Frank Sinatra and Jack Daniel’s

Frank Sinatra was at a bar with Jackie Gleason. Gleason turns to him and says, ‘Have you tried Jack Daniel’s?’ Sinatra falls in love with it, and starts telling everyone he knows about it. Including audiences.

From the stage, He’d call it the “nectar of the gods” and the “best booze in the world.” You have to pay big money for that kind of celeb exposure today. Sinatra was buried with a bottle of Jack, a pack of cigarettes, a lighter, and 10 dimes.

When Frank Sinatra began drinking Jack Daniel’s famous black label Tennessee whiskey, well…it wasn’t so famous. The niche brand was pumping out a respectable 200,000 cases a year. Now, 13 million 9 liter cases of Jack Daniel’s whiskey were sold across the globe.

“Old No. 7” is like Sinatra in many ways, each note is crafted with precision and authenticity. There’s no BS. Anything more than the bare minimum to churn out perfection is too much. 

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Jack Daniel’s Distillery

Jack Daniel’s starts as a mash that is 80% of the highest quality corn possible, 12% barley, and 8% rye.  The ample amount of rye rounds out the sweetness from the corn with robust pepper and spice. And just enough malt brings it all together with a creamy smoothness. The recipe has always been the same. 

 Distillation begins by mixing the grains with the iron-free water from Cave Spring Hollow, which delivers 800 gallons of 56-degree water from miles below the Earth’s surface every minute.

Jack Daniel purchased the hollow and its surrounding land in order to distill with the clean, pure, spring water. The cave’s layers of limestone naturally impart a variety of minerals, and the limestone removes iron from the water, which is no good for distillation.  Every bottle of Jack Daniel’s sold around the world is made with water from this source. 

Just like a baker makes sourdough bread, a fermented starter mash is mixed with the new mash in a large copper still made to exact specifications. And rather than double or triple-distillation, they vaporize and condense the whiskey only once.

It’s then filtered — or “mellowed” through charcoal. This is the part of the process that makes Jack Daniels a Tennessee Whiskey, instead of bourbon. The company makes its own charcoal. Three days a week, three times a day, they stack pallets of hard sugar maple five feet high and douse them in raw unaged whiskey before setting the wood ablaze. They don’t want it to be contaminated with petroleum products.

The blaze gets up over 2,000 degrees before burning down into smoldering embers. Once the charcoal is cooled, it’s ground, and the clear, un-aged whiskey drop by drop crawls through 10’ stacks of if at a pace dictated by gravity, taking 3-5 days to complete the journey. Mellowing imparts smoothness and gives it a head start before heading to the barrels. 

Much of Jack’s distinctive flavor and character comes from their handcrafted barrels, which are only used once. They’re one of the only distilleries in the world that makes their own barrels. It’s a difficult process, but it’s part of what makes Jack unique. 

33 separate wood staves of American White Oak, no two the same size are pieced together by craftspeople and held together with 6 steel bands. The barrel’s interior is charred to coax the wood’s natural sugars out and caramelize them. The whiskey is poured into the barrels which are plugged with one swing of a mallet. 

It’s then aged for at least 4 years, and the distillery doesn’t use a calendar to know when it’s done. Barrels age differently depending on where they are placed in the warehouse, and the seasons. Jack Daniel’s is matured in uninsulated buildings. In the summer, warm weather forces whiskey into the cracks in the wooden barrel, and in the winter, it pushes it back out. It’s a big part of how the whiskey gets its color and flavor. If it’s ready at its initial 4-year tasting, it’ll get bottled. If it’s not, it gets put back and tested at years five and six. The maximum time for maturation is eight years because, after that, whiskey starts to lose its sweetness.

The barrels are never re-used for Jack. Many go to Scotland to be used in the production of Scotch whisky. Some are used to produce Tabasco sauce or Jamaican rum. Some end up being cut in half and sold as planters. 

Jack Daniel’s may sound like a ubiquitous, mass-produced brand, but it’s always been made the same way, in the same place, in the same way, it was made by the man whose name is on the label.

History of Jack Daniel

No one has the slightest clue when Jasper Newton Daniel—or Jack as he became known—was born. His birth records were destroyed in a fire. “September 1850” is inscribed on his tombstone, so the brand celebrates his life for a full 30 days each year. 

Jack was the youngest of 13 children, 10 of whom came from his birth mother, who eventually died. His father remarried, gaining Jack 3 more siblings. But Jack didn’t get along with his stepmother, and after his father died in the Civil War, Jack ran away from home.

