A visit to the Jack Daniel’s Distillery in Lynchburg, Tenn., is equal parts history, science and language lessons.
“We want the ladies to sit down first and if y’all don’t find enough seats, we want the men to hold on tight to the seat rails,” instructs “Goose” Baxter as tourists board a minibus at the distillery. ” ‘Cause last time out, the bus hit a little bump and one of our male visitors fell on the lap of one of our female visitors. We liked to never get them unstuck and off the bus.”
The next 75 minutes with Goose – his real first name is Randy – is going to be like this. In a thick drawl from the hollows of southern Tennessee, he ladles out cornpone jokes laced with details of the history and preparation of the popular whiskey.
Indeed, the free tour, which draws about 250,000 visitors a year, begins with a no-nonsense disclosure about the size of this business.
“Y’all look up to the top of that hill,” directs Goose, pointing forward outside the large, modern visitors center.
“See the big building there – can’t hardly miss it, can ya?”
Looming perhaps 100 feet higher but a ways off is what appears to be the world’s largest tool shed, seven stories tall, plain as day.
“That’s a barrel house, and there are 75 of ’em on Mr. Jack’s property,” he says, using the standard reference for the man who founded the distillery in the 1830s.
“And each one of them barrel houses can hold 1-million gallons of whiskey.”
Big business, little man
The number is much too large to grasp, of course, but he makes his point: Charming as Goose seems in his drawl and bib overalls, this is a multi, multimillion-dollar business.
During the brief bus ride up a hill to start the tour, Goose explains that each of the 600 or so employees is given one pint of Jack Daniel’s each month. Because the distillery is in a dry county – no bars, no liquor stores – this monthly occasion is known as Good Friday.
“They have 75-million gallons, can you imagine that?” says Goose, “and all they give us is one pint.”
The bus climbs a hill, and the passengers get off in front of tall stacks, called ricks, of lumber. It is sugar maple, grown and cut locally, then sawed here. This wood is burned to create charcoal, the fire aided by raw alcohol produced by the distilling process.
The charcoal comes into the distilling process later, so the group walks downhill to eye a statue of the pint-size Mr. Jack, who stood 5-foot-2, and to look at the cave spring from which the needed water is drawn.
Less than 10 yards away is a three-room cabin, the original office for the distillery. It is on the porch here where older men are photographed chatting in rockers, whittling or grinning by checkerboards: Southern-fried codger for the black- and-white advertising scheme for Jack Daniel’s.
Inside the cabin, visitors see samples of the three grains used to make the whiskey. It is 80 percent corn, 12 percent barley and 8 percent rye, and the distillery goes through about 19,000 bushels a day.
It begins as moonshine
Now it’s on to the processing buildings, where the grains, water and yeast are combined in copper stills that can each hold 40,000 gallons of what is called sour mash (for its taste). “First it is fermented, and it takes 5 gallons of mash to make 1 gallon of whiskey,” says Goose. “It’ll ferment up to six days.”
The resulting liquid is about 140 proof, or 70 percent alcohol – ” just moonshine.”
To mellow this, the liquid is pumped into massive vats that are packed 10 feet deep with the maple charcoal. The liquid filters naturally through the charcoal, which removes impurities. Trained “tasters” decide when to change the charcoal, and they also judge the whiskey.
The pricier version of Jack Daniel’s, named Gentleman Jack, goes through charcoal twice, but the vast majority of the whiskey is piped into wooden barrels, also made onsite.
“It’s the barrel that makes the whiskey. And in Tennessee, we use a barrel just once,” Goose says.
The inside is charred, and then the barrel is filled with the equivalent of 240 bottles and stored in one of the barrel houses. These are not temperature-controlled, Goose says:
“We have lots of extreme temperatures, from freezing to 100 and humid. The whiskey interacts and ‘breathes’ with the wood . . . This is what makes whiskey turn its golden color and gives it extra flavor, this interaction ‘tween the whiskey and the wood.”
The down-home tour is done, and Goose leads his new friends to the visitors center for a free glass of lemonade or cup of coffee.
Dry county, remember?
If you go
It would be wrong to say the distillery is in Lynchburg, Tenn. – it IS Lynchburg, pop. 361.
The village is about 75 miles southeast of Nashville, at the T intersection of state roads 82 and 55.
Tours are offered daily between 9 a.m. and 4:30 p.m., except for major holidays. Tours last about 75 minutes. Several stops involve stairs; those with mobility challenges might have to skip some stops.
Reservations are not necessary. For information, call (931) 759- 6357. The interactive Web site is at www.jackdaniels.com.
A few hundred yards from the entrance to the distillery is the tiny, kitschy town square. I recommend the meat-and-three specials at the Bar-B-Cue Caboose Cafe. The distillery’s official store is on the square, but most stores have Jack Daniel’s merchandise.
For another great down-home meal in this area, stop in at the Bell Buckle Cafe, in the town of Bell Buckle, at the intersection of state roads 82 and 269, west of Interstate 24.