gamut (2007-10)

Tour guide “Ron” displays the 240 bottle in each barrel of Single Barrel whiskey.

There's a traditional Gaelic blessing that's found its way into American culture: May the road rise up to meet you/ May the wind be always at your back/ May the sun shine warm upon your face/ The rains fall soft upon your fields and until we meet again/ May God hold you in the palm of His hand.

At Jack Daniel's Distillery, they keep things a little more personal, more down to earth: May you always have/ Red-eye gravy with your ham/ Hushpuppies with your catfish/ And the good sense not/ To argue with your wife.   It's a philosophy that's worked for the small-town Tennessee company for nearly 150 years, and that is still evident in the day-to-day operations of the distillery.

Nestled in the agrarian town of Lynchburg, Tenn., the distillery is the only "brand name" business you'll find for 10 miles. There are no malls, no chain stores, no fast food restaurants. Everything's homegrown, including the whiskey.

Jasper Newton "Jack" Daniel was the youngest of 13 children. Though a courthouse fire destroyed his birth records, it's widely thought that Daniel was born in September of 1850. However, the headstone of Daniel's mother, Lucinda Cook, indicates that she died in 1847, leading some to postulate that her son was born in 1846. Daniel was hired out at age six or seven to work at a whiskey still owned by Lutheran minister Rev. Dan Call. When Daniel was 13, Call sold the still to him for $50.

Daniel was a small man by modern standards, standing only 5'2". But that didn't stop him from being an avid entertainer or earning a reputation as a ladies' man. And though he never married and had no children (he claimed), two white iron chairs sit by Daniel's gravesite, offering respite for the many women who went to his tomb to mourn him.

The story of Daniel's death is an unlikely and unusual one: One early morning, Daniel wanted to get into the company safe, but he couldn't remember the combination. He got so frustrated that he kicked the safe, breaking his toe. The toe became infected, and eventually gangrene set in, causing Daniel to need a foot amputation. He died from blood poisoning in 1911, but not before handing ownership of the distillery over to his favorite nephew, Lem Motlow.

In 1957, the company was sold to the Brown-Forman conglomerate (which also owns Early Times and Southern Comfort, among other products), but the Motlow family retains majority ownership and continues to manage the distillery, including the oversight of selecting master distillers.

In all history, there have only been six master distillers at Jack Daniel's: Jack Daniel (1866- 1911), Jess Motlow (Lem's brother; 1911- 1941), Lem Tolley (1941- 1964), Jess Gamble (1964- 1966), Frank Bobo (1966- 1992) and the current master distiller, Jimmy Bedford. (To put that in perspective, there have been 26 American presidents in the same amount of time.) Every master distiller has been from Lynchburg, and has served under the previous master distiller for at least 10 years.

Jack Daniel's holds the honor of being the oldest registered distillery in the United States, formally registered by founder and Master Distiller Jack Daniel in 1866. Today the company that started with one man employs 400 full-time workers and exports its product to over 130 countries worldwide. In fact, just under half of all sales are international, with the United Kingdom being the largest importer. Within the United States, the largest market is California, followed by Texas and Florida.

Distributing 10 million cases a year, Jack Daniel's is the No. 1 selling whiskey in the world.

Jack Daniel's whiskey, or "Jack," is made with the same process and recipe today as it was in the beginning. Daniel chose the land on which the distillery sits because of an iron-free spring with natural limestone filtration. Only this water is used, along with corn, rye, barley, malt, and yeast.

What makes Tennessee whiskey officially different from bourbon is the charcoal mellowing, or Lincoln County, process. Ricks of sugar maple wood are burned onsite into charcoal (water is hosed onto the burning ricks towards the end of the process to keep them from reducing to ash), then the alcohol is dripped through 10 feet of charcoal, thereby minimizing the grainy, undesirable flavor of some whiskeys.

Jack is then aged for four to five years in American white oak barrels that have been toasted and charred, from which Jack gets a lot of its flavor and all of its color. Each barrel is used only one time. After that it'll most likely be sold to Mexico for use in rum or tequila production or sold to Tobasco for hot sauce aging. Or it could be broken down and remade into candle holders, stools, lazy suzans, bottle holders, trays, planters or other furniture and accessories by Master Distiller Jimmy Bedford's brother, Bill. Still other barrels may wind up in whiskey production across the pond.

There are four basic varieties of Jack Daniel's: Jack Daniel's Old No. 7 Brand Old-Time Tennessee Sour Mash Whiskey (simply referred to as black label), green label, Gentleman Jack, and Single Barrel.

Black label is the original Jack, and to this day, it remains the best seller. Green label differs from its close cousin in that it's sold in very limited quantities, it's less mature, and it's stored on the lowest level of the seven-story barrelhouses, where the temperature doesn't vary like it does on higher levels. As a result, the whiskey doesn't interact with the barrel as much, resulting in a slightly less developed flavor and color.

It took about 115 years for Jack Daniel's to expand its roster to include a "new" whiskey. Gentleman Jack is similar to black label, except that after aging, it goes through the charcoal mellowing process a second time, producing a smoother flavor.

Single barrel is exactly what the name says: whiskey from a single barrel, not blended with other barrels. While it can be purchased by the bottle, whiskey-lovers can buy an entire barrel, which holds approximately 240 bottles, for $8,000-10,000.

However, one couldn't simply walk off with the barrel; it has to be bottled up and shipped because Moore County has been dry since 1909. It's illegal for anyone, including the distillery, to buy or sell alcohol. (However, in 1994, the Tennessee state Legislature passed a special law allow Jack Daniel's to sell individual commemorative bottles onsite.)

The square shape of the bottle does absolutely nothing for the liquid it holds; rather, the story of its origin is quite simple. In 1895, Daniel was introduced to the then-unusual shape and decided to use it as a means of distinguishing his product from other whiskeys.

The label, however, is perhaps a more interesting story, and it starts with the demographics of Lynchburg. Lynchburg is situated in Moore County, one of the smallest counties in the state. And though Jack Daniel's classic black label lists the population as 361 (which it was in the early 1960s when the label was trademarked), the official population today is closer to 6,000. The increase reflects a consolidated city-county government, with Lynchburg as the county seat, but because of the trademark on the label, "pop. 361" is allowed to remain. To change the label would involve applying for a new trademark.

In another case of misinterpretation, many (including distillery tour guides) explain the inclusion of Lem Motlow's name on the label as a tribute to the man who saw the company through two government-imposed dry periods: Prohibition and World War II. While the honor may be warranted, in actuality, it's nothing more than the technical full corporate name of the business: Jack Daniel Distillery, Lem Motlow, Prop., Inc.

Perhaps the biggest mystery associated with the cluttered label is that of "Old No. 7." Legend has it that no one knows why Daniel included this on the label, though according to Master Distiller Bedford, a railroad slip for a late delivery of Jack was labeled Old No. 7, and thus future orders for the whiskey requested more Old No. 7.

While the legends surrounding this slice of Tennessee history are engaging, perhaps the best way to get a feel for Jack Daniel and his legacy is on a trip to Lynchburg. In the gravel parking lot of the Jack Daniel Distillery, it's not uncommon to see license plates from every region of the United States and Canada. Walking toward the visitors' center, you'll see people from around the globe ambling along the banks of Mulberry Creek or reclining on benches made from reclaimed barrels. You'll feel the spirit of hospitality that Daniel was known for the moment your tour guide says hello. And it'll be clear that history lives in the present in Lynchburg, Tenn.