Daniel’s purchased the 250 acres of land above it in the 1980s, which it retains in its purely natural state. “It is an investment we made just for water quality,” Arnett said.

Corn, Barley, and Rye. Incoming grain is stored in 10 concrete bins that have been on the property since Prohibition. At that time, the bins held about a month’s supply of grain; today that same amount is processed in about a day.

The distiller has an additional 14 bins in nearby Tullahoma, Tenn. Because there is no rail system that runs into Lynchburg, the grain is shipped by rail into Tullahoma, emptied into the 14 bins, then trucked into Lynchburg.

“Grain is an interesting commodity to work with,” Arnett said, and it is an area in which Jack Daniel’s has very high specifications, using only #1-quality corn for which it pays a premium. “It’s very rare to do that,” he said. But because of that premium, the distiller has been able to demand precise specifications and build relationships with a small number of qualified vendors.

The Whiskey Begins. The whiskey-making process begins with the filling of 40,000-gallon fermenters with the water; specified ratios of each grain—80% corn, 12% barley, 8% rye; a pure-culture yeast; and a portion of a previous sour mash to begin the fermentation process. The corn forms the basis of the mash, with the rye adding flavor, and the barley converting starches to sugar. Every bourbon and whiskey has its own blend, and Jack Daniel’s has a lower rye content than most which is what gives it its sweet to oaky flavor.

It takes an hour and a half to fill the stills, and within two hours, bubbles should begin to form. Because the bubbles mean that the yeast is beginning to work, it is the key to Jack Daniel’s “very good quality,” Arnett said. If the mixture is not moving, then bacteria can begin to form, and that is what creates an off-flavor in whiskeys, he explained.

In fact, management of the bubbling and its beginning and endpoints are so important that the distiller equates it to a quality CCP. The mash may sit and work for four to six days, during which time the mash needs to remain active, and the activity controlled to reach exactly the right point at exactly the right time for each batch.

“It’s bad if the activity stops,” Arnett said. “Yeast are adaptive creatures. If they run out of sugars to feed on, they will do something else.” It is through careful management of the developing enzymes that the yeast is fed and the fermentation controlled.

“Fermentation is the 800-pound gorilla,” he added. “It gets in there and does what it wants to do—but we have learned to control it. Shortcuts are available, but we don’t use them.”

Like any processed food, whiskey has its byproducts which Jack Daniels sells to local farmers as feed. The feed makes for great steak burgers, Arnett said. Not only because it puts lean weight on the cattle, but because the cattle is “marinated from the inside out.”

7,000 Points of Quality. Although its final quality is manually assessed by dedicated, expert sensory panels, the electronic control of the whiskey through its process includes 7,000 points of data.

The bank of computers keeps the operators informed on everything from flow to steam to ensure consistency from start to finish. With such an intensive system, Arnett said, “we have to have people who know how to make whiskey in this chair, so we have very advanced operators.”

Distillation. With the property listed on the National Register of Historic Places, Jack Daniel’s cannot alter its exterior. While it can update its interior, in many areas, it has chosen not to do such.

One such area is the distillation room where “Old No. 7 Brand” can still be seen on the copper stills and testing is restricted to locked boxes.

The lock boxes were installed after Prohibition, when the distillery was required to have a federal officer on site any time the whiskey was to be accessed for any testing or tasting. Checks are conducted every 24 hours on the whiskey, including tests on the sugar conversion, density, pH, and titratable acidity. “Over time, those values tell you a lot about what the process is doing,” Smith said.

Although copper is not necessary for distillation, some inherent benefits are lost with the use of steel, Arnett said, explaining, “Copper takes known carcinogens out of the whiskey, so it makes the whiskey healthier.” Thus, Jack Daniel’s continues to use copper stills and pipes throughout the process.

In addition, Smith said, “we can steam clean every pipe in our process. We’ve gotten rid of any dead legs.”

Charcoal Mellowing. Jack Daniel’s has 72 charcoal vats through which the whiskey flows at a rate of about one gallon per minute. Every vat is independently controlled through flow meters and are used for about 26 weeks. During this time, the whiskey is tasted every two weeks, so that the whiskey in every vat is tasted 13 to 15 times.

Once the whiskey completes its filtration through the charcoal, it moves through the pipeline to the barreling room.

White Oak Barreling. The handcrafted barrel in which the whiskey is stored for aging is one of the most critical components that give Jack Daniel’s its color, character, and taste.

The importance and description of the barrels are best described by the distiller itself. As described on Jack Daniel’s website: “We start by selecting the very best white oak for the barrel staves. Our craftsmen fit the staves together by hand, then carefully toast and char the inside of the barrel to caramelize the wood’s natural sugars. It’s from the toasted oak that the whiskey draws its rich amber color, distinctive flavor, and finish. We entrust our whiskey only to new white oak. The barrel’s quality is so important to us that we’re the only distiller who goes to the extra effort and expense to craft our own.”

It is also during this stage that the whiskey becomes Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Whiskey (No. 7), Gentleman Jack’s, Single Barrel, Green Label, or its new Tennessee Honey. (See descriptions, page 41.)

Jack Daniel’s is actually made up of two companies. The first takes the whiskey to its 125-proof, barreled state, then sells it to the second company, which creates the whiskey brands.

While the distiller does meld whiskeys from its four holding tanks to maintain consistency in every bottle, none of its brands is considered to be a blended whiskey. “Everything we put in the bottle we have to get natural or we can’t put it in,” said Operations Manager Melvin Keebler.

Quality Testing. Lab tests are conducted on the bottles as well as the whiskey.

Although the distinctive square shape brings a uniqueness to the look, it also decreases the overall strength of the bottle, thus the distiller runs stress and thickness tests, as well as cap torque.

Tests are also run for color, clarity, absolute and relative concentration, and ester compounds. “There are literally thousands of compounds, but these are the markers that indicate other things that are more difficult to measure,” Smith said.

And bringing together the results of all the tests provides a sort of a “unique thumbprint,” he added. “We can prove with science that it is or isn’t Jack Daniel’s.”

But with all the lab testing that is done, Jack Daniel’s most important tests are those conducted by the “Official Whiskey Taster” sensory panels. There are more than 100 employees on the panels, each of whom is trained and commits to being present for at least 70 percent of the daily testings, at which the whiskey is tasted for any off-flavors such as mustiness, sourness, graininess, etc.—although the panel uses terms such as acetic, diacetyl, and acetaldehyde.

It is important that tasters commit to the panel because Jack Daniel’s requires a minimum of 30 tasters for a statistically valid data set, and with each person having his or her own sensitivity, an issue may be picked up by one but not another.

The final test of the whiskey in every bottling tank is that for proof. “If the bottle says 80 proof, it has to be between 79.7 and 80.0 proof,” Smith said.

All other testing aside, the master litmus test on Jack Daniel’s whiskey is color. “If its color is not good, you stop there,” Keebler said.

The Square Bottle. Jack Daniel’s bottles come into the distillery in the same case in which the filled bottles will be shipped to the retailer. To increase the efficiency of the “green” initiative, the empty bottles are shipped upside down and are dropped right side up onto the conveyor.

The bottles are purposely dropped to provide another stress test. “The challenge the bottles get in filling is usually the greatest it would get. If it can survive our bottling line, it can make it through the entire pipeline,” Arnett said.

Once air cleaned, the bottles are filled by vacuum, with the liquid literally pulled into the bottle. This process ensures the integrity of the bottle; if there is any bad seal or crack, the vacuum will not work and the bottle cannot be filled.

Through the bottling process, quality checks continue on flow, fill, labels, and overall process. “Quality inspectors are specifically designated to check any process variation,” Arnett said.

Lot Sampling. Most libraries contain books or records, but at Jack Daniel’s the library is the room in which is shelved sample bottles representing every batch made within the last two years.

Maintaining this library enables the distiller to check the original batch should an item be returned for any reason.

Although Jack Daniel’s has a low rate of only two to three consumer complaints per one million bottles of whiskey, and only 10 to 15 percent of those return the bottled product, retaining original samples provides a quick assessment of fraud. In Jack’s case, however, “fraud” is most likely to be teenagers having watered down a parent’s bottle to replace a portion they drank.

The Finished Product. With seven floors in its barrelhouse, each of Jack Daniel’s brands is finished through an individual process, bringing unique and distinctive characters to what went into the barrels as the same Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Whiskey.

Black Label. (80 proof) The original of Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Whiskeys, its Old No. 7 is still the distiller’s leading brand.

Single Barrel (90-100 proof) is considered the “best of the best.” Matured in the top floor, or “Angel’s Roost” of the barrelhouse, the dramatic changes in temperature cause its color and taste to deepen further. This whiskey undergoes a hand-selection process by which two of Jack Daniel’s Master Tasters must approve each barrel for robustness of flavor, and notes of toasted oak, vanilla, and caramel before it can be bottled as Single Barrel.

Gentleman Jack (80 proof) is charcoal mellowed twice— with the additional filtration conducted after it reaches maturity, giving it ultimate smoothness. Gentleman Jack is full-bodied with fruit and spices, and its finish is described as silky and warm.

Green Label (80 proof) is a lighter, less mature whiskey with a lighter color and character. The barrels tend to be on the lower floors and more toward the center of the warehouse where the whiskey matures more slowly.

Tennessee Honey. (70 proof) Mingled with a proprietary honey liqueur, Jack Daniel’s newest line has hints of honey and a finish that’s “naturally smooth.”

Do You Know Jack?

  • The Jack Daniel’s distillery was licensed in 1866, making it the oldest registered distillery in the U.S. and a National Historic site.
  • Jack Daniel’s real name was Jasper “Jack” Newton Daniel. Having never married and siring no children, he deeded the distillery to his nephew, Lem Motlow.
  • No one is sure why Jack Daniel’s Black Label is No. 7. It’s been that way since Jack named it thus. Was it the 7th and final recipe?  Was it the barrel’s railroad shipping number? Was it really a J, but looked like a 7? Did he have 7 girlfriends? Or was 7 simply his lucky number? All are legends. And none have ever been verified. As Jack Daniel’s associates say: “Only Mr. Jack knows the real reason.”
  • It was a safe that caused Jack’s death. As the story goes … Jack arrived at work early one morning and tried to open his safe but couldn’t remember the combination. He got so mad he kicked it and broke his toe, which got infected, which led to blood poisoning, which killed him. Jack’s legacy became: “Don’t go to work early!”
  • Jack Daniel’s is made in Lynchburg, but can’t be sold there. The county is dry and has been so since Prohibition, because there are not enough residents in the city to carry a vote to change it.
  • Because Jack Daniel’s runs daily tours, trucks bring in the grain only at night. So ducks are kept on the property so that when grain is spilled in dumping, the ducks will eat it and help to keep the property clean.
  • Each year Jack Daniel’s creates a limited-edition, commemorative bottle of whiskey. 2011’s Holiday Select, chosen for its balance of oak and vanilla, is a 100-proof Tennessee Whiskey mingled from the 140 barrels that make up the 26-foot “barrel tree” that was assembled in Lynchburg as the start of a new holiday tradition.