Do You Know Jack?
If you don’t know then you don’t know “Jack.”
That quirky entrepreneur was Jack Daniel, a diminutive guy orphaned young, then taken in by a Lutheran preacher who taught him his trade – not ministering, but distilling. With that knowledge, Daniel created his namesake sour mash Tennessee whiskey. And though he died in 1911, the company still distills the way Jack did – to the tune of $120 million-plus net income a year.
Some 235,000 people have visited the distillery and visitor center just this year in the picturesque, tree-shrouded Tennessee community where Jack and his whiskey both entered the world. While Lynchburg is in ”dry” Moore County, the state allows distilleries to sell commemorative bottles and to conduct “sampling tours.”
The Life of Jack
“Jack was born under some pretty tough circumstances,” said Jeff Arnett, the seventh master distiller for the firm and only the second not related to Daniel. “He never knew his birth mother, Lucinda Cook Daniel. She died of complications from his birth or shortly after. His father, Callaway Daniel, an immigrant from Wales, remarried, so Jack had some half-siblings. When he was a teen, his dad died of pneumonia. He didn’t get along well with his stepmother. He worked at a neighbor’s farm to pay for room and board.”
That farm was owned by the Rev. Dan Call. He ran the town’s general store, which was also the local pharmacy. At age 7 or 8, Jack began helping the minister make medicinal whiskey.
“Jack worked himself into a position to buy the equipment and move it to the site of the current distillery,” said Arnett. When Jack began distilling at age 16 [in 1866], the town’s population was barely 300 – a tally that’s noted on the iconic and highly recognizable black label of his Old No. 7.
“Jack’s whiskey is made in copper stills, which mix mash made of corn, rye and malted barley with spring water that is a consistent 56 degrees Fahrenheit all year. It is the perfect water to make whiskey. Tennessee’s weather, very hot summers, very cold winters, also force the maturing liquor to move around in the oak barrels.
“All the color and half the flavor come from the barrels,” he notes. Charcoal mellowing makes Jack Daniel’s unique. “We drip every drop through 10 feet of charcoal, which filters out a lot of the impurities left behind from the distillation process,” said Arnett. “That’s what makes Jack Daniel’s a Tennessee whiskey.”
On a personal note
He said Jack’s old office was in a small shack at the mouth of the cave spring. The 56-degree water acted as air conditioning in summer, but winters were chilly. And frugal Jack had only a small stove for heating.
The distillery founder didn’t spend all his time in that office. Jack never married and had no children, which gave him ample time to promote his product outside of Lynchburg. “He won a gold medal at the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904.”
He also had several girlfriends. One in particular “broke his heart,” says Arnett. “We have his love letters, and there is one from Miss Ophelia. Clearly, from reading this letter, she crushed him.”
Jack “was very passionate about music, but the only way to hear it was live. He established the Original Silver Cornet Band, which continues to perform. He bought all the instruments for the players to perform in the town square.” Even today, Jack Daniel’s sponsors stages, particularly for up-and-coming entertainers, and also promotes performing artist tours. Arnett said Jack Daniel’s “has been so well received” because it “shows an interest in the next generation.”
The legend of Jack’s death is a bit tragic. “The story goes that Jack kicked the safe in his office in anger and broke his toe,” which, untreated, led to his death from infection. But Arnett said Jack “may have been a diabetic – and for diabetics, a foot injury can be fatal. Jack had multiple amputations up to his hip over a period of five years.”
Long before he passed, Jack brought two nephews, Lem and Jess Motlow, into the business. They held it through Prohibition and World War II to 1947, when Lem bequeathed it to his children.
Today, Jack Daniel’s Distillery sells four different brands. It’s the oldest registered distillery in the country and a national historic site.
The firm also offers Jack lovers the opportunity to purchase a barrel of his 94-proof whiskey in the price range of $9,000 to $10,000. People or companies interested can arrange the deal through a local package store. Arnett said Jack Daniel’s bottles the contents of a selected barrel, which yields between 200 and 300 decanters. Purchasers also receive the empty barrel, a customized bottleneck medallion, a brass plaque and framed certificate of ownership.