On the way from Nashville to our plane back to London, a big sack of Jack Daniel’s t-shirts was opened and offered up to a coach full of hungover bartenders and journalists.
Everyone took one, and those with quick hands took two.
A Jack t-shirt is an unusual item of clothing, in so much as you are as likely to see one worn on stage by a sweaty guitarist as you are by a Hollywood star (under a suit jacket, of course) on a red carpet.
This is because Jack Daniel’s is cool. And it has the kind of lifestyle associations that make advertising agencies’ eyes roll back in their heads. So much so that it is used as a storytelling short cut.
Instead of writing five back-story scenes, screenwriters simply need to put their character in a leather jacket with a bottle of Jack in hand, and we know who they are – rebellious and not a big fan of The Man.
The distillery has a little of the ‘fuck you’ about it too, sitting in the midst of a dry county like a little oasis of booze in a teetotal desert. But this is where the attitude ends, because everyone I met there exuded the type of down-home hospitality and cheerfulness that The South is famous for.
Our tour started in the visitor centre, which was packed with mostly American tourists, many of whom come several times a year to buy bottles signed by the distillers for collections or to sell on.
Within minutes we bumped into Goose, a huge bear of a man wearing dungarees and a straw hat who you may have seen staring down at you from poster ads on the Underground.
We filtered outside to the Rick Yard, which is where the sugar maple charcoal so vital to Jack Daniel’s production is made. Huge stacks of maple wood staves are piled high like giant Jenga towers, sprayed with 180 proof white dog and set alight. The heat coming from the burning rick was so intense it was impossible to get within 10 yards of the fire.
Our guide, a chap called Chamblis, picked up the sort of pump spray you would see in a garden shed and sprayed our hands with white dog that was being used to light the ricks. It was fiery and sweet and if they ever decide to bottle a run of it, I would be first in the queue to buy some.
The distillery itself is a mixture of old and new. In many spots along the production line, original equipment with needle gauges and those round valve handles you see on submarine movies sit next to LCD screens and computer terminals. Apparently the old kit still works, but the computers are in charge, tirelessly monitoring pressures, temperatures and specific gravity.
Chamblis led us into the ‘mellowing room’, where the fresh distillate is passed through 10 feet of crushed charcoal before ageing (Gentleman Jack is mellowed again, through 4 feet of charcoal when it comes out of the barrel, hence its lighter colour and more delicate flavour).
The mellowing tank looks like a huge barrel with a glass lid and a series of perforated pipes that drip the whiskey slowly into the charcoal. We were encouraged to crouch down with our noses at lid level while Chamblis opened and closed it several times in quick succession. A powerful blast of very sweet whiskey fumes shot out – it was definitely one of the best smells I’ve ever experienced.
On our way back to the visitor centre and the end of the tour, we popped into Jack’s old office. I made a beeline for the safe and sat on it while Chamblis told us the story of Jack’s untimely demise (he forgot the combination one morning and kicked the safe in frustration, breaking his toe. Six years later, he was dead, killed by gangrene).
The paint on the top of the safe has been worn away by the countless trousered backsides that have sat on it. I have to say, it boggled my mind somewhat to sit there, casually swinging one leg like so many people before me must have done as they spoke to Mr Daniel at his desk back in the day.
The next night we joined a crowd of 200 or so on BBQ Hill, which looks over the distillery and most of Lynchburg for Uncle Jack’s birthday gig.
Plan B was great, and surprised me by having such a great voice – he’s a real-deal soul singer. However the kicker for me came when his guitarist for the night, Steve Cropper, played a few numbers of his own.
Steve was the house guitarist for the Stax Records band, and also played with Otis Reading. To see and hear him play Dock of the Bay, which he helped Otis write, in such an amazing location and to so small an audience was a true bucket list experience.
The Jack Daniel’s birthday trip is awesome, there’s no other way to describe it, and you should move hell or high water to get on it next year.
When the birthday comp comes around in September, make sure you enter.
If it sounds like this article is gushing a little, perhaps lacking in a bit of objectivity, then you’re absolutely right. The first bottle of proper spirits I ever bought was Jack Daniel’s Old No.7, and I grew up listening to some of its biggest fans – Janis, Jimi and Jim – and so visiting the distillery was a personal milestone for me, not just a professional one. I suspect I might not be alone in saying so…