Just a young teenager, Jack was taken in by Dan Call, a local preacher and moonshine distiller, and he began learning the trade. Though the style of distillation Jack Daniel would become known for was passed down for decades throughout the area, the largest influence on the future of Jack Daniel’s brand was an enslaved Black man—Call’s Master Distiller Nathan “Nearest” Green, who would go on to work for Daniel after emancipation.

Jack entered into a long dispute with his siblings over his father’s estate, and in 1875 he finally received an inheritance. He used the money to build a legal distilling business with Call. The label may say “Established & Registered in 1866”, but official registration documents show that the legal business was not established until 1875.

Jack Daniel

Call left the business for religious reasons, and Daniel took over in 1884. He spent a princely sum purchasing the cave spring hollow and surrounding land where the distillery is still located today. By the 1880s, Jack Daniel’s was one of 15 distilleries in the area. He began using square-shaped bottles in 1897, with the design intended to convey a sense of fairness and integrity.

The origin of the “Old No. 7” brand name was the number assigned to Daniel’s distillery for government registration. He was forced to change the registration number when the federal government redrew the district, and he became Number 16 in district 5 instead of No. 7 in district 4. However, he continued to use his original number as a brand name, since his reputation already had been established

The temperance movement in Tennessee was beginning to hurt the whiskey and bourbon industry, and Jack Daniel needed to make a move. Dressed in his finest, as he often was, he showed up at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, where Jack Daniel’s Old No. 7 won the gold medal for the finest whiskey

Jack Daniel never married and did not have any known children. He took his nephews under his wing, and as his health began to deteriorate, he handed the distillery over to them entirely. Daniel died in 1911 from blood poisoning. Some say that the infection began in one of his toes, which Daniel injured one early morning at work by kicking his safe in anger when he could not get it open (he was said to always have had trouble remembering the combination).

Tennessee passed a statewide prohibition law in 1910, effectively barring the legal distillation of Jack Daniel’s within the state. The company challenged the law in a test case that eventually worked its way to the Tennessee Supreme Court. The court upheld the law as constitutional. The company shifted its distilling operations to St Louis, Missouri, and Birmingham, Alabama, but none of the production from these locations was ever sold due to quality problems. They were halted anyway due to nationwide prohibition following the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment in 1920.

While the passage of the Twenty-first Amendment in 1933 repealed prohibition at the federal level, state prohibition laws (including Tennessee’s) remained in effect, preventing the Lynchburg distillery from reopening. Lem Motlow, one of Jack’s nephews and now the company’s sole owner, had become a Tennessee state senator. He led efforts to repeal these laws, which allowed production to restart in 1938. The Jack Daniel’s distillery ceased operations again from 1942 to 1946 when the U.S. government banned the manufacture of whiskey due to World War II. Motlow resumed production of Jack Daniel’s in 1947 after good-quality corn was again available. He died the same year, and the distillery was passed to his children who sold it to the Brown–Forman Corporation in 1956.

Visiting the Jack Daniel’s Distillery:

Moore County, where the Jack Daniel’s distillery is located, is still one of Tennessee’s many dry counties, even though it’s legal to distill it there. However, state law has provided one exception: a distillery may sell one commemorative product, regardless of county statutes. Jack Daniel’s now sells Gentleman Jack, Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel, the Original No. 7 Blend (in a commemorative bottle), and a seasonal blend (on rotation) at the distillery’s White Rabbit Bottle Shop.

Visiting the distillery today is a fantastic experience, as the company works hard to spread the message about its hand-crafted legacy. Several tour options take you on a journey with the distillery’s master storytellers and end with a tasting in historic Barrel House 1-14. Others offer food options at Miss Mary Bobo’s restaurant, a boarding house over a century old, where every meal is served with a warm Tennessee welcome and a glass of sweet tea. Reservations are recommended for both tours and dinner. 

If you really love Jack, you can order an entire barrel of whiskey from the distillery for $10,000. After hand-selecting your own barrel, your preferred whiskey gets bottled and shipped to your local liquor store on a palette. One barrel fills about 240 customizable bottles. Each person who buys Jack in bulk this way gets their name engraved on the wall of Jack Daniel’s Personal Selection Room in Lynchburg. 

Want more great destinations? Continue your Tennessee road trip with a stop at the Nashville Parthenon and then Lookout Mountain in Chattanooga.