Here’s a stumper for you: What do Frank Sinatra and Winston Churchill and Ke$ha and William Faulkner and our very own Preservation Pub all have in common? The answer is that each one—in his/her/its own colorful and inimitable way—has laid burnt offerings at the altar of Jack Daniel’s, paid sacred homage to that potent Tennessee-born elixir generally recognized as the World’s Finest Whiskey.
Which is very relevant to the times, Jake, seeing as how we’ve come upon the 125th anniversary of the Jack Daniel’s Distillery in Lynchburg, TN. We are recognizing the anniversary month with a special celebration on all three floors of the Pub on Sept. 18, with J.D. swag and Jack Daniel’s Girls and J.D. drink specials all night long.
Discerning the history of J.D. is akin to grasping at so many wafting white billows of smoke; the story of the infamous distillery is a strange arabesque of myth and mystery, as powerfully intoxicating as the sweet brown liquid itself. That history is such an enigma, in point of fact, that it is entirely possible that everything I am about to tell you is horseshit.
But that’s okay. Because history is written by the winners, Jake. And we are nothing if not winners.
Jasper Newton “Jack” Daniel, as best anyone can tell, was born in 1850 in Lynchburg, TN, the youngest of 10 children, descended from Welsh and Scots-Irish forbears. He began learning the distiller’s trade early in the game—at age 10, by some accounts. Some historians claim his father “hired him out” to a man named Dan Call, a Lutheran lay minister, shopkeeper and whiskey-maker who ran his own moonshining operation when he wasn’t banging on the pulpit or minding the store.
Others say Daniel ran away from home, driven to near-madness by a shrew of a stepmom, and joined the good Reverend Call of his own volition. In any case, what would eventually become the J.D. Distillery was a product of that early apprenticeship, which turned into a full-fledged partnership as Daniel’s skills grew to rival those of his mentor.
Sources say there were a dozen or so distilleries in the Lynchburg area around that time, all of them employing something called the Lincoln County Method—a process whereby whiskey was filtered through layers of charcoal derived from burnt sugar maple.
But Call and Daniel distinguished their own product from the rest of the pack—and the Lincoln method was already pricier and more labor-intensive than other common whiskey-making processes of the era, just-so-you-know—they set themselves further apart by using better grains and a thicker (10 feet, or so they say) filter, and by scrupulously replacing the used charcoal with fresh on a regular schedule.
And when the pair finally set out to turn Call’s moonshining sideline gig into a full-fledged, legal distillery, they chose a strategically situated lowland—a spot now known in Lynchburg as Stillhouse Hollow—where fresh spring water spouted from a limestone cave, the limestone having the effect of filtering out trace iron from the water and making for a purer, sweeter, better-brewing brand of H2O.
Call left the business soon thereafter, the popular narrative being that he was forced out by temperance-minded congregationers who felt ill at ease with a Sunday morning preacher who manufactured the Devil’s Brew on other days of the week. But Daniel, already a shrewd businessman at the tender age of 13, stayed the course, became the face, the name, and the colorful driving force behind the growing brand.
Daniel was a little man, at only 5’2, but with an out-sized personality. He was a self-styled dandy, and took to wearing the trademark ensemble of a formal knee-length black frock coat complemented by a broad-brimmed planter’s hat at the age of 21.
He was a clever P.R. man, too—long before Goodyear had its blimp, he used hot-air balloons to advertise his product. But his shill instincts were balanced by the fact that he was also a community minded sort—he founded Lynchburg’s town band, Jack Daniel’s Original Silver Cornet Band, with nickel-plated instruments he purchased himself, and was recognized for many philanthropic efforts over the course of his life.
When he died in 1911—from a gangrenous toe, legend has it, infected when he kicked a heavy office safe in a fit of pique—the J.D. brand was well on its way to becoming an international sensation, having won the Gold Medal in a hotly-contested whiskey-tasting at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis.
The legend of the J.D. distillery continued to grow, even after its namesake passed on. Daniel’s nephew, Lem Motlow, took the reins from his uncle, and guided the business through the misbegotten national experiment that was Prohibition by turning the distillery into a first-class mule trading operation, then returning to business-as-usual when the nation had recovered from its moralizing tizzy.
The brand gained yet more momentum in the 1950s, when a pair of magazine articles, in Fortune and Time, brought J.D. to the attention of millions of readers. And then the Beautiful People caught the fever; the hiperati; the artists and the writers and the actors and the World Leaders… It’s said that Winnie Churchill irked his countrymen in Ireland and Scotland with his love of J.D. It was also the favorite brand of a hard-drinking Mississippi scribe by the name of Faulkner.
Sinatra famously called J.D. “the nectar of the gods”; he set the pace for generations of musicians to come—Dino and Keif and Slash and Lemmy, to name but a few—rappers and rockers and guitar gods who would sing the praises, literally and figuratively, of Lynchburg’s Pride.
Nowadays, sales of Jack Daniel’s number in the tens of millions, across all products. And so shall it be, forevermore, until someone figures out a way to brew brown whiskey with more flair and flavor than that first crafted by the diminutive man in black, in Lynchburg all those years ago. Not gonna happen soon, Jake. Come out and have a drink.