As I’ve written about previously, Colleen and I recently took a trip to Tennessee, where we basically ate and drank ourselves across parts of the south, with a little bit of hiking and touring mixed in along the way. As bourbonophiles, our first full day was spent up on the bourbon trail in Kentucky, where we toured the Maker’s Mark Distillery. On day two, after a quick trip to the Country Music Hall of Fame in Downtown Nashville, our local host and guide and bestest friend Stevie picked us up and we headed down to Lynchburg to visit bourbon’s cousin–Tennessee Whiskey and the home of Jack Daniels!
At about an hour and a half, it was about as far south of Nashville as the Bourbon Trail was north. And like the trip north, the trip south was very scenic, though it seemed like we passed by a lot more estates and wealthy communities on the way to see Jack, and fewer legit farms.
Though clearly much larger than Maker’s Mark, the setting for the distillery itself was similarly surprisingly nice, nestled in the Tennessee hills and surrounded by trees, with a spring running right through the middle of it. The buildings were also built with visual appeal using red brick, and well-tended gardens ran along the edges of the roads and pathways through the facility.
We started at the Visitor’s Center, which is where you can take a self-guided tour of their quite impressive museum and educational displays, and also sign up for the guided tour of the whole facility. We were surprised again to find that, like the bourbon distilleries, the tours were free and ran regularly with no need for a reservation (could be different on a busy weekend). We spent about a half hour in the museum and visitor’s center looking at the displays and reading about the history of Jack Daniels before our tour group number was called and we were brought into a small theater for a promotional film and a reading of the rules of the tour.
The short film didn’t tell us much that we hadn’t already learned in the Visitor’s Center, but some of the rules were a bit surprising. Not only did they not allow photos inside any of the buildings (other than the historic office), but they even required everyone to turn off their cell phones! They claimed that it was a safety issue, and that they were concerned that sparks from the electronic devices could ignite the extremely flammable alcohol fumes, but having seen Mythbusters de-bunk the cell phone/gas pump myth, we were highly skeptical. Odds are, it is to prevent corporate espionage or haters from trying to steal their techniques or make them look bad, but hey, it’s their place, so we followed their rules.
We also met our official tour guide, Margie, at the movie, and she was awesome. Had a great Tennessee drawl and a barrel-ful of attitude, and was a long-time employee and a life-long resident of Lynchburg. Jack Daniels himself had supposedly lived with her grandparents after he left his own parents at the age of 12 or so, so this woman was connected! She also knew the past several “master distillers” personally, and was neighbor to several of them–though in Lynchburg (pop 361–according to the bottle, but really a bit over 5,000), pretty much everyone is a neighbor, and clearly much of the county owes their income to Jack Daniels.
She kept up a nearly non-stop patter mixing in local history, technical discussions, personal stories, jokes (“every employee gets a bottle of Jack Daniels on the last Friday of the month–we call that ‘Good Friday’!”), and references to the “revenooers” who had an office there on site and who she told us was responsible for fully 50%-60% of the price we pay for our whiskey, due to the various taxes levied on alcohol (though clearly not all federal taxes). A bit of research shows that this is indeed the case, at least in some states.
It was a very entertaining and educational tour, and it was interesting to see the difference in scale between Jack and Maker’s, in back to back tours. Jack’s was definitely a larger, more professional operation, but the experience was equally enjoyable. The only real difference in the process that our amateur eyes could detect was a difference in the grain formulas used (though using the same basic grains), and the charcoal filtering process that Jack uses for their whiskey that the bourbon distilleries don’t. That filtering (and the requirement that a distillery be located in Tennessee) is the major difference between the bourbons and Tennessee Whiskey as represented by Jack Daniels. We also learned that Gentleman Jack is filtered through the large charcoal barrels twice, resulting in the smoothness that we very much enjoy. In fact, in a recent head-to-head blind taste test here at home, Colleen and I both slightly preferred Gentleman Jack to Maker’s Mark, though a fairer comparison would probably be between Maker’s and the regular Jack Daniels, as the price is more comparable.
Most disappointing was the fact that they don’t allow tasting on their tour! Fortunately, we were aware of that ahead of time, so our souls weren’t crushed by this news, but ironically, Jack Daniels is located in a dry county–so no booze can be sold or served at all! Turns out that when prohibition was repealed, Tennessee left it up to each county to legalize alcohol sales, and required a minimum 5,000 signatures to put a ballot measure before the voters to legalize it, and since there are fewer than 5,000 registered voters total, that may never happen there. There is a loophole that allows them to sell souvenir/commemorative bottles in the Visitor’s Center with special labels, but it was quite over-priced.
The biggest surprise was probably that there was nothing else for sale in the Visitor’s Center! I had visions of a mini-mall worth of Jack gear and paraphernalia there on site, but to buy your Jack swag, you actually have to drive or walk a few blocks into downtown Lynchburg. It is a really cute, quaint old downtown with a large historic county building with a bell tower right in the center of the square. The Jack store and barrel shop is located in the “Lynchburg Hardware and General Store” there on the square, and was well worth the trip. Every clothing item, cooking accessory, mug, sauce blend or mustard you can think of is for sale in there with their logo and/or whiskey blended right into it–except for the whiskey itself, of course, due to the lame dry laws. The prices were actually remarkably reasonable, especially in the barrel shop, where you could buy chairs, desks, and even bars made out of original JD barrels for a lot less than you’d think. You can see some of the prices for the barrel shop items here, but I swear they were cheaper on site.
The rest of the town had places to eat, gift shops, antiques, and a cute craft store (“Ladies of Lynchburg”) with an interesting story that I’m sure Colleen will be writing about shortly over on her craft blog. But after picking up a bag’s full of souvenirs at the Jack shop (knit cap, travel mug, shot glass, whiskey praline pecans, etc), we were ready to head back to Nashville for some good bbq. But that’s another post…
To wrap up, I’d say that even if you aren’t a fan of whiskey or Jack Daniels itself (as Stevie was not), as a cultural, historical, and educational outing, it is still worth it if you have an interest in seeing the origin and story of a true American cultural icon and business success story.
And as a final comment, though we weren’t able to purchase any Jack (or Gentleman Jack) for drinkin’ purposes, I assure Jack’s corporate overlords and our demanding public that we didn’t leave Tennessee without purchasing a variety of Tennessee Whiskey products, including Jack, both for research purposes (see photo below) and for gifting purposes back home